Since the Victorian age, the British have prided themselves on their puddings; we even have a nickname for them—“puds” (rhymes with hoods). A pudding can take many forms—a milk pudding (such as rice), a sponge pudding (a cake batter baked in a dish), or a steamed pudding (the batter steams in a bowl set over boiling water). With the odd exception, puddings are sweet, and when a British child calls out, “What’s for pud, Mum?” he or she is actually asking, “What’s for dessert?”
I first sampled sticky toffee pudding—a sponge cake fragrant with caramel and vanilla, richly studded with squidgy dates, and oozing with a creamy toffee sauce—at The Ivy, one of London’s most popular restaurants, in the early 1990s. The dessert had become wildly popular just a few years earlier, and The Ivy’s was known as the quintessential version. I remember that I had no intention of finishing the dish because it seemed so rich and buttery, but when I looked down at my plate, my pud was all gone.
One dessert, many variations
Sticky toffee pudding first appeared in the 1960s. Two separate establishments claim to have invented it—The Udny Arms, a pub-restaurant in Scotland, and the upscale Sharrow Bay Restaurant in England. Since then, The Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding Company and its American offshoot in Santa Monica, California, have turned the pud into big business, selling packaged versions to stores and to mailorder customers.
There are many variations of sticky toffee pudding, but the basic elements remain the same: dates, sponge cake, vanilla, brown sugar, and cream. Some laborious recipes ask you to steam the cake batter in a deep bowl over boiling water, like a Christmas pudding. At The Ivy, they bake it in a jellyroll tin and roll it up. I think the simplest way is best: Bake it in a baking pan, cut it into slices, pour hot caramelly sauce all over. The contrast of soft, chewy cake and sweet, unctuous sauce is simply gorgeous, and you can up the sensuality another notch by serving it with ice cream.
It’s all do-ahead
This is something of a special-occasion dessert, perfect for company because you can make it ahead. You can bake the cake earlier in the day or even the day before and reheat it (turned out), wrapped in foil, before serving. For the sauce, have all the ingredients in the pan before guests arrive, so it’s ready to cook at the last minute. If you plan to serve it with ice cream, a trick popular just now with British hosts and hostesses is to make neat scoops of ice cream in advance and keep them in the freezer on a foil-lined tray. Then you can just pop a scoop on each plate as it goes to the table.
For an authentic “pud,” you’ll need three quintessentially British ingredients
Although they don’t grow in Britain, dates are integral to British cooking. We were among the first to import them from the Middle East in the 19th century. Back then, dates were an exotic, expensive treat, and they’re still a traditional component in elaborate Christmas desserts.
In sticky toffee pudding, chopped dates are part of the cake. They seem to melt into the batter during baking so that the cake that emerges doesn’t taste at all like a “date cake” but just a sweet, rich, moist treat.
You can make this recipe with any type of date, but for flavor and texture you can’t beat, use Medjools, which are sweet, chewy, and succulent. Slice them in half, remove the pit, and chop them roughly.
Partially refined sugars
The British are among the world’s top consumers of sugar, and in most of our supermarkets you can choose from at least a dozen types. Partially refined sugars (as opposed to fully refined, which is white sugar) are becoming popular in Britain. They can often be used in place of regular white sugar but contribute a more interesting flavor because they still contain some molasses. For the cake, I use golden sugar, a partially refined sugar that’s sold in regular granulation or superfine. It gives a delicate caramel flavor and pale brown tint to dishes. If you can’t find golden superfine sugar (also called golden baker’s sugar), you can substitute superfine white sugar. For the sauce, I like muscovado sugar, another partially refined sugar, available either light or dark. Muscovado sugar is worth seeking out for its delicious molasses flavor; if you can’t get it, regular light brown sugar is an acceptable substitute, though the sauce won’t have the same depth of flavor.
The British also love dairy products. Double cream, the British equivalent of heavy cream, contains a hefty 48% fat and is the usual pick for this recipe. (And if you think that sounds rich, Devon or Cornwall clotted cream, so thick a spoon will stand up in it, is 60% fat.) At 36% to 40% fat, American heavy cream works perfectly well in this recipe.