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Issue 7 - Crumbs of Comfort

Scotland Magazine Issue 7
March 2003


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Crumbs of Comfort


Comfort food comes in many shapes and sizes, but in Scotland it is invariably in the shape of a soup pot, casserole dish or pudding basin. There is nothing minimalist about comfort food and no place for fancy towers of food or pretty arrangements on plates.

It is often served direct from the dish or pan it was cooked in – admittedly without finesse, but most certainly with taste. Comfort food is usually cold-weather food, food that sticks to your ribs, food that nourishes and soothes. This is food we want to eat, not food we think we ought to.

Soups are the obvious choice, and instead of the thin or cold soups of summertime, comfort food means thick, chunky soups often topped with crispy bacon, roughly-hewn croutons or a hearty grating of farmhouse cheese.

At this time of year, however, there is no more comforting sound than the reassuring shudder of a steamed pudding in its pan, and there are few more gratifying sights than fugged-up windows all running with steam.

And then, best of all, there is the pudding sitting proud on the serving dish, all steamy and sticky, just waiting to be devoured.

The most traditional kind of Scottish pudding is of course the cloutie dumpling: the word ‘cloth’ is the origin of this recipe, as cloot or clout is Scots for cloth, and it refers to the cloth in which the dumpling is boiled.

Unlike other dumplings or steamed puddings, it forms a characteristic ‘skin’, made by sprinkling flour and sugar onto the cloth before filling with the mixture. Beware clouties without a skin: they are not the real McCoy.

The skin must be dried off before serving, and this is done nowadays in the oven. But my mother tells me her task as a child was to dry off the dumpling in front of the open fire. She would sit there on a stool for 15 to 20 minutes, turning the dumpling round and round until it was dried off and ready to eat.

Since it was made only for special occasions such as birthdays (in which case there were silver three penny pieces hidden inside, similar to charms in a Christmas pudding,) this was a chore worth doing well. It would then be eaten with custard, but is now also served with cream or ice cream. Next day any leftovers would be served for breakfast: sliced and fried in rendered suet and eaten with bacon.

From thick hearty soups and stews packed with flavour to steamed and boiled sweet puddings, this is the food that fuels this nation, and it tastes divine.

900g / 2lb Jerusalem artichokes
25g / 1oz butter
Olive oil
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 litre / 13/4 pints hot chicken stock
4 plump scallops

1. Prepare the artichokes: have a bowl of acidulated water ready (by stirring some lemon juice into plenty of cold water.) Peel artichokes and place in the bowl. Leave for a few minutes while you prepare the other vegetables. Then rinse, pat dry and slice.

2. Heat the butter and 1 tbsp oil in a pan and gently sauté the artichokes, leeks and onion for about 10 minutes, then increase heat and add the hot stock. Stir, season well, cover.

3. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Then liquidise the soup and check seasoning.

4. For the scallops: heat a frying pan up very hot, add 1 tbsp oil, fry scallops two minutes each side. Remove and cut each into three. To serve, ladle soup into warm bowls and top with three scallop discs.

You can wrap five-pence pieces or charms in waxed or greaseproof paper and add to the mixture

225g / 8oz plain flour, sifted
200g / 7oz golden caster sugar
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
1 heaped tsp mixed spice
110g / 4oz shredded suet
110g / 4oz sultanas
110g /4oz currants
110g / 4oz stoned dates, finely chopped
1 heaped tsp bicarbonate of soda
Approx. 200ml / 7 fl oz milk, sour milk or cold tea
Flour and caster sugar, to sprinkle over

1. Mix the first nine ingredients together in a bowl with enough liquid to make a soft dough of a stiff, dropping consistency.

2. Dip a large pudding cloth (or tea towel) into boiling water then drain well and lay out flat on a table. Sprinkle with flour and then sugar (I use my flour and sugar shakers): you want an even – but not thick – sprinkling. (This forms the characteristic skin).

3. Place the mixture in the middle of the cloth, then tie up securely with string, allowing a little room for expansion.

4. Place on a heatproof plate in the bottom of a large saucepan. Top up with enough boiling water to just cover the pudding, then put on pan lid and simmer gently for 3 3/4 to four hours. Check the water level occasionally and top up if necessary (you should hear the continual gentle shuddering sound of the plate on the bottom of the pan for the duration of cooking).

5. Wearing oven gloves, remove the pudding from the pan, dip briefly into a bowl of cold water – for no more than 10 seconds, so the skin does not stick to the cloth. Cut the string, untie the cloth and invert the dumpling onto an ovenproof plate.

6. Place in the oven (180C/ 350F/Gas 4) for 10 to 15 minutes – just until the skin feels less sticky – then sprinkle with caster sugar and serve hot with custard.