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Please pass the pudding ; British-inspired cakelike dessert is finding its way onto American menus

When most people on this side of the pond hear the word "pudding," they think of the creamy, custardy concoction so famously hawked on TV by Bill Cosby.

But Americans are beginning to learn about pudding in the British sense of the word -- a rich, moist, dense dessert that's almost invariably served warm, with a generous dollop of thickened cream.

Dickensian puddings are truly the quintessential cold weather dessert. There is Queen's Pudding and brandy-torched Plum Pudding -- that classic Christmas confection -- and puddings with funny names, like Roly-Poly and Spotted Dick. Some are acquired tastes. But there's one that wins over nearly everyone who tries it -- Sticky Toffee Pudding.

The caramelized sweet originated in England nearly a century ago, but it began enjoying a trendy revival in its homeland during the 1990s. These days, you can find sticky toffee puddings in almost every pub in Britain and Australia -- and it's popped up on a number of restaurant menus, too, including Tyler Florence's new Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. You can even find it at Costco.

Chef Michael Dotson of Martins West Gastropub, in Redwood City, Calif., has had the iconic British pudding on the menu since the pub opened last year.

"I'm fascinated by old recipes and reinterpreting them," he says. "We pulled it apart and completely rebuilt it. Most people make it too sweet, and we took it in more of a savory direction."

The result is more of a cakelike dessert with deep, complex flavors from chopped dates, brown sugar, coffee and Scotch. Served warm from the oven, the finished pudding is topped with a buttery toffee sauce.

Initially, diners were confused when they ordered "pudding," and a cake arrived.

"Some people got angry," he says. "But eventually, it stopped. Everybody loved it."

Sticky Toffee Pudding eventually proved so popular, Dotson says he can't take it off the menu for fear of upsetting people.

Tracy Claros, owner of the Texas-based Sticky Toffee Pudding Co., agrees that Americans are finally coming around to the British pudding concept. The English native, whose creations have been featured in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine, considers herself a bit of a pudding ambassador. Her sticky toffee pudding won a gold medal at the Fancy Food Show in New York City.

Now that sticky toffee pudding has captured American taste buds, can other puddings be far behind?

Sticky Toffee Pudding

1 3/4 cups flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

8 ounces chopped dates

1 cup water

1 teaspoon instant coffee powder

1 ounce Scotch

6 ounces butter, room temperature

1 cup brown sugar

4 eggs, room temperature

1/2 tablespoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sift together the flour, salt and spices.

Combine water, instant coffee and Scotch; heat to boiling. Pour over dates and let soften 10 minutes; puree dates and liquid in food processor.

Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating until incorporated.

Add half the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just incorporated.

Add baking soda to date mixture, then pour into batter, mixing until incorporated. Add remaining dry ingredients and mix until barely incorporated. Do not overmix.

Spray nine 3-inch ring molds lightly with vegetable oil, and place on a baking sheet. Spoon 2 ounces of batter into each mold. Bake for 12 minutes in a convection oven, rotate pan and bake 7 minutes more. (Or, pour the batter into a greased 9-inch round cake or springform pan and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.) Remove cakes from rings when just cool enough to handle. Do not allow them to cool completely in ring molds or they will stick. Serve with toffee sauce. Serves 8-9.


Christmas Pudding

1 cup dried currants

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup dark raisins, or 1/2 cup each raisins, dried cherries

1/4 cup brandy

1 cup flour

1/2 cup fresh grated breadcrumbs

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon each allspice, cloves

1/2 cup butter

1 cup light brown sugar

Grated zest of 1 orange

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Hard sauce (see recipe)

Soak the raisins and dried fruit overnight in brandy.

In a small mixing bowl, sift the flour, breadcrumbs, salt, baking soda and spices.

In a large bowl, cream the butter, sugar and citrus zest. Slowly add eggs. Stir in fruit, alternating with dry ingredients.

Pour mixture into a small greased pudding basin or mold, or a small, greased heatproof mixing bowl, such as a stainless steel mixing bowl. Some pudding molds have a cover. If not, cover with parchment and enough foil to hang over the sides. Secure firmly with kitchen twine.

In a stockpot large enough to hold the pudding basin, place a dish towel or a rack in the bottom of the pot, place pudding basin on top and add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the pudding mold. Bring water to a simmer; steam the pudding, covered, for 3-4 hours, adding more water as needed.

Let pudding cool slightly. Unmold onto a serving plate. Serve warm with hard sauce or vanilla custard. Or make the pudding several days ahead and keep covered in refrigerator. Resteam pudding for 1 1/2 -2 hours before serving. Serves 8.

-- Adapted from Margaret Fulton's "Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery" (Hardie Grant Books, Australia, 2005)


Toffee Sauce

1 stick butter

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cups corn syrup

2/3 cup heavy cream

1 1/2 ounces Scotch

Salt to taste

In a large pot over medium heat, bring butter, sugars and corn syrup to a boil. Let boil for about 4 minutes. Carefully whisk in cream and Scotch -- it will hiss and steam like a caramel. Cool, and season. This makes more sauce than is needed but it's great over ice cream or just out of the jar. Makes about 3 cups.

-- Courtesy chef Michael Dotson, Martins West Gastropub, Redwood City, Calif.


Hard Sauce

5 tablespoons butter, softened

1 cup sifted confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla or brandy

1/2 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, beat butter until creamy. Gradually beat in confectioners' sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla or brandy and salt and beat until smooth. Chill before serving. Makes 3/4 cup.

-- Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker, "Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary edition" (Scribner, 2006)

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