Sticky Toffee Pudding
While it is true that as a gastronomic center London has come a long way, what we think of as indigenous British home cooking still does not rank at the top of most people’s lists. The modern British multi-cultural recipes by bestselling cookbook authors like Delia Smith, Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson notwithstanding, quintessentially British fare with funny names like Bangers and Mash and Bubble and Squeak may make us giggle, but their tastes aren’t so memorable that we are rushing off to recreate them in our own kitchens. Desserts, on the other hand, are a different story. The Brits love their desserts (or puddings as they call them) as much as the next person. Apple Crumble, Trifle and Spotted Dick (they really are aces at funny names) are all good examples. But the very best English dessert—and possibly one of the best desserts of all time—is Sticky Toffee Pudding, a date-laden brown cake smothered in hot toffee sauce served with chilled cream on the side. (Not quite a funny name, but still decidedly British in a playful sort of way.) The taste is utterly addictive.
I’d forgotten all about sticky toffee pudding until our new friends Kate and Sandy served it to us at a recent dinner party. My eyes lit up when Kate told us it was on the menu for dessert. It’s funny how you forget about certain recipes for years and then when you are suddenly reintroduced all the fondness you once had for it comes rushing back like old friends who have inexplicably parted and reconnected years later. In fact, the story of sticky toffee pudding for me is exactly a story of lost friendship.
Until Kate made it for us, the only sticky toffee pudding I ever ate was Susan and Jonathan’s, and I ate a lot of it. From the first time they made it for me in their flat in Bath I routinely begged them to make it whenever we got together for a home cooked meal. They always obliged. Part of it was the taste, but the other part was hearing Jonathan pronounce it in his East London accent. It just sounded like something you had to have. When they came to visit me once in New York, Jonathan brought all the ingredients with him already weighed and ready to be assembled. When we greedily dug in, we were like children again, squealing and moaning over the sticky, toffee goodness of it all. Who knows, sticky toffee pudding may have cemented our friendship.
In the 1980’s Susan and Jonathan ran a fine dining vegetarian restaurant in England’s Lake District called Quince & Medlar. By the time I met them in 1989 through a mutual friend they had sold the restaurant and moved to Bath where they owned a small home furnishings store. Luckily for me, though, many of their Quince & Medlar recipes came along with them, including Sticky Toffee Pudding. I used to visit them on weekends from London where I was working at a bank. Our mutual friend, who had gone to school with Susan and Jonathan, used to pick me up at my flat in London and we would drive out to Bath together. Going to the Pump Room and eating a home-cooked vegetarian meal with them was part of our ritual. Eventually they gave me a Xerox copy of their hand-written recipes from the restaurant, unbound and stuffed into a plastic sleeve that has made a couple of transatlantic moves with me.
I never made a single recipe from their collection—for some reason they felt like they didn’t really belong to me—but I never dreamed of tossing them out because they were a memento of our friendship and a certain moment in time. The pages of the recipes are now yellowed and faded, not unlike the friendship they represent. They have sat, still tucked into the same plastic sleeve, at the bottom of a drawer in my kitchen like a pile of old photographs that are never looked at and will never be organized but somehow cannot be tossed out.
When I knew Susan and Jonathan they were one of those tightly knit couples who function in the world as a single unit—I imagine they still are. They met at university, married shortly after graduation and hyphenated their last names. Later they shared the same email address. I don’t think I ever experienced the company of one without the other. They were warm and playful and they seemed to take in all manner of lovelorn, single female friends the way other people take in stray cats. Jonathan served as a surrogate husband to us all—not in a creepy sexual way, but in a way where we felt this-is-what-it-must-be-like-to-have-a-man-around-who-serves-you-tea-in-the-morning-and-sticky-toffee-pudding-at-night kind of way. He was our version of the Ideal Husband. Susan always graciously played along. Only once did she make a brief comment while we were on vacation together in Provence that Jonathan was not always ideal—something to do with a bout of depression that no one wanted to pursue. Our friendship was too light and airy for anything as dark as that. Still, the moment has stayed with me. There was a lot we didn’t know about each other.
Who’s to say why some friendships fade away. Propinquity certainly plays a role—it isn’t easy to keep up a friendship when there’s an ocean between you. Without shared experiences at regular intervals it is much harder to keep the friendship humming along. It’s also harder to overcome misunderstandings. In the case of Susan and Jonathan specifically, they got caught up in the unraveling of a few of my friendships that could not make the transition to my newly married status at the age of forty-six. Despite all the joy and wonder of being a newlywed in middle age, it was a confusing and painful time for me as I tried to navigate the choppy waters of establishing new boundaries with people who had only ever known me as a single woman. The role I played for some of my friends as a single person no longer served them once I was married. Susan and Jonathan were close to two of these people and I was not adept at separating my feelings for them with the pain caused by the other two. Over the years the communication dwindled, the attempts to rendezvous on one continent or the other stopped and we fell off of each others Christmas card lists.
So when Kate served us sticky toffee pudding and there was a minor snafu with the extra sauce bubbling over in the microwave, I offered to hunt down Jonathan’s recipe which somehow I recollected as being simpler to execute—of course I had never made it myself so what did I know? Maybe it was just an excuse to take a walk down memory lane.
But the thing with memories is they aren’t always reliable. I found the recipe in the batch of Quince & Medlar pages and was confounded by some of the quantities—1/2 pound of flour? Only ½ ounce of butter in the toffee sauce? Surely that was an error. Based on what was written, I had no idea how to put the batter together. Did the water that the dates are soaking in get poured off? I did some online research to fill in the gaps and then wondered even more about the quantities. I stuck with the 8 ounces of flour (which turned out to be nearly two cups) and hoped for the best. This was about reconnecting with old friends and I wanted to be true to their recipe. I did, however, increase the amount of butter in the sauce. Let’s just say the results were not the way I remembered it—the cake was a bit dry and there just wasn’t enough sauce to satisfy me. Uh-oh, I thought. I had enshrined the memory of our friendship in a recipe only to discover it had not stood the test of time.
I have traveled a long way from the last time I saw Susan and Jonathan a dozen years ago. First and foremost, I have my own Ideal Husband now. Together we left New York and lived as expats in Brussels where my husband worked for three years. Afterwards, we moved back to the States and decided to live in a house for the first time in our adult lives. We landed in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley where we bought what we formerly New York apartment dwellers consider to be an expansive house on two and a half acres in the woods that straddles the country and the suburbs. We are a stone’s throw from Philadelphia and a day trip away from our urban roots in New York, which we visit from time to time for just long enough to remind us of why we left in the first place. (We still miss the convenience of a Super though.) I discovered a passion for gardening that must have been lying dormant while I worked out my life in the concrete jungle.
It was time to update my sticky toffee pudding recipe. I set aside Susan and Jonathan’s recipe and turned to a form of mini crowdsourcing, gathering a collection of sticky toffee pudding recipes found online and from my newest friends, Kate and Kathy. My sticky toffee pudding odyssey became a collective endeavor of friendship with the promise of a recipe for the ages.
Eight recipes, three cakes and an evening tasting among four of us, I now have my very own version. The differences in the cake batter mostly come down to variations in the amount of flour, the type of sugar (white, brown, Demerara, a bit of molasses, or some combination thereof), one versus two eggs, anywhere from six to eight ounces of pitted dates, and finally, the addition of spices. As for the sauce it was all about the quantity of cream, butter and dark versus light brown sugar. In the end, of course, it is a matter of personal taste—that, and friendship. Mine is an amalgamation from friends new and old, past and present. But it is also completely my own: it is sweet without being cloying with just enough salt to make it interesting and a dash of spice for warmth.
As for the time capsule of unexplored recipes from Quince & Medlar, I have gathered them up after a final, wistful glance and placed them in the recycling bin. R.I.P.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
1 Cup pitted dates, chopped (6 oz.)
1 Cup boiling water
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup (4 oz.) sifted all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground ginger
½ stick (¼ Cup) unsalted butter, softened
5 oz. (scant ¾ Cup) packed light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
½ stick (1/4/Cup) unsalted butter
½ Cup heavy cream
1 Cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp ground nutmeg
Big pinch of kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350°.
Lightly grease an 8×8 baking pan lined with parchment paper on the bottom.
Place chopped dates in a bowl and pour a cup of boiling water over them. Stir in baking soda (it will foam a bit). Set aside for at least 5 minutes.
Sift 4 oz. of flour (1 Cup sifted) and combine with salt and ground ginger in a separate bowl.
Cream together the softened butter and brown sugar in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Add eggs one at a time, then the vanilla.
Turn the mixer down and alternately add part of the flour mixture and the dates with the water until all is incorporated.
Pour the batter into a lightly greased 8×8 pan and bake at 350° on a center rack for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Place on a wire rack and let cool completely.
Note: The cake can be made a day ahead—in fact, it is better the second day. When the cake has cooled in the pan, turn it out on a cutting board and wrap in plastic to store until you are ready to serve.
Just before serving, preheat the oven to 400°. To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and then slowly add cream, while whisking. Add brown sugar, salt and nutmeg and continue to whisk. Bring to a gentle boil for 3 minutes or until sauce has thickened and the sugar has dissolved.
Place the cake on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a silicone mat (if you have turned the cake out of the pan—if not, proceed with the cake in its baking pan). Prick the cake all over with a toothpick and pour over half of the warm sauce to coat evenly, allowing the sauce to seep down into the cake. Slide the cake into the oven on a middle rack for 5-8 minutes or until the toffee sauce is bubbly. Spoon portions into bowls and serve with good vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or—like the English—with chilled heavy cream. Pour reserved toffee sauce over each portion.