Happy St Stephen’s Day! Actually, I imagine most of you will be reading this in a couple of day’s time when you need a break from your Christmas present books or stumbling here in a couple of months when you are looking for a suitable recipe for ballast-food.
I spent Christmas day with friends this year, a delightful experience, with just a few pangs for family rituals. I brought a contribution to the main course, offered to make custard and in a flurry of last-minute organisation, volunteered to cook clootie dumpling which several of us had missed the opportunity to have when on holiday in Scotland in the summer. On that trip, I had bought Traditional Scotttish Cookery by Margaret Fairlie, first published in 1972 by Hale Books, in Inverness Museum. I’ve tried to find out more about Ms Fairlie, but the internet is only giving me information on the identically named eminent gynaecologist and first woman to hold a professorial chair in Scotland. So if you know any more about Margaret Fairlie, cookbook writer, do comment and let me know.
Traditional Scottish Cookery is pocket-sized (shown above with teaspoon for scale), but comprehensive, featuring normal dinners like cabbie claw and Forfar bridies (types of fish pie and meat pasty respectively), as well as culinary epics like Black Bun (the massive Scottish cousin of the mince pie), and of course, four kinds of shortbread, eight kinds of scone and haggis.
I have never made a steamed pudding or even watched someone make one. But the conciseness of the recipe makes it sound so easy. In order to cook it at someone else’s house, I weighed out the dry ingredients in advance, putting the flour, sugar, spice and suet into one tub, the raisins and currants into another, the apple stayed whole and the treacle stayed in the tin until needed. I now understand why people buy Christmas cake kits. Nothing like beginning a recipe with everything pre-weighed to make you feel like you’re off to a flying start.
Mix flour, breadcrumbs, sugar, shredded suet, salt and mixed spice. Add grated apple, currants and raisins. Mix well. Stir in milk and treacle until well blended. Scald cloth in boiling water and dust with flour. Place mixture on cloth. Tie securely, leaving room to swell. Have ready a saucepan of boiling water. Place a plate on the bottom of the pan and put the pudding on it. Boil for 3 to 4 hours. Never allow the water to drop below half the depth of the pudding. Have a kettle of boiling water handy and add some to the pan about every hour. When dumpling is ready, remove cloth gently and dry pudding off the oven. Serve with custard if liked.
I ended up mixing the apple in by hand and even though I halved the recipe, was still surprised by the size of the dumpling. I think the recipe as written, especially if you serve it with custard, would probably make enough for 15 – 20 people, depending on how much cullen skink/potted hough/venison you stuffed into them first.
The muslin/ plate/ saucepan/ water arrangement made me feel a little uneasy at first, but after 20 minutes of simmering, it was clear there were no leaks. More water needed to be added half-hourly, so this is a great pudding for days when you’re hanging around the house .
During its four hours of cooking, the texture of the dumpling changed from soft to firm to springy. It still looked unappetisingly waterlogged. (See above – apologies for the starring role played by the saucepan handle in this photo, dealing with boiling pudding half-stuck to 2 square foot of sopping muslin is not… straightforward). Its appearance and texture improved greatly after half an hour in a low oven, while I made custard.
This pudding was everything I dreamed it would be – like a Christmas pudding, but softer, lighter and fruitier. The extra spice and apple averted the ‘sweet, damp cottonwool’ tendencies of some steamed puddings and of course, an appreciative audience makes the hours of steaming and ample size worth it.
The fact that it was ready about 2 hours after we had finished the main course was perfect timing. It went terribly, terribly well with tawny port.
ETA: The book recommends re-heating by frying slices in butter and sprinkling them with sugar, while I’m sure this is amazing, the only form of re-heating I can vouch for is 45 secs in the microwave, on full power.
Clootie’d by Elly