Thoughts on Pudding by Patrick O'Brian

(From the Patrick O'Brian Newsletter
September 1994; Volume 3: Issue 2)

The genus may be divided into three species, the first being the almost-obsolete dish called ball, or herb-pudding, a solid object made of flour and suet, with thyme, rosemary, marjoram and the like sprinkled through its substance, the whole being wrapped in a cloth and boiled for some hours before being brought to the table earlier than anything else, since its function was to take the edge off extreme appetite before the appearance of better and more costly things.

The second is made up of those which form the main substance of the meal, haggis, Burns's great chieftain of the pudding race, being a good example -- though there is also a great deal to be said for steak and kidney pudding, in which the obvious ingredients (and occasionally larks) are enclosed in an envelope of paste or dough made of flour, water and suet and then boiled, wrapped in a pudding-cloth, for a great while.

But the third, and for many the most delightful, is that which appears when the meat has been taken away -- the end and the crown of a dinner, reaching its apotheosis at Christmas, when the plum-pudding, a wonderful mixture of dried currants, raisins, rum, candied peel, spices, small silver charms and of course the essential suet, comes to the table, blazing with brandy and topped with holly.

Second only to that of Christmas we find a series of others, all founded upon that happy marriage of flour (two parts), suet (one part) and sugar consummated in a cloth or basin surrounded by boiling water. In spotted dog, for example, the dough is liberally sprinkled with fine bold currants and the cloth is tied tight, so that when the pudding is turned out on the dish its exterior is firm and relatively dry; in the version known as drowned baby, on the other hand, the cloth is somewhat looser, so that the resultant surface is agreeably glutinous. Plum duff is much the same, but prunes, sultanas or even dates take the place of currants (when it is made with raisins it is knows as figgy-dowdy in the West of England). Then there is roly-poly, in which the dough or paste is rolled out, spread with jam and rolled up again before being put into its cloth and boiled; and to this day a square in Lisbon is called after it, because the elegant paving has much the same pattern.

Other sweet dishes sometimes reach the table at the end of the meal, and by extension they too are called puddings; but although there are respectable tarts, pies and preparations based on rice, most of the custards, sillabubs, flummeries and other kickshaws do not deserve the name at all, which should be reserved for nobler objects altogether, the true heroes' delight.