Summer pudding is a dessert which until fairly recently could only be enjoyed for an all-too-brief period each year. Its name derives from the season of early- to mid-summer in the United Kingdom (roughly the months of June and July), which is when the fruit that makes up its filling is available fresh and in abundance. This is a relatively short season and a particularly pleasant time of the year for most inhabitants1, which is why it is so eagerly anticipated by devotees of this dish.
British Summer On a Plate
Summer pudding is essentially a hollow dome of bread which has been filled with lightly cooked fruit and refrigerated overnight. The juice from the fruit soaks into the bread, turning it a reddish-purplish colour (depending on the fruit mixture within) and softening it. It's a relatively easy dessert to make because it requires no baking, although getting the bread to fit the mould perfectly can be difficult at the first few attempts. It also requires some forethought on the part of the cook since it must be made a day in advance.
Like other favourites such as bubble and squeak, bread pudding and shepherd's pie, summer pudding is one of those dishes which was in all likelihood devised to use up leftovers or food that was either past its best or which would spoil if not used immediately. It is known to have been served in British health spas2 during the 19th Century as an alternative to heavy suet puddings, and pies made with butter-rich pastry.
Summer pudding is traditionally made with berries - small, fleshy fruits full of tasty juice, such as raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and loganberries. The juice is an important part of this dessert, which is why strawberries generally don't figure in classic summer pudding recipes, even though they are in season at just the right time. Their juice content just isn't high enough for a satisfactory result.
The ideal summer pudding should not be too sweet. Some of the berries, such as redcurrants, impart a tartness to the pudding which is balanced by the other ingredients, and the overall sweetness of the pudding is variable, which is why it's a good idea to taste the fruit before you use it and adjust the sugar content accordingly. Connoisseurs and those with a discerning palate will be able to fine-tune the sweetness of their pudding to an exact degree.
Good-quality white bread is best for summer pudding. Standard sliced white bread doesn't have the body to maintain the shape of the pudding once it's released from the mould - it simply turns to an unpleasantly slimy mush. Most wholewheat breads have a little too much body, and their own distinctive taste can easily overpower the delicate flavours of the fruit. The berries - not the bread - are the star of this show. It should have a tight, even texture with no large holes. Heavy, dense breads such as sourdough won't produce a satisfactory result because the juice can't soak right in.
The traditional shape for a summer pudding is that of an upturned pudding basin. Theoretically, almost any dish or mould can be used for this dessert as long as it's not so big that the pudding slumps under its own weight and the fruit oozes from between the pieces of bread once it's released from the mould. A smooth-sided mould is also essential because the bread won't fit into, for instance, the flutes of a jelly mould.
A Basic Recipe
As with all recipes, the instructions for making this dish should be seen as a guideline to be tried and experimented with. You yourself will have to decide how far to go before what you have is no longer a 'summer pudding' but has evolved or mutated into an entirely new creation of your very own.
- About 1kg (2lb) of mixed soft fruit - raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, loganberries, blackberries, blueberries etc
- 150g (5oz) sugar
- Several slices of good-quality white bread, cut about 12mm (0.5in) thick and with the crusts removed
- Brandy, whisky, rum or a fruit-flavoured spirit/liqueur (optional)
- A non-reactive3 saucepan
- A 850ml (1½-pint) pudding basin
- 3-4lb of weight - full tins of baked beans, tomatoes, etc can be used, or weights from a kitchen balance if you have one.
Firstly, prepare the mould by lightly coating it with butter. You can line the mould with clingfilm if you're really worried about the pudding coming away when you turn it upside down, but any creases will show up on the surface of the bread and give away the fact to your guests.
Cut a circle from one slice of the bread and place it in the bottom of the basin, then line the sides of the basin with more bread, butting each piece up tightly against its neighbour and making sure that there are no gaps. Doing this well will come with practice and you will soon discover what shapes to cut the bread in order to best fit your mould.
Now for the fruit. If redcurrants or blackcurrants are used, they should be de-stalked. Hold the stalk firmly between your thumb and forefinger, then slide it between the prongs of a fork and pull it away from the fruit. All fruit should be sorted and thoroughly washed.
Put the fruit and sugar (and alcohol, if used) into the saucepan and heat gently, shaking the saucepan so that the ingredients don't burn. A little water can be added if your hob is particularly fierce, but not too much - as the berries heat up, some of them will burst and release their juice into the pan to provide moisture necessary to dissolve the sugar. As the contents approach boiling point pay careful attention and reduce the heat so that the fruit barely comes to a simmer. Keep it there for no more than a few minutes. Any longer and the fruit will cook down to a mush, which is not what we want - the fruit should still be recognisable when served.
Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool slightly, then use a kitchen sieve to strain the juice into a dish. If you don't have a sieve, use a slotted spoon to separate the fruit from the juice. Spoon some of the juice around the inside of the mould to 'prime' the bread, then fill the mould with the cooked fruit to slightly below the top of the bread. Ideally there should be some fruit left over which can be kept in the fridge and used to garnish the pudding.
Pour about two thirds of the remaining juice into the pudding and seal it with another circle of bread, getting as tight a fit as you can. Place a saucer or small plate4 on top and put the weights or tins on top of that. Put the basin onto another plate to catch any juice that runs over the top and leave the whole thing in the fridge overnight5.
As close as possible to serving time, take the pudding from the fridge and remove the weights and top plate. If you haven't used clingfilm to line the basin, run a thin spatula or palette knife around the inside of the basin to loosen the pudding, then place a large serving plate over the top and up-end the whole thing. The pudding may drop straight onto the plate or it may need a little encouragement in the way of a few sharp taps on the bottom of the basin. If it still refuses to come out the basin can be floated in hot water for a few minutes.
Once the pudding makes its appearance you should have a magenta or reddish-coloured dome sitting on your serving plate - the sections of bread will have magically melded together to maintain structural integrity. If there are any parts where the juice hasn't soaked completely into the bread, you can spoon the reserved juice over these spots, and any remaining fruit can be sprinkled around the base of the dessert and on top.
Individual puddings can be made by using small moulds and thinner bread, but in all other respects the ingredients and method are the same.
Traditionally, summer pudding is served with nothing more than cream - pouring cream, not whipped - and a glass of dessert wine such as Muscatel or Beaumes de Venise.
You put what in it?
In most areas of human endeavour there are those who consider themselves to be purists, and the small matter of the content of a summer pudding is a case in point. Some people insist that only red fruit should be used - raspberries and redcurrants, for instance - while others will pout if their pudding contains anything other than redcurrants and blackcurrants. It's entirely up to you to decide what fruit to use in your own pudding and how traditional you make it.
Summer Pudding All Year Long
Refrigerated long-distance transport of freshly-picked produce has resulted in soft fruit arriving in the shops earlier than it used to as it is brought in from the far south-west of Britain, where the growing season is a few weeks ahead of the rest of the country. Greenhouse production has extended it in other parts of the country too, but now that the domestic freezer is relatively commonplace - along with speciality shops and supermarket freezer departments from which it can be stocked - summer pudding is no longer something which can only be enjoyed when nature dictates. Frozen fruit can now be purchased and put into a summer pudding at any time of the year.