Every year, I celebrate the arrival of the first berries at the farmers’ market by making summer pudding. I can’t think of any other dessert that captures the flavor of the season so well. Not only is this traditional English dessert delicious, it’s also incredibly simple to make. There’s hardly any cooking involved, no long list of ingredients or complicated techniques—just line a mold with white bread, fill it with sugared berries, and refrigerate it overnight. But when it’s unmolded on a plate, the tall, crimson pudding drenched in its own sweet juice is wonderful to look at. And it tastes of summer itself.
Summer pudding begins with berries
A proper English summer pudding is made with only raspberries and currants, but you can make it with any combination of berries. Besides raspberries and red currants, I like blackberries, loganberries, strawberries, boysenberries, and black currants. Let your choice be dictated by whatever’s ripest.
The surest sign of a fresh berry is a heady perfume. The first thing to do when shopping for berries is to smell them. An intoxicating fragrance is the sign of a berry at its peak. Stains on the bottom of the berry basket indicate crushed fruit; reject those berries, as well as any that show signs of mold. Berries are quite fragile and don’t always fare well on the journey from farm to market. If you know of a field where you can pick your own, by all means do so.
Avoid washing berries: they absorb water like a sponge. Just pick them over gently to remove any leaves or stems. If you really need to wash them, rinse them briefly under a gentle stream of water; under no circumstances let them soak. Strawberries are the exception: they’re often sandy from the soil in which they grow, and sandy summer pudding, while it sounds charming, would be hard on the molars. Put strawberries in a colander, rinse them with tepid water, lay them on paper towels, and blot them dry.
The berries need to be cooked briefly to bring out their juices and melt the sugar. Don’t cook them too long or they’ll lose their shape and their fresh taste.
Good-quality frozen berries work well, too. But be aware that they’re juicier than fresh berries when they’re cooked. You may want to reserve a little of the juice to add later to the unmolded pudding.
Improvise a pudding mold
A charlotte mold is ideal for summer pudding. It looks like a bucket with little heart-shaped handles on the sides. Often made of tin, it has a flat bottom and tall, slightly sloping sides that are easy to line. When it’s unmolded, you’ll have a pretty pudding that won’t fall over. A soufflé dish, with its flat bottom and deep sides, makes a fine substitute for a charlotte mold. You can even use a deep mixing bowl. You may have to cut your bread a bit differently to accommodate the size and shape of your mold.
Use a fine-crumbed white bread
The bread for summer pudding must be a dense, fine-crumbed white loaf. This is no place for fluffy bread or a rustic country loaf. Look instead for a long, brick-shaped loaf with a thin crust and a close-textured crumb, sometimes called a pain de mie or Pullman loaf. Check your local bakery to see if it offers one you like. Pepperidge Farm’s white sandwich bread also works quite well. Bread that’s two to three days old makes a sturdier pudding.
Lining the mold with plastic wrap will make the pudding easier to unmold. It also helps keep more of the berry juice inside the pudding. As you assemble the pudding, be sure to fit the slices of bread together snugly or the juicy filling will spill through. The triangular slices that make the top and base of the pudding should be as close together as possible. Scraps of leftover bread can be used to fill in any gaps. When you set the rectangular slices on the sides of the mold, overlap them a bit. This will help keep the berries from leaking and will make a sturdier pudding.
Once you’ve assembled the pudding, put a flat plate on top and weight it with a large can. Set the mold inside a larger plate or dish to catch the juice that will overflow. As the pudding sits under the weight overnight, the bread absorbs the juice and the bright color of the berries, and the whole thing is compacted into a firm, unified shape.
Unmold just before serving
Wait until you’re ready to serve the pudding before unmolding it. It will stand up, but probably not for very long. Choose a serving plate that’s slightly bowled to catch the escaping juice. Put the plate on top of the mold, invert both, and remove the mold. Reserve the juice to spoon over each serving.