Please Bring Back the Puddings!

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on October 03 2013

Please Bring Back The Puddings!

I recently ran across online portions of an interesting book, edited by Harlan Walker, titled Disappearing Foods: Studies in Foods and Dishes at Risk (Prospect Books, 1995). The book includes an article written by Mary Wallace Kelsey called “The Pudding Club and Traditional British Puddings.” It celebrates a resurgence of the quintessential British boiled pudding.

Where did we go wrong?

Ms. Kelsey’s article prompted me to ask a couple of question: where did we Americans go astray in our understanding of what a pudding is? Pose the question, “what is pudding?” to any American you know, and you’re likely to get a raised eyebrow and a sideways glance as if you’re from a different planet. Anticipated answers will likely include the words chocolate or vanilla, or maybe lemon, pistachio, or butterscotch. You’ll likely be told that it can be found in your local grocery next to the gelatin desserts (usually going by the same brand name). And someone may even tell you that it’s a dessert commonly served at hospitals and all-you-can-eat dinner buffets.

So my curiosity got the best of me and I started to research the topic. I wanted to know if there was some remote historic connection between the virtually extinct boiled pudding and the plastic cups of pre-made stuff Bill Cosby used to hustle to our children.

I’ve concluded there is a connection. Maybe we wren’t wrong after all.

A Brief Pudding History

If one looks at the old recipes for pudding, it rapidly becomes obvious (and many historians and etymologists agree) that the meaning of the term is difficult to pin down. The word appears to find its origin in an old French term describing a blood-sausage stuffed into animal intestines and stomachs (and…um…other…parts) that the Normans brought with them as they invaded the British Isles in the 12th century. A modern direct descendant of these original puddings are the black and white puddings of the United Kingdom and Ireland — boiled, sliced, and often fried up for breakfast.

Puddings really exploded onto the culinary scene around the 14th century when someone discovered that a piece of cloth was a viable substitute for natural casings. Woohoo! No longer did diners have to wait for the next autumn slaughter! Puddings could be made year-round! The pudding bag was here to stay! …At least for the lion’s share of the next five or six centuries.

Puddings were often boiled alongside the meat. They were likewise often served prior to or along with the meat course so that less meat would be required to satisfy hungry appetites.

But as sugar became more widely available, it began to alter the palates of English societies. Even savory dishes, including puddings, were often seasoned with sugar. Eventually, the definition of pudding began to apply to a broader collection of foods that weighed heavily on the dessert end of the table.

A White Pot, with sugar being browned on top with a period salamander
A White Pot with a topping of sugar being browned with a period salamander

There were dozens, if not hundreds of different kinds of puddings: boiled puddings, dripping puddings (e.g., Yorkshire), plumb, marrow, and pastry puddings. There were regional and local puddings. There were bread puddings that used bread crumbs and bread-and-butter puddings that actually used slices of bread (e.g., a white pot). There were apple puddings that we would now call apple dumplings. There were also quaking and custard puddings (e.g., “Flummery”), made primarily of egg and milk with only a fraction of the flour seemingly necessary to hold it together.

Another pudding type was called Blancmange. Different from custard (which is thickened with egg), blancmange is a dairy dessert thickened originally with either isinglass or calve’s feet jelly, and by the turn of the 20th century, with corn starch. There were different kinds of manges, depending on how they were flavored and/or colored. Blancmange colored with cochineal, for instance, was called rougemange, and that colored with spinach was verdemange. It was only a matter of time for some heroic cook to slip chocolate into the equation.

An End to Finger Pointing

Suddenly the debate over which dish has rightful claim to the name falls silent. (O.K., I haven’t heard anyone actually debate this besides myself in my own head.)

It’s a fairly short journey through early 20th century cookbooks to link custards and blancmanges to Bill Cosby. A boiled plum pudding and a dish of instant chocolate pudding are actually both members of the same food-family tree. Think of them as distant cousins, having descended down different evolutionary branches of this broad food category called pudding.

My assumption that we Americans had gone astray in our perceptions was incorrect. Both of these very divergent pudding styles seem to have legitimate claims to the throne. And as far as that goes, there are other modern foods that could chime in as well if they wanted to. Take, for instance, our Thanksgiving turkey stuffing and pumpkin pie. They both started as puddings. And the black sheep of the family — the Christmas fruitcake? You guessed it.

So Where DID They Go?

So going back to Kelsey’s article, my next question is, Why did boiled puddings disappear? Kelsey spoke of their disappearance from British tables, but they were once also very popular in America. Most English cookbooks used in early America were British (or heavily influenced by British cooking). So it’s no surprise to find a plethora of boiled pudding recipes even in those earliest “American” works published in Philadelphia and Boston. It’s interesting to realize, however, that even as American cookbooks began to reflect a distinctively American cuisine through the 19th century, British pudding recipes continued to hold on. It was only in the 20th century that they were finally nudged out of print by various custard and mange-type recipes going by the same name.

I managed to find a remnant bag pudding recipe from as late as 1937 in the Pennsylvania-Dutch Cook Book by J. George Frederick . Frederick reflects public sentiment by calling such dishes “poverty puddings, out of the thrifty colonial past.”

I believe there are several reasons why boiled puddings disappeared off the American culinary landscape. It was a slow death that may have started even at the height of its popularity. First, American colonists relied heavily on corn, as most of the wheat crop grown in North America was exported to Britain. Maize was considered by the British as suitable fare for Yankees. Beyond that, it was animal fodder. (see more on this topic in an earlier video we produced on Early Corn Bread.) The exportation of much of the wheat crop would have naturally limited the primary ingredients for pudding: flour and bread. Some of the earliest distinctions in American cookbooks were made by the additions of Indian Pudding recipes made with corn flour instead of wheat flour.

Another early contributor to the boiled pudding’s demise was likely the development of pearl ash, saleratus, and finally baking powder. These chemical leavening agents appear to have steered preferences away from heavier foods to lighter fare. Frederick mentioned this preference in the opening remarks in his chapter, “Dutch Puddings and Desserts.”

Another contributing factor was advances in kitchen technology. With the continued development of kitchen ovens, it became easier and more reliable (as well as more efficient) to bake than it was to boil. Consequently, as pudding recipes developed in the 19th century, more recipes called for the puddings to be baked or steamed with a water bath rather than boiled.

Another likely factor was simply the amount time required to make a boiled pudding. Full-sized bag puddings typically required boiling times between four and six hours. During that time, cooks had to keep a watchful eye on the pot to make sure it didn’t boil dry, and when additional water was needed to be added, it had to be boiling water so that the cooking time wasn’t extended any longer than it already was. Frustration over lengthy cook times can be felt even in early 18th century cookbooks. The answer to this was hasty puddings.

Hasty puddings were actually a category of puddings. Any pudding that required less time to cook, for whatever reason, can be considered a hasty pudding. For American colonists, corn mush was a common form of hasty pudding. It didn’t take long at all for the corn meal, boiled with disproportionate amounts of water, to thicken up. Other hasty puddings could be made from larger pudding recipes simply by divvying the dough or batter into smaller portions. For instance, the earliest known bag pudding (the “College” or “Cambridge” pudding) soon became the “New College” pudding. These recipes were in essence the same, but the mix of ingredients in the New College recipe was divided into smaller dumpling-size portions and either fried or boiled. The bag was dropped altogether.

And finally, the last nail in the boiled pudding’s coffin was likely the changing public perceptions regarding a key ingredient in most puddings: suet. It fell out of general favor with a society that was increasingly becoming more health conscious. Suet has since been relegated to bird food. Jennifer McLagan has much to say on this matter in her 2008 cookbook title Fat: An Appreciation for a Misunderstood Ingredient.

There were possibly other reasons for the boiled pudding’s disappearance from American Cuisine, e.g. regional and ethnic influences. But these that I’ve mentioned are the most significant.

But Wait! May I Please Have Seconds?

Here is a recipe that might justify a unified grassroots effort to resurrect the boiled pudding back from the culinary grave. It’s called “Puddings in Haste” from Maria Rundell’s 1814 cookbook “A New System of Domestic Cookery”  (originally publishes in 1807). Be sure to watch the video below as Jon prepares this dish.

Puddings to Haste

Rundell conspicuously omits the measure of ingredients. Comparing it to a number of other period recipes, here are our recommendations:


1 cup dried bread crumbs
1 cup grated suet* 
1/2 cup raisins, chopped, or Zante currants**
grated zest of 1/2 to 1 whole lemon
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger powder (double that if you’re using fresh ginger)
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks

a little flour for dredging


Bring a good size pot of water to a roiling boil.

In a large mixing bowl, mix the first four ingredients together until they are well incorporated.

Use kidney fat, not muscle fat. It makes a HUGE difference!
Use kidney fat, not muscle fat. It makes a HUGE difference!

*DO NOT use hard muscle fat for this! Use true suet (kidney fat). Be sure to read my earlier post on Suet for more information. If you can’t find true suet, you’re better off using very cold diced butter or frozen vegetable shortening than you are using hard muscle fat. If you opt for either of these substitutions, you’ll have to work fast. 

** If you don’t like raisins, try some other dried fruit, chopped fairly small.

Whisk together the eggs along with the ginger. Mix the dry ingredients and wet ingredients together. Divide the stiff dough into equal portions, and form into balls or dumplings about the size of a small chicken egg. Roll each dumpling in flour and lower them into your boiling water.

Boil them for 15 minutes, stirring them on occasion to prevent them from sticking.

After 15 minutes, these little puddings will look soggy and somewhat gray. They can be eaten right away, or you can allow them to sit for a little while and they stiffen up and improve in appearance.

These puddings can be served hot or cold. Finish them up with a sprinkle of sugar, a little honey, maple syrup, or a delicious “pudding sauce” made of equal parts melted butter, sugar, and sack (sherry wine).

There are a number of 18th century recipes that I consider really good…for 18th century food, that is. THIS dish, however, will likely be served at the next party I attend!

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