Madeira Mondays: Sussex Pond Pudding

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 dish Sussex pond is first recorded in Hannah Woolley‘s 1672 book, The Queen-Like Closet.

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).

A Sussex Pond pudding, photo via Wikipedia. (Sussex, by the way, for international readers, is a place in southern England, where I’ve never visited actually!)

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.

A recreated 18th century kitchen hearth, at The Georgian House in Edinburgh where I volunteer

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:

‘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!



9 thoughts on “Madeira Mondays: Sussex Pond Pudding

  1. Content Catnip says:

    Suet…..oh yum yum. No only joking 🙂 I have never seen the British Bake-off so I will be off to look for it now on Youtube as it sounds like a fun and much needed show for some light entertainment, thanks for the recommendation. In New Zealand they do a lot of these same sort of puddings as the British, which makes sense given the history of NZ. This was very interesting to see that there is a big difference between American style and UK style puddings. Thank you for this post. I hope you are going well Carly xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carly Brown says:

      Thanks for reading!! Yes, the Bake Off is a very relaxing bit of light entertainment. I’d definitely recommend it for some chilled out viewing. Oh that’s interesting that in NZ ‘pudding’ is more the British style of pudding (which makes sense, as you said, given the history!). Yes, in America ‘pudding’ basically means like ‘custard’ (usually it comes in plastic cups that children eat and is flavored vanilla or chocolate – not the nicest thing!). I hope you’re doing well too and that your writing is going well xx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ginger Weber says:

    Hi Carly! Hope all is well! Had drinks with your mom and Julie Simon last night. Of course we had to talk about you! I was telling them how much I look forward to reading your blog every Monday. I also appreciate your book suggestions. I just finished The Five which I really enjoyed and have just started The Delusion of Satan.
    I am hoping that our canceled trip last April to Scotland will be rescheduled for this April. Fingers crossed. Whenever we do come, we will for sure look you up. I really want to go to the Georgian house. I have a list of things that I did not get to see on our last visit.
    Anyway, know you are busy but wanted to let you know how proud I am of you and how much I enjoy Madeira Mondays. Take care.
    Love and hugs,

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carly Brown says:

      Hi Ginger!! Thank you so much for this comment, it really brightened my day. I’m so happy to hear that you look forward to reading Madeira Mondays. I’ve heard from a few people recently that they look forward to reading them and it honestly brings me so much joy to know that it’s something people look forward to – especially in such a difficult year. Thank you for reading! 🙂

      And I’m happy to hear as well that you enjoyed The Five as well. It’s a really fascinating book isn’t it! I feel like I learned a lot about the women, but also daily life for so many people in London back then – it’s kind of a history of those women but ALSO the city. Really glad you liked it!

      I’d love to meet up in Edinburgh when you’re next here and would love to show you around The Georgian House. Fingers crossed you guys can make it out in April.

      Say hi to Mary V and thanks again for your comment and for reading.
      Lots of love,


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