Eating In

Sticky situation

Everyone’s Sticky Toffee Pudding recipe was different. All were revolting

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The trouble with you,” my wife began, before pausing dramatically.  I braced myself for a litany of defects. “The trouble,” she continued, “is that you’re too proud and lazy to follow recipes. You won’t acknowledge anyone else’s ideas and you can’t be bothered to give them a try.”

I took a moment to consider, then dismissed the charge.

I dislike recipes because they come prescriptively, de haut en bas. Readers of this column know that I eschew imperative verbs. I want to liberate cooks from the didactic tyrants and celebrity pettifoggers. I resent the notion that there’s one way to make anything. I detest recipe-writers’ habitual indifference to the history and chemistry of dishes — which is usually more interesting than contents lists and purported cooking times. I reject quantitative nit-picking: computation is the enemy of art. Cookery is inspiration, not engineering.

“You’re just trying,” my wife replied, “to conceal your arrogance and indolence. If you had the humility to just follow a recipe occasionally you might improve your character as well as your cooking.”

Stung by reproof, I foolishly accepted the challenge. The dish she named was cunningly calculated to make me fail. Sticky toffee pudding is the sort of thing I’d never willingly essay: I find baking boring and pointless when there are professional patissiers easily and cheaply available to outclass the best homebody.

Sticky toffee pudding is, despite its name, a baked sponge cake, cloyed with treacle and dates — unless you believe the late Princess of Wales, who contributed a recipe to a charity cookbook, involving boiling the stodge for three hours. That would work for a suet pudding, but the result with a cake would be inedible. Diana Spencer was evidently as untrustworthy in boulangerie as in broadcast or boudoir.

I pored over my wife’s cookbooks. As I suspected, everyone’s STP recipe was different. As I feared, all were revolting. In the historical accounts, evidence of the origins of the dish was coy and contradictory (Canadian or Scots? Teashop or clubhouse?), as if no one were quite proud enough to claim it or unwilling to blame someone else.

“Have you chosen a recipe?” my favourite critic enquired.

I resolved to cheat.

The basic mistake of the recipe- writers is to honour the dish’s nursery vocation by omitting alcohol. I can think of no pudding alcohol does not enhance. A further common mistake is to give the confection the consistency of mush. I began to imagine a dish in which rum complemented the treacle and dates, with crisp crust, airy texture and fondant heart.

The rummy aroma would have awakened the 15 men from the dead man’s chest

The dates had to be squelchy and absorbent, chopped and spread in a shallow dish to soak up a coating of piratically dark rum, with a few extra chunks, so that the structure of a  date or two is there to chew on when the pudding is served. A few hours  of marinading left only a little liquid unabsorbed.

I’m incapable of pernicketiness in proportions, but roughly equal amounts of butter and the duskiest, most milled muscovado, amounting in combination to not more than twice the weight of the dates, seemed judicious.

Thoroughly creamed, with an egg or two, and a pinch of baking powder and bicarb to add airiness, the mixture went through worrying stages of squelch and lump, while I ladled in as much treacle — black and gleaming — as my biggest spoon would hold, and slopped in the dates and residual rum. My wife bent curiously over the process.

The finished article

So I exploited her to help with the mixing, which requires strength of arm and character. When the result was smooth, I filled a buttered baking tin — the sort you might use for a madeira cake or small loaf.

“What temperature do you want?” asked my amanuensis. I didn’t think it mattered much. The dodgy scale on our ersatz Aga said, over-optimistically, 245 degrees. I thought that to stick the mixture in for twenty or twenty-five minutes would probably do.

It did. The rummy aroma would have awakened the 15 men from the dead man’s chest. The crust was dark and sleek, studded with toothsome dates like buried treasure. The sponge beneath was as light and gentle as a fairy’s bed; the small amount of unabsorbed rum gathered in the midst of the cake, to spill, rich and thick, over every slice.

My wife sniffed at my subterfuge. “Still,” she said, “I have to admit it’s the best STP ever.” There was another of her dramatic pauses. “Except,” she added, “that, for me, there’s too much rum.”

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