While pouring through old editions of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management – the “Bible” of the Victorian and Edwardian home cook and housekeeper – I was not surprised to see a large number of recipes for steamed puddings, rice puddings, semolina puddings, macaroni puddings, bread puddings. Well, you get the picture – stodgy puddings that had, in the past, given British puddings a bad name. In general, British puddings have moved on beyond “stodge”, but some of these puddings are quintessential comfort foods that are still enjoyed today. I wondered just how I might lighten such a pudding (taking it out of the “stodge” category) for my next contribution to The Cookbook Guru who is reviewing Mrs. Beeton’s book this month.
To be honest, I was initially looking for a recipe that contained currants, and a lot of stodgy puddings contained currants! This was not because I was wedded to the idea of using currants, but to highlight a bit of history. I noticed an aside by Isabella Beeton in the original 1861 edition on Zante Currants (fully printed at the end of the post). In 1861, Zante (the old name for the Greek Ionian island of Zakynthos) was – along with the other Ionian Islands – under the “protection” of the British, in essence part of their growing Empire. According to Colonial Office statistics recorded at the time, dried currants were one of the major exports of the islands. So, Beeton was, in fact, patriotically highlighting a British product. By 1864, the Ionian Islands had been ceded to the independent Greek state and, whether a result of those historical events or not, subsequent editions of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management did not contain the little aside on Zante currants. They were no longer a product of the British Empire – currants were simply currants.
Bread Pudding Soufflés
Some liberties have been taken with this recipe, yet I’ve tried to keep to the spirit of the original pudding. I’ve tested twice with failure, but this seems to have (finally!) worked. The choice of a “lighter” bread and the use of semi-skimmed milk instead of a full fat one are just a few differences. The soufflé-like texture is achieved by adding more eggs and whipping the whites before folding into the batter. Last, but not least, I’ve eliminated the suet, substituting it with a little cream.
- Approximately 5 oz. of a “day old” bread such as challah, brioche bread, croissants, French bread, or similar light breads, with crusty bits cut off
- 1/2 cup semi-skimmed milk
- 2 Tablespoons cream
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup currants
- Grating of nutmeg
In a large bowl, either break up your bread pieces into small chunks or cut into small (about 1 inch) cubes, cutting off any crust that isn’t soft. I used 4 supermarket bought brioche rolls.
Drizzle on the milk and let stand for about an hour while the bread completely absorbs the liquid. Do not compress, but rotate the bowl to see if the milk has been absorbed. If not, gently lift the bread pieces up with a rubber spatula to distribute them.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar and cream until smooth. Add the currants and nutmeg. Add this mixture to the soaked bread, stirring gently to completely mix in, but, again, do not compress the bread. In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the egg whites gently into the bread mixture.
Spoon equally into the ramekins. Place in oven and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on rack. They will deflate a little as they cool.
Serve warm or at room temperature as a dessert, dusted with confectioner’s sugar, or pour on some maple syrup and eat for breakfast as a fancy kind of French Toast.
Notes & Evaluation:
In Mrs. Beeton’s original 1861 book, the recipe was called “Very Plain Bread Pudding”, listed as an economical alternative to the preceding recipe (“Baked Bread Pudding”) that included almonds and candied peel. By 1907, an almost identical recipe to the very plain version was listed as “Bread Pudding, Baked”. The significant difference was the introduction of suet. Although both the 1861 and 1907 recipes indicated soaking the bread pieces in water, the 1861 version suggested that soaking in milk would improve the flavour. It is also interesting that no French name has been fabricated for this recipe – something the 1907 edition added to appeal to an up-market readership. Perhaps even a French name wouldn’t make it anything more than a very plain British pud. But, this version of the recipe actually does take it out of the stodgy pud category. I was inspired to attempt this by Leah who converted one of Mrs. Beeton’s semolina pudding into a hot breakfast of Honey Ginger Semolina Porridge to give one of these old stodgy pudding a new life. It just needs a little imagination, and a lot of experimenting time in the kitchen!
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“ZANTE CURRANTS.—The dried fruit which goes by the name of currants in grocers’ shops is not a currant really, but a small kind of grape, chiefly cultivated in the Morea [the Peloponnese] and the Ionian Islands, Corfu, Zante, &c. Those of Zante are cultivated in an immense plain, under the shelter of mountains, on the shore of the island, where the sun has great power, and brings them to maturity. When gathered and dried by the sun and air, on mats, they are conveyed to magazines, heaped together, and left to cake, until ready for shipping. They are then dug out by iron crowbars, trodden into casks, and exported. The fertile vale of “Zante the woody” produces about 9,000,000 lbs. of currants annually. In cakes and puddings this delicious little grape is most extensively used; in fact, we could not make a plum pudding without the currant.”
– Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)