Once upon a time, they were the main event. In childhood, eating a meal – at a restaurant, in someone’s house, wherever – is all about dessert. Before the rest of the feast is even considered, your first thought is, “Mum, what’s for pudding?”
Before the rest of the feast is even considered, your first thought is: "Mum, what's for pudding?" And then, somewhere along the line, something shifts. Eyeing a restaurant menu, your eye is caught not by the chocolate mousse or the knickerbocker glory, but by the scallops. Or the carpaccio. Or the fois gras. Instead of flicking straight to the back, you start – like everyone else - at the front. Meals are made or broken on the quality of the starter, the main. Pudding is incidental; an afterthought. Sometimes it's shared. Frequently it's skipped altogether: "Just an espresso, thanks." Refusing to indulge one's sweet tooth had become a mark of virtue. Declining a dessert is accompanied by an insistence that you "shouldn't"; having one is being "naughty" or "bad". And yet, it's not as though we don't ever eat sweets. Chocolate bars, biscuits, muffins, cakes – be they an accompaniment to your morning latte or a source of quick-fire energy, they're all a part of day-to-day life. But trifle? Bread-and-butter pudding? Best save those for a special occasion... or so runs the reasoning.
Not for much longer. The Proper Pudding – in all its creamy, colourful glory – is staging a comeback. Not just in its old guise as the tail-end of a big dinner, but as an event in itself. Next week, Gordon Ramsay's former protégé Jason Atherton will open his latest, much speculated-over venture on London's Pollen Street. Called the Pollen Street Social it will, he has said, feature food with "one foot in the past and the other in the future".
It will also, crucially, feature a dessert bar, turning pudding from afterthought into the star of the show.
"It's something I'm really excited by," says Atherton. "It seems to be catching people's imagination.
The restaurant is hoping that the bar will prove a destination in itself, frequented by those heading out specifically with dessert in mind, be it tiramisu, rice pudding, or "compressed crudo fruito with lime and cheese sorbet".
As Atherton says: "People can come on a first-come, first-served basis and watch their chosen desserts being created before their eyes."
It's similar to the concept of Gelupo, the ice cream parlour opened last year by the team behind Soho's revered Italian eatery, Bocca di Lupo. In summer, the café fills up with groups ordering gelato, granita or one of the extensive list of ice cream cakes. "It's a meeting point," agrees Gelupo's Riccardo Potenza. "People meet for a coffee – why not an ice cream? It's perfect – like a celebration."
It's this celebratory element that accounts, in large part, for the appeal of the dessert. Eaten after a meal, it offers an ovation, of sorts, to the food consumed. Eaten on its own, it becomes an event. Amid the economic doom and gloom, it's no wonder puddings are beginning to take centre stage. Indeed, the trend has been burgeoning for some time. In New York, dessert bars are a veritable phenomenon: at ChikaLicious, customers queue for up to an hour to enjoy a plate of Cheese Cake or Steamed Fig Pudding, while Kyotofu regularly picks up awards for its selection of Japanese sweets.
On the high street, it's a similar story. When Heston Blumenthal's Christmas pudding went on sale at Waitrose, near-pandemonium ensued. Not only did the dessert sell out, but it became the object of frenzied black market trading on-line. His Royal Wedding Trifle – a boisterously patriotic confection of strawberries, champagne, cream and meringue – looks bound to excite similar enthusiasm. At Marks & Spencer, the fashion for proper puddings – centrepieces to occasions, rather than a quick rush of sugar – has been so pronounced – with increases of more than 20 per cent in the past year – that they have decided to introduce a new range.
"Customers are telling us they want something that will wow guests," explains Helen Brennan, the store's dessert developer. "No longer just an add-on to a meal, desserts are fast becoming show-stoppers in their own right. We've created some great centrepieces using grown-up ingredients like passion fruit, orange and cherry."
Included will be a selection of gloriously retro jellies served in bottles. "Another trend is nostalgia," observes Brennan of this. Not just nostalgia, but tradition: after all, with such a strong history of puddings in British cookery – from crumble to syllabub – it seems a shame not to make the most of them.
At Albion, in east London's Shoreditch, punters flock to enjoy a taste of just that: tradition, from the devilled kidneys and kedgeree of the main menu to the jelly, steamed sponge and bread-and-butter pudding of the dessert. The latter are a particular draw: indeed, bread-and-butter pudding is never taken off the menu.
"It reminds one of the kitchen table," reflects the restaurant's managing director, Peter Prescott. "It's comforting, homely and it takes you back."
Just like Gelupo and – as of next week – Pollen Street Social as well, Albion regularly serves diners only from the sweet menu.
"We get a lot of people who come in just for dessert. At night, they've been to a cocktail party and they want a pudding and a cup of tea."
And what, after all, could be more fun than that?
Get your just desserts
You can't get much more classic than Mrs Beeton and her Book of Household Management. Lorraine Pascale, meanwhile, has offered the sweet-toothed hit of the year with Baking Made Easy. Desserts include blueberry and lemon millefeuille and mascarpone and ginger crème brûlée.
The dessert bar at Pollen Street Social, opening next week, promises to serve a bit of New York cool. For a bit of brilliantly executed nostalgia, head to Albion in London's East End. If it's ice cream that you're after, swing by Gelupo, where the flavours change every day.
Marks & Spencer's Passion Fruit and Orange Meringue Tart is a feat of culinary engineering, covered with a blanket of meringue peaks, while their Bucket & Spade Jellies offer simpler – though no less enjoyable - pleasures. If you're pushing the boat out, the Heston from Waitrose Royal Trifle, which will be available from 20 April.Reuse content