Food: By George, it's good

Scottish shortbread and Welsh bara brith don't even come close to a fine old English pudding. Simon Hopkinson waves the flag of St George and salutes the glories of custard tart, Bakewell pudding and gingerbread castles

The trio of traditional puddings that I present this week are, I feel, so very English (that's English, not British) that I feel impelled to put them in a class all of their own. The Scots and the Welsh - great poets, romantics, fighters, singers, humorists, actors, shipbuilders, distillers ... all of these - have hardly, over the years, contributed greatly to, nor truly delighted in, the pleasure that is the irresistible taste of a fine, expertly made pudding. Well, have they? I don't think so. Hmmm ... that's put the fat among the raisins.

Apart from a taste of Jeremy Lee's "my mum's black bun" some 10 years ago, my memory of the Scottish repertoire remains as a few flummeries, a handful of Atholl Broses and endless shortbread. The very fact that, according to every reliable cookery book and dictionary, both flummery and Atholl brose contain oatmeal - of which the latter confection's remaining ingredients are heather honey, whisky and cream - does seem to confirm that inspiration has not exactly been encouraged. I'm all for indigenous ingredients being used to the full, but there must have been raspberries, surely? Hang on a minute, I've just remembered something called cranachan. Doesn't that have raspberries in it? And, d'you know, I think it has oatmeal in it too - but toasted this time. How terribly interesting that is.

Shortbread has to be the world's dreariest biscuit. That familiar tartan tin lurks within untidy cupboards in all parts of the world, now filled with pins, needles, thimbles, cotton reels and wool; a well-travelled biscuit it may be, but you will never find more than just the one tin per household.

If the Scots are practically bereft of a national sweet trolley, the Welsh can barely fill a tea tray. There is Snowdon pudding. I made this once, at a hotel in west Wales, circa 1972. It included raisins or sultanas, plus breadcrumbs, suet, sugar, lemon and eggs, and, once steamed for a few hours, was duly unmoulded and served with a wine sauce. What sort of tosh is that!? "Dieu, Dieu bach, but it's got Madeira in it!" Well, bach, let me tell you that Madeira is for gravy and savoury sauces, to go with ham and stuff. It is not for making a syrupy gloop thickened with cornflour or arrowroot, and - surprise, surprise - sweetened with Welsh heather honey. And then there are Welsh cakes. And bara brith. Maybe I was being just a little harsh with the shortbread ... It hardly helps that I loathe honey, particularly when it is hot.

Rich Bakewell pudding

Serves 6

300g (approx) puff pastry (bought is just fine)

150g butter

4 large eggs

150g caster sugar

1tsp almond essence

2tbsp brandy

3 heaped tbsp raspberry jam

50g ground almonds

Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/gas mark 6. Line a greased oval pie dish with a sheet of thinly rolled puff pastry and trim the edges neatly, but with generously knocked- up edges to allow for shrinkage. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork before putting in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes. Bake blind using foil and beans (or your own method) for 20 minutes. Turn the oven temperature down, remove the foil and beans, and continue to cook for a further 20 minutes or so, or until slightly crisp and straw coloured. Put aside.

In the meantime, melt the butter in a small pan and leave to cool. Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a bowl until pale and thick, but cease beating before they become uncontrollably voluminous. Add the melted butter in a thin stream, whisking lightly, until fully incorporated. Stir in almond essence and brandy.

Spread the jam over the base of the cooked pastry shell and sprinkle over the almonds, pressing them into the jam using a fork. Carefully spoon in the egg and butter mixture until it reaches the very edges of the pastry. Bake for 10-15 minutes, before reducing the temperature to 350F/180C/ gas mark 4, continuing to bake for a further 20-25 minutes until filling is just set, and its surface a pale golden colour. Serve warm, with very cold pouring cream.

Gingerbread castle puddings

Serves 6

A true English pudding cook likes to fiddle endlessly with so-called "original recipes", one result of which are these dear little castle puddings - well, stubby turrets really. So, "a nice sticky gingerbread" from Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book (Grub Street, pounds 17.99, and soon to be out in paperback) and a rarely seen recipe for something called "sticky toffee pudding" from The Good Food Guide Dinner Party Book (Hilary Fawcett and Jeanne Strang, The Consumers' Association with Hodder and Stoughton, sadly long out of print) seemed ripe for an arranged marriage and reinterpretation by yours truly.

Now here is a quandary. Once upon a time, there was a certain Mrs Martin, of The Old Rectory Restaurant, Claughton, Lancashire, who had donated a recipe for her sticky toffee pudding to the compilation that eventually became The Good Food Guide Dinner Party Book. But although Mrs Martin's entry in the 1971 edition of The Guide duly mentions her "apple pie ... or sticky toffee pudding, both [served] with Jersey cream", five years later, in The Guide's 1976 edition, we first see the words "... and the justly famous sticky toffee pudding" appear within the entry for the Sharrow Bay restaurant, Ullswater. Mrs Martin's pudding was also mentioned in her own 1976 entry, but only in passing, sandwiched between recommendations for her "pork and peach sauce ... and pancakes".

Interestingly, Mrs Martin's recipe hardly differs from that of the late Francis Coulson (founder, chef, proprietor and creator of Sharrow Bay), until it gets to the sauce.

Coulson's sponge has an extra egg and 2oz less flour. A teaspoon of baking powder has also been lost, though indirectly replaced by the use of self-raising flour - which already includes baking powder. So, if I may say, Sharrow Bay's recipe is not a million miles away from The Old Rectory's "original" formula.

But it is the quantities and ingredients of that all-important sauce - the stuff that is actually used to render sticky toffee pudding "sticky" - which are so different. This is what makes Coulson's Sharrow Bay favourite the perfect pudding it is today. It is now printed on the menus there thus: "The original Icky Sticky Toffee Sponge Pudding", presumably to fend off all imitators (although M&S for one took little notice and, ironically, in the process of selling millions of "stickies", inadvertently returned full credit to Sharrow Bay).

Mrs Martin's sauce called for 21/2oz brown sugar, 11/2oz butter and 2tbsp double cream. For the same amount of sponge mixture, the Sharrow lotion insists upon nearly 600ml(!) of double cream, 75g Demerara sugar and 2tbsp black treacle.

Make no mistake, this sauce confirms Coulson's "icky sticky" as the finest you will ever eat. Whether it is "original" is a moot point. But more, and better sauce? Well ... just more better, actually.

So there you have it. If there is a Mrs Martin out there somewhere, or her son (who helped her run The Old Rectory), then I would be pleased to hear from them - if only to tie up loose ends. Anyway, here is my ginger variation, created somewhere in west London, September 1999. Patent pending.

For the sponge

75g softened butter

75g soft brown sugar

1tsp ground ginger

pinch of salt

2 large eggs, beaten

1 x 450g (approx) jar of ginger preserve or marmalade (Tesco's "Finest" range is the one I used, and very good it was too)

1tsp bicarbonate of soda

180g self-raising flour

2-3 globes of stem ginger, finely chopped, together with a little of their syrup

For the sauce

125ml ginger wine

2tbsp ginger syrup (decanted from the jar of stem ginger)

80g butter

1tbsp soft brown sugar

1/2tsp ground ginger

100ml double cream

squeeze of lemon juice

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar with the ground ginger and salt, until fluffy and white. Add the beaten eggs in a thin stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is very thick and voluptuous. Empty the jar of ginger preserve into a pan and warm through, stirring, until it has melted slightly. Pour into a food processor or liquidiser and puree with the teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda until smoothish. Pour into the butter/sugar/ egg mixture and blend together thoroughly.

Sift the flour into the mixture and beat it in with the aid of a stout whisk. Take six tin moulds, lightly grease them with a little butter and place a disc of greaseproof paper in the bottom of each, cut to fit with a pair of scissors. Put a spoonful of the chopped stem ginger and syrup in the base of each mould. Now pour enough of the sponge mixture into each mould so that it reaches just short of the rim (to allow for rising). Loosely fit a small circle of greased foil over each and place in a steamer. Steam for about 40 minutes, or until bouncy to the touch and clearly risen.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. Pour the ginger wine into a small, non-reactive pan and simmer until syrupy. Leave to cool for a few minutes then whisk in the other ingredients, save the lemon juice. Bring up to the boil, continuing to whisk, until all is nice and smooth. Simmer gently until slightly thickened; an ivory-coloured, almost custard-cream sauce would be my exact description. Whisk in a squeeze of lemon juice. Keep warm, covered. Run a small knife around the ginger sponges and turn out onto deep plates.

Pour some of the sauce over them, handing round the remainder in a sauce boat or jug at table.

Custard tart

Serves 6

For the pastry

125g plain flour

75g butter, cut into cubes

1 large egg yolk

2-3tbsp iced water

a little beaten egg

For the custard

400ml milk

1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthways

4 large egg yolks

2 large eggs

100g caster sugar

pinch salt

freshly grated nutmeg

250ml whipping cream

In a food processor, electric mixer or manually, blend together the flour, butter and salt until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Tip into a large, roomy bowl, and carefully mix in the egg yolk and water until well amalgamated. Put into a plastic bag and chill in the fridge for at least one hour before rolling.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4, and put a flat baking sheet in there too to heat up (this helps the base of the pastry case to cook through). Roll out the pastry as thinly as possible, line a 20cm x 4cm deep tart tin and bake blind, for about 15-20 minutes. Remove the foil and beans (see Bakewell recipe) then brush the inside of the case with the beaten egg (which helps to form a seal and prevent any leaks). Return to the oven for a further 15 minutes or so, or until pale golden, crisp and well cooked through.

Next reduce the oven temperature to 325F/170C/ gas mark 3. Scald the milk with the vanilla pod, whisk briefly and cover. Leave to infuse for 15 minutes. Loosely beat the egg yolks, eggs, sugar and salt together, then strain the vanilla-flavoured milk over them, continuing to beat. Stir in the cream. Leave to stand for 5 minutes. Lift off any froth with a ladle before carefully pouring into the pastry case (part of the ladling may take place in the open oven, to avoid spillage while carrying). Grate 1/4 of a nutmeg all over the surface and bake for 40- 50 minutes until set - the filling should still seem a bit wobbly in the middle. Leave to cool, but consume at room temperature.

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