Beguiled by a British 'pudding'

Sticky toffee pudding is, by American standards, a cake, but, boy, is it delicious!

When it comes to desserts, the British have made a fine art of bestowing intriguing names on their favorite sweets. They have clootie dumplings and black bun, as well as trifle and spotted dog. But of all the dessert names I saw during a trip to Britain, it was the sticky toffee pudding that made the biggest impression. No sooner had I spied it on a hotel menu in the village of Grange-over-Sands than I found myself counting the minutes till dinnertime, when I could sample my first taste.

To my surprise, when the waiter finally placed the anticipated treat in front of me, I discovered this "pudding" wasn't a pudding at all, at least not by American standards. It bore no resemblance to the thick and creamy chocolate, rice, bread, custard, or butterscotch puddings that had long since won my heart. Sticky toffee pudding turned out to be what I would classify as a cake – a moist confection studded with bits of dates, bathed in a puddle of warm caramel sauce, and crowned with a billowy mound of whipped cream.

It didn't take me long to figure out that the British definition of pudding was more inclusive than my limited concept of the word. Any sweet conclusion to a meal appeared to qualify. It also didn't take me long to develop an attachment to this rich treat. Whenever I saw sticky toffee pudding listed on a menu during my stay in Britain, I ordered it.

From England's quaint Lake District country inns to waterfront cafes in the Scottish Highlands, I compared tastes and textures and silently rated each version in my unofficial dessert contest.

Fortunately, locating a recipe before I left for home was easy. I found one printed on a postcard sold in a Cumbrian village store and promptly bought it, hoping the instructions would help me replicate the combination of flavors I'd grown so fond of.

Once I returned to my own kitchen, I made a trial batch that surpassed my expectations. But being a curious cook, I wanted to know more than just how to make this beguiling dessert. I wanted to learn its origins as well.

With such an old-fashioned name, sticky toffee pudding sounded as if it should have a venerable history. Yet, an initial perusal of time-honored English cookbooks proved me wrong. My quarry wasn't to be found anywhere in their pages.

Perplexed, I turned to the Internet to unearth some answers. When more than 230,000 links popped up in response to my search – including more recipes than the most dedicated baker might care to tackle – I realized that the rest of the world was obviously not as clueless as I about this lush dessert.

Contrary to what I had assumed, sticky toffee pudding is a relative newcomer on the culinary scene. While there's some dispute over its beginnings, the majority opinion seems to credit an English hotelier/chef with inventing the recipe in the 1960s. Once people began tasting his memorable creation, its fame spread way beyond the borders of the British Empire.

After telling friends back home in Montana about sticky toffee pudding, I was amazed when one of them mentioned that she had recently eaten some at a local restaurant. It seems the chef-owner had encountered this temptation on a golfing vacation in Scotland and had fallen for the dessert, too. He devised a Big Sky version of the contemporary classic, which he now serves to a devoted following.

These days, whenever I crave some sticky toffee pudding, I bake my own or travel 35 miles down the road – instead of halfway around the world – to indulge. That's all it takes for me to "hear" a Scottish burr, envision English fells, and taste a favorite sweet of the British Isles once again.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Cake

1 cup finely chopped dates (see note), packed

1 cup water

1 stick butter or regular margarine, softened

1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon golden syrup (see note)

1-3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons light cream

Sauce

1-1/2 sticks butter or regular margarine

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream

1-1/4 cups dark brown sugar, packed

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

If using regular supermarket dates (see note below), place in a small, covered saucepan with 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, still covered, for 5 more minutes, until dates are soft. Then drain them well, wiping them with a paper towel to dry.

In a large mixing bowl using an electric mixer, cream butter and brown sugar. Beat in eggs, vanilla, and syrup. Stir in flour and dates.

Dissolve baking soda in light cream and then add to batter, blending well.

Grease an 11-by-7-inch or 8-by-8-by-2-inch pan. Pour in batter and bake about 40 to 50 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown and cracks slightly, the sides pull away slightly from the edge of the pan, the cake feels springy when touched, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

While cake is baking, make the sauce. Place topping ingredients in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes or until thickened.

Remove pan from heat. Pour a generous 1/4 cup of the sauce over the top of the cake and place the cake under the broiler till the topping is lightly browned and bubbly.

Invert cake onto a serving plate and cut into pieces. Spoon some warm sauce onto individual plates and put slices of warm cake on top. Serve with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, if desired. Serves 10.

Notes: Medjool dates from a natural foods store are generally softer than packaged supermarket dates. If you use them, you may skip the first step of softening the dates. Corn syrup may be substituted for golden syrup.

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