I watch The Great British Bake Off every year and this year I was especially looking forward to it – a bright spot of sweet, gentle television in what has been a particularly tumultuous year.
For any who might not be familiar, this is a popular British TV show where amateur bakers from across the UK ‘compete’ (I use this word loosely, because it’s quite a friendly show) to be crowned the winner. They make everything from breads to cakes to ice creams, and each week their skills are tested in a surprise ‘technical challenge’. For ‘the technical’ they all have to bake something, often historical, that they may not have ever heard of before. They are given only a sparse recipe and a set of ingredients. It’s meant to be a test of their general familiarity with all types of baking and also their overall baking instincts/skills.
This week, the ‘technical challenge’ was an 18th century dessert: ‘Sussex pond pudding’.
What is ‘Sussex pond pudding’?
The Bake Off hosts explained ‘Sussex pond’ like this:
‘Prue (the judge) has popped back to the 1700’s for this technical. She would like you each to make two Sussex pond puddings. Your puddings should be made with suet pastry and when steamed should be golden. When cut into your puddings should ooze out, creating a lemony, surup-y pond.’
The version of ‘Sussex pond’ that the bakers had to make on the show contained an entire lemon, in the center of the pudding, which is (according to my research) a modern addition to the recipe (historical versions don’t call for lemon).
While I hadn’t heard of ‘Sussex pond’ in particular, I did know that boiled puddings were all the rage in the 18th century. And when I say ‘pudding’, American readers might be picturing a custard-like substance that you might eat as a kid. No no no. In the modern UK ‘pudding’ refers to ‘desserts’ (i.e. ‘What’s for pudding?’ means ‘What’s for dessert?’) . And in this case we’re talking about a boiled/steamed pudding which is a traditional British type of ‘pudding’. (British readers, feel free to correct me if any of this is wrong! I’ve lived in the UK for ten years now and still sometimes get confused when I hear the word ‘pudding’ and picture American ‘pudding’!)
Jas Townsend talks all about the history of the word ‘pudding’ here in his video on how to make a ‘Boiled Plum Pudding’. He says that the word pudding is based on the Old English word for gut and stomach. And the original puddings were organ meats mixed with grains and cooked in stomachs or intestines. (If you’re familiar with haggis, that’s like an old ‘pudding’). These puddings were boiled for many hours in intestines, until the early 17th century when they started making them in cloth sacks, instead of intestines, and the meats were taken out.
Townsend also explains in that video that typical 18th century boiled puddings featured four key ingredients: flour, milk, eggs, fat (usually suet – more on that in the second). They are cooked by wrapping them in a cloth and boiling them (or steaming them) in water.
On the Bake Off, many of the competitors were unfamiliar with one of the key ingredients of Sussex pond: suet.
What is suet?
As one of the bakers explained, the savvy Edinburgh lad Peter (who I’m rooting for to win!): ‘Suet is the lovely protective fat from animals that surrounds the livers, the kidneys.’
Townsend explains it in lots of detail in his video on suet and its many uses in 18th century cooking. He says that: ‘Suet is the fat from the loin and kidney region of beef and mutton.’ Apparently it’s a firmer sort of fat than the fat from other parts of an animal. I don’t eat meat, so even the look of suet kind of turns my stomach, but it was a real asset for 18th century bakers, and the modern bakers on the Bake Off were all given jars of it to use – I enjoyed their confused reactions!
In the end, most of the bakers didn’t nail the ‘technical challenge’, mostly because they didn’t steam their ‘Sussex ponds’ long enough. It makes sense. If you’re not familiar with historical recipes like this, you wouldn’t guess that it takes so long – like two hours – to steam. So the result was that many of them weren’t cooked!
I really enjoyed this episode of Bake Off (which is Series 4 – Episode 8 ‘Dessert Week’), but ‘Sussex pond’ is not something I’ll be trying to make any time soon. As those of you who have been reading this blog a while know, I enjoy making 18th century food and drinks from time to time – which sometimes goes well (see: ‘Switchel‘) and sometimes goes very badly (see: ‘Flip‘). But I think I’ll give this one a miss. I’ve tried these types of puddings before, and I’m not the biggest fan. But what do you think?
As one of the judges, celebrity baker Paul Hollywood, said during the episode: ‘Steamed puddings like this go so far back in British history, it was what we were known for.’ So they do have a rich history and you can give Prue Leith’s modern recipe a go here if you’re curious!
Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:
- The Great British Bake Off Season 4: Episode 8 ‘Dessert Week’
- ‘Suet’ on historical interpreter Jas Townsend’s YouTube channel
- ‘Boiled Plum Pudding’ on Townsend’s YouTube channel
- The Queen-Like Closet by Hannah Woolley (an English cookery book from 1670)
- Prue Leith’s Sussex Pond Puddings (using vegetable suet)
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!