© Denzil Green
A Steamed Pudding is a mixture that you put into a bowl, and steam. They can be "savoury" (with meat in them) or sweet, for dessert. If you have ever visited "Pioneer Villages" and seen how much bother it was to work with pre-modern ovens, the attraction of having something cook in a relatively predictable pot of water and steam becomes more obvious.
In England, people still eat Steamed Puddings, and most people in North America have heard of them. But the two most famous ones are likely responsible both for Steamed Puddings being remembered, and disparaged. Christmas -- or Plum -- Puddings, made dense by all the fruit and nuts in them, often have to be made ahead, let mature for weeks, and then steamed for up to 8 hours, and history is sadly full of memories of unsuccessful Christmas Puds. The other famous one, Steak and Kidney -- or Kate & Sydney, as Cockneys call it -- contains kidney, a meat that not many people have a taste for anymore.
So, what little people do know about Steamed Puddings boils down to a lot of work for something yucky. Most Steamed Puddings, though, are delicious, can be assembled in under half an hour, and require only around 2 hours steaming during which you can do your nails and flip through Cosmo.
The long and short of it is that you line a bowl with a crust, pour a filling in, cover and steam. With some puddings, you even skip the crust bit.
However, with the humble Steamed Pudding now being a thing of mystery to many people, here is a detailed discussion of the "techniques". At this point, many such discussions of cooking techniques then go on to make your head swim and convince you that the technique was indeed as complicated as you suspected; we'll hope this is not the case.
In North America, it is getting much harder to find proper pudding basins with the thick, homey rims on them. Once common-place, you now have to look in higher-end cooking supply stores.
The trick is just to get the right size and shape. Pyrex bowls work just fine. In a pinch, you could also use a cleaned-out coffee can. Leave the bottom on, discard any plastic top covering, of course, and get rid of any paper on the side. You just want a plain big tin with the bottom still on. Grease it, cook the pudding in that, and when it's done, tip it over on a plate, cut the bottom open with a can opener, and then use the tin bottom to push the pudding through and out onto your plate. Be careful as the tin will be hot. You will probably want to present the pudding lying sideways like a log, rather than standing up like... well, like it was baked in an old coffee tin.
Sometimes you have to butter the bowl before putting the stuff in it, sometimes you don't. The recipe will tell you.
A 2 pint / 4 cup / 1.2 litre pudding basin will make enough pudding for 8 to 10 people.
You can buy special steamers just for steaming puddings -- again, from high-end cookware stores or mail-order catalogues. But if you are just seeing if Steamed Puddings are your thing -- it's not worth the bother and expense.
If you do have a steamer, or want to buy one, great. Otherwise, find a saucepan or Dutch oven or stock pot large enough that the pot cover will still fit on when you place your proposed pudding bowl inside it -- and one that you can easily visualize yourself safely removing the bowl from when the pot is full of steaming water.
You can't just put the pudding basin straight in, with its bottom resting on the bottom of your pot. The pudding will cook unevenly. You need to think of something to keep it off the bottoms such as a trivet, a tuna fish tin with top and bottom cut out to act as a stand, a good wedge of crumpled up tin foil, etc. Take your proposed stand into account when figuring out how tall a pot you have to use.
Always get your water starting to boil before you begin assembling the pudding, to save yourself time so that it's ready to go when you are. You have to allow a good 20 minutes to build up a head of steam in there. Fill the chosen pot with water such that the water would go half-way up the side of your pudding bowl. Put the cover on the pan of water (but don't put the empty pudding bowl in), put it on the stove, and start it boiling.
If you feel that will need some kind of reminder that the water in the pot will need checking on, you can put a clean metal jar lid, or a marble, into the bottom of the bowl. When the water gets quite low, the object will start to rattle about and alert you.
Some puddings take a crust with a filling inside, others don't have a crust -- you just pour a batter in, as you would for a cake. Ones that call for a crust are usually savoury puddings.
When a crust is called for, it is basically a pie crust with a little more fat in it, plus a bit of oomph to help it fluff a smidge -- either through adding a bit of baking powder, or through using self-raising flour.
In a medium-sized bowl, you mix together the dry ingredients for the crust (generally flour, baking powder and salt -- or just flour and salt, if you have self-raising flour). Use your hands to blend the fat (butter and shortening, or suet) into the flour. Add a little cold water at a time until the dough hangs together -- it should have the same feel as pie crust dough.
Set about 1/4 of the dough aside to be used in a moment for the top of the pudding. Roll out the remaining dough on a floured surface into about a 10 inch (25 cm) circle, to about the same thickness as you would for pie crust. (Don't worry how perfect a circle it is).
Use your hands to line the buttered pudding bowl with the dough circle you have just made. You may have to nip and tuck it here and there; you may even have to piece bits in, and no one is going to notice or care. Don't worry at this stage if pastry goes over the edge of the bowl.
Next you pour in some kind of filling (see below).
When your filling is in, you put on the top layer of crust. Depending on what kind of pudding you're making, sometimes there's enough filling so that the top crust is level with the top of the bowl: other times it's a half inch or an inch below. It doesn't really matter. Don't let any dough edges, though, hang over the outside rim of the bowl -- they would be exposed directly to the steam and probably just get all sodden and soggy and horrible. Whether the top crust stretches across the top of your pudding bowl or not, do take an extra moment and with your fingers lightly seal the join of the lining and the crust so that all your nice juices don't burble out.
Older pudding recipes that have a crust seem to call for beef suet in the crust. Beef suet is very hard to get in North America, so you can try substituting shortening. By itself, though, it won't give the crust a lovely, brown colour. But using half shortening and half butter should just about get it right.
Covering the pudding
Cover the pudding with a layer of waxed paper that is wider than the top of the bowl by an inch or two on each side, and then by a piece of tin foil about the same size. You can use just tin foil, if that's all you have; waxed paper by itself would likely get too soggy, and plastic film wrap would certainly be a disaster (unless you are doing a microwave version, in which case you'd definitely use that instead of tin foil).
Many food books will tell you, at this point, "tie the covering securely with string just below the rim of the basin, and make a string handle on either side of the bowl to help you lift the pudding out later". Instead, you can just crimp the edges of the tin foil to snug everything into place, and lift it out with oven mitts later.
Cooking the pudding
You have your pudding all wrapped up now like a little parcel. Place it in the pot you are going to steam it in. If the water is boiling to beat the band, lower the heat to about medium -- you just need it to be raising a constant steam; you're not boiling shoe leather here. For the next few hours, all you need to do from time to time is make sure the water hasn't boiled dry.
Turning the pudding out onto a plate
When done, remove pudding from the pot, and remove the waxed paper and foil from the pudding. Take a knife and loosen it around the edges (without gouging into the crust or pudding). Place a place on top of the bowl. Put your oven mitts back on, if you took them off, and invert the plate and the bowl together so that the pudding now rests on the plate. The first time you do this inverting procedure it may seem a little awkward, but you'll quickly get the hang of it. Stick-to-the-dish disasters, such as happen with cakes, etc, are very rare with Steamed Puddings.
Always have a healthy respect for steam. Be very careful around it, especially if you are wearing a short-sleeve shirt or blouse as even one short blast of steam can give you quite a smart. When you take the lid off of pots of boiling water, always tilt the lid away from you so that the steam will blast out in a harmless direction. And use hot mitts when placing the pudding in, and when removing it from, the boiling water. When removing the pudding at the end, turn the burner off, remove the pot cover (again, tilting away from you), and let it be for 2 to 3 minutes for all the steam to go away. Then with oven mitts on, remove the pudding and place it on a hot mat.
You can steam your pudding in the oven -- this is particularly clever to do if you are making more than one at a time. You need a deep roasting pan. Heat the oven to 280 F / 140 C. Put the puddings into the roasting pan, fill carefully with boiling water to come halfway up the sides of your pudding basins, and cover everything with a big tent made of tin foil. Put carefully in oven (remember, there's boiling water inside), and allow to "cook" for the same amount of time as originally specified in your recipe. As with steaming on top the stove, you'll still need to check on the water and top it up occasionally.
Steamed Sponge Puddings
© Denzil Green
Cloths for boiling puddings weren't thought up until the early 1600s. Pudding cloths were lined with suet and flour, the mixture was poured into this, the cloth was tied up and then boiled under water for hours. When it was boiled in a cloth, it came out sphere shaped. With the advent of the cloth technique, Steamed Pudding making in England started to take off.
The use of pudding basins instead of cloths didn't come about until the start of the 1900s.
Steamed dessert puddings that rose (such as Christmas or Plum pudding, or Sponge puddings), would not have been possible before the invention of baking powder (in America, in the mid-nineteenth century.)
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-- Alfred Emanuel Smith (30 December 1873 – 4 October 1944. From a 1936 speech.)