Sticky Toffee Pudding is actually a cake, but no ordinary cake. This one is drizzled not once but twice in a rich, dark-brown-sugar-packed sauce that is as gooey as it is comforting.
WHEN I MOVED to Britain a few years ago, I went armed with a list of all the local delicacies I’d likely encounter. The promise of things like toad-in-the-hole or bangers and mash didn’t exactly get my stomach growling, but in the spirit of openness I vowed I’d try anything once — even haggis, the infamous Scottish dish of boiled sheep’s stomach stuffed with organ meat. To my surprise, though, most of the items on my list were nowhere to be found. Instead, people were noshing on burgers, nachos and Caesar salads. I felt like I’d never left home — and secretly breathed a sigh of relief.
Desserts were no different, and brownies and pecan pie seemed to feature on every menu in the country. But it didn’t take me long to realize this was no cause for celebration. While British savories might not be anything to write home about, their desserts are a different story. After all, this is a nation that has for generations used sweets to fortify itself against a dreary climate. Between their silken crumbles, treacle tarts, sherry-soaked trifles, jam roly-polys, fruity flummeries and banoffee pies, I couldn’t understand why anyone would look beyond the borders of Britannia for sugarcoated inspiration. Even their names seem to brighten the mood.
There’s one dessert, though, that’s in a class by itself when it comes to mood-brightening; for Brits young and old, the mere thought of it is enough to trigger a bout of euphoria. It’s called sticky toffee pudding.
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Before you jump to all the wrong conclusions, let me clarify the name. This isn’t pudding as you know it. In Britain the term “pudding” is used informally as a synonym for dessert, as in, “What would you like for pudding?” In our terms, though, this pudding is a dense, buttery, date-studded cake. The sticky part comes from the thick toffee sauce that’s given depth with dark muscovado sugar, a kind of unrefined brown sugar with notes of caramel and molasses. The sauce is poured over the cake not once but twice: first as it comes out of the oven so the fudgy sweetness seeps into all the nooks and crannies, and again at serving time. The result is, as the name promises, unfathomably sticky. And utterly addictive.
In the UK, sticky toffee pudding is something akin to our apple pie, a homey, comforting dessert that takes people back to simpler times. It’s also one of those things that everyone would like to claim as their own. The English say it was invented midcentury in the Lake District or perhaps a few decades earlier in Yorkshire; the Scots, on the other hand, argue that a hotel in Aberdeenshire was serving it long before anyone down south. Personally, I don’t really care who invented it and where; the important thing is that everyone feels justified in loving it.
Because even this most beloved of desserts is losing ground to American imports, I’d like to propose a kind of transatlantic dessert exchange. While the British are busy swooning over our favorite sweets, let’s get to know some of theirs. After all, our Northwest climate is a close relative of theirs, and I know from experience how much brighter a gray winter day looks when there’s a slice of something gooey and drenched with toffee on the plate.
And thankfully, whether you choose to call it pudding or cake, “delicious” means the same on both sides of the pond.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Serves 6 to 8
8 ounces pitted dates, chopped (preferably medjools)
1 cup water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the sauce
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 cups firmly packed dark muscovado* or dark brown sugar
1 ½ cups heavy cream
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Unsweetened whipped cream, crème fraîche or Greek yogurt, for serving
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour an 8-inch square baking pan. Simmer the dates and water together in a medium saucepan for 5 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the baking soda. Let stand 20 minutes.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate, large bowl beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, then the vanilla. Stir in the flour, then the date mixture until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a 2-quart saucepan bring all the ingredients to a boil (watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t boil over). Lower the heat and continue to boil gently, stirring occasionally, until thickened to the consistency of honey, 8 to 10 minutes.
When the pudding is done, remove it to a cooling rack and with a skewer poke holes all over the top. Carefully pour 1 cup of the warm toffee sauce over the pudding. Let sit until absorbed, about 20 minutes. Slide a knife around the pudding to loosen it from the pan, then invert onto a cake plate. Poke a few more holes into the bottom (now the top) and drizzle over another ½ cup sauce. Let the pudding stand another 10 minutes.
4. Cut the warm pudding into squares. Serve with an additional drizzle of sauce and a spoonful of whipped cream, crème fraîche or Greek yogurt. If you’re lucky enough to have leftover sauce, it’s fantastic over ice cream.
* Dark muscovado sugar (sometimes called “molasses sugar”) has a much richer flavor than brown sugar, and can be found at many supermarkets.