In 1990, the world was a very different place. Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison, Margaret Thatcher was still in power, and the Hubble Space telescope was launched into orbit. This was the dawn of the information age, with the world wide web just a year away and science set to change beyond recognition (though it’s fair to say both technology and taste still had a fair way to go). Despite some major world-changing events taking place at the time, media of more immediate concern to my six-year-old self were such pressing issues as which magazine to buy (Horse & Pony, of course), what was on at the cinema (Home Alone), what to listen to on the radio (Madonna’s Vogue) and what to fight with my older brother over to watch on TV.
Amongst the various cartoons, BBC dramas and other viewing termed suitable by our parents, Delia Smith was a firm family favourite. This was an era post Fanny Cradock, yet nearly a decade before the likes of Jamie and Nigella first appeared on our screens, launching a whole new wave of kitchen enthusiasts and the start of our current obsession with cookery programmes. While Nigella flirts and slurps and Jamie rips and rummages his way through a kitchen strewn with fabulous foods from around the world, Delia portioned everything into perfect little pre-prepared white bowls, carefully instructing us step-by-step and introducing the early 90s viewer to such exotic ingredients as anchovies (pronounced with a Loyd Grossman-esque long ‘o’ which always made us giggle).
While Delia may not have the casual confidence or slinky seduction techniques of a Jamie or a Nigella, she always made a jolly good British meal, and I still remember the excitement of watching her make sticky toffee puddings in an episode of Delia Smith’s Christmas all those years ago. Sticky toffee pudding is the ultimate winter warmer, a British classic of unconfirmed origin – some say it was invented at Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel in the 70s, while others claim a much more ancient heritage – and the kind of comfort food that puts warmth in your belly and a smile on your face.
Delia’s version sees eight individual puddings baked in the oven before being drenched in a thick, sticky sauce and returned to the grill for a further five minutes to crisp and caramelize. I’ve never much liked traditional Christmas pudding, and watching these sweet little sponges emerge from the oven, I imagined that when I was older these would be the dessert that would feature on my Christmas menu (along with chocolate coins, chocolate oranges and very few Brussels sprouts. . .).
It’s not quite Christmas yet, but winter is starting to make itself known. Last week we put the heating on for the first time this year, and I feel like the time has come to replace ice creams and sorbets with something altogether more comforting and hearty. Sticky toffee pudding should never be stodgy or dense, but it provides a sweet satisfaction on a cold winter’s day that only a syrupy sponge smothered in lashings of thick, hot sauce can.
The version below takes some tips from Delia, but has been tweaked to my personal taste. I like plenty of thick sauce and a pudding with a crispy top but fluffy middle, so have replaced the grilling method with a minute or two more baking, and preferring a smoother pudding have omitted the addition of nuts. Flavour and texture can be tweaked as you see fit – great add-ins include a handful of pecans or walnuts, a splash of rum or whisky and a pinch of ground or crystallized ginger, although I’m not sure this latter addition doesn’t turn it into a ginger pudding and a slightly different proposition altogether.
However you make your puddings, be sure to serve them hot, with a little jug of extra sauce for the ultimate indulgence and lashings of ice cream or thick pouring cream to cut through the buttery sweetness of this great British classic. Enjoy.
For the puddings
112g soft medjool dates, pitted and roughly chopped
100ml water boiling water (can be substituted with 50ml alcohol if you’re feeling especially festive)
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
40g butter, softened
60g soft light brown sugar
1 large free range egg, beaten
2tsp golden syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C. Grease 4 individual pudding moulds with butter.
Put the dates, water and rum into a small pan and bring to the boil over a medium heat, then simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the dates are very soft. Stir in the bicarbonate of soda and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, sift the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt into a bowl. In another bowl, cream the softened butter and the sugar together with an electric hand whisk until light and fluffy. Add the egg, golden syrup and vanilla extract and whisk again to incorporate.
Fold half the flour mixture into the creamed eggs, butter and sugar, followed by half the dates. Do the same with the remaining halves until all ingredients are fully incorporated. Divide equally between your four moulds, set on a tray (this will save your oven in the unlikely event that they spill over the top) and bake for 15-18 minutes, until the top is golden, a skewer comes out clean and the middle is just ever so slightly squidgy.
For the sauce
80g dark brown muscovado sugar
150ml double cream
Melt the butter, sugar and double cream in a small pan. Bring to the boil then simmer for three minutes until smooth and thickened.
To assemble the puddings
Make a small slit in the top of each pudding and pour in about a teaspoon of sauce. Drizzle a little more over the top and return to the oven for a couple more minutes until golden and bubbling.
Remove the puddings from their moulds, slather on another coat of sauce and serve with a dollop of cool creamy ice cream or a little jug of cream. Yum.