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Issue 43 - Comfort food at its best

Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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Comfort food at its best

Comfort food comes in many shapes and sizes. It might be a vast pot of soup thick with pulses and vegetables, a generous dish of gently simmering stew or perhaps an indecently large wedge of chocolate cake. But for many of us, if we are seriously in need of something to lighten a dreary grey day, comfort only comes in one form: a pudding basin.

Even the word basin suggests nostalgia from another era, of childhood when proper puddings came with obligatory custard, long before créme fraiche had crossed the English Channel.

This is comfort food at its best, whether you crave warmth, sweetness and stodge – or whether you simply want to feed nostalgia. Once the pudding is steaming away gently, emitting muffled rattling sounds all the while, there is also the anticipation. The expectation of inverting the pudding in a glorious puff of steam, sitting it upright and proud on a dish, then devouring with eagerness – but never with haste. For this is a taste to be savoured and enjoyed. This is slow, comforting food that both reassures and soothes.

Many old cookbooks have wonderful steamed pudding recipes such as sago plum pudding, Winchester pudding (with blackcurrant jam) or Prince Albert pudding (with prunes). There is also an old family favourite, seven-cup pudding which involves the main ingredients being measured out in cups, in those pre-espresso days when everyone drank tea from dainty cups and saucers.

I also found in a 1913 book a recipe for Aeroplane Pudding, made by combining flour, sugar, jam, suet and water then steaming “for as long as possible.” Presumably this was given to pilots prior to take-off, to increase the ballast.

Although there are more and more steamed puddings to be found on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, it is at home that they truly belong.

And if you have never tried, I can assure you they are exceedingly easy to make and require no specialist equipment.

Once you have mixed everything together, tip into a pudding basin. Butter a doubled sheet of foil, fold a pleat across the centre and place over the pudding, tying around twice with string, to secure. Then place in a large saucepan, pour in enough hot water – just off the boil – to come about halfway up the basin, then cover tightly with a lid. Cook over a low heat, checking the water level and topping up if required.

When it is ready, take it proudly to the table with a large jug of mandatory custard.

Once the ensuing reverential silence has descended, spoon out into bowls, inundate with custard and eat slowly and appreciatively. Rather like sinking into a hot steamy bubble bath after a chill, wintry day, a general sense of well-being will soon pervade every inch of your body. As I said, comfort food at its best.


175 g / 6 oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp ground ginger
110 g / 4 oz butter, softened
100g / 3 1/2oz dark muscovado sugar
1 tbsp chopped stem ginger + ginger
syrup (from the jar)
2 large eggs
2 level tbsp black treacle

1. Place everything in a bowl and, using
an electric mixer, beat together until
smooth (2-3 minutes).
2. Tip into a lightly buttered one litre
pudding basin, smooth the top. Cover,
steam for 13/4-2 hours then leave to cool
for five minutes.
3. Run a knife around the edges and turn
out your pudding onto a plate.
4. Drizzle with ginger syrup and enjoy.

Cloot or clout is Scots for cloth and refers to the cloth in
which the dumpling is boiled. Unlike any other steamed
puddings, it forms a characteristic skin, made by
sprinkling flour and sugar into the cloth before filling
with the mixture. The skin must be dried off before
serving and this is done nowadays in the oven.
My mother tells me her task (as youngest child) was to
dry off the dumpling in front of the open fireplace.
She would sit there on a stool for 15- 20 minutes,
turning the dumpling round until it was dried off and
ready to eat.
It was traditionally made for special occasions such
as birthdays (in which case there were silver coins
hidden inside, similar to charms in a Christmas
pudding). It was eaten with custard for pudding, then
next day leftovers were sliced and fried in rendered suet
with bacon for breakfast.
225g / 8 oz plain flour, sifted
200 g / 7 oz golden caster sugar
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
1 heaped tsp mixed spice
110 g / 4 oz shredded suet
110 g / 4 oz sultanas
110 g / 4 oz currants
110 g / 4 oz stoned dates, finely
1 heaped tsp bicarbonate of soda
200 ml / 7 fl oz milk, sour milk or cold tea
flour and caster sugar, to sprinkle
1. Mix the flour, sugar, spices, suet and
fruit together in a bowl with enough liquid
to make a soft dough.
2. Dip a large pudding cloth (or tea-towel)
into boiling water, drain well and lay out flat
on a table. Sprinkle with flour and then
sugar, to form the characteristic skin.
3. Place the mixture in the middle of the
cloth, tie up the cloth securely with string,
allowing a little room for expansion. Place
on a heatproof plate in the bottom of a large
saucepan. Top up with boiling water to
almost cover the pudding then cover with a
lid and simmer gently for 3 3/4-4 hours.
Check the water level occasionally.
4.Wearing oven gloves, remove the
pudding from the pan, dip briefly into a bowl
of cold water so the skin does not stick to
the cloth. Cut the string, untie the cloth and
invert the dumpling onto an ovenproof plate.
5. Place in the oven (180°C / 350°F / Gas 4)
for 10-15 minutes – until the skin feels less
sticky – then sprinkle with caster sugar and
serve hot with custard.

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