As I believe I've noted before, the British make the best desserts in the world, bar none. Rhubarb fool, sherry trifle – and, when the weather settles back into grim default, fluffy steamed puddings like this classic of the genre, familiar to anyone who's ever passed through the UK education system.
Sometimes known as treacle sponge, it is more often, however, made with golden syrup. This great national institution was created by a thrifty Victorian Scot from the waste-products of his sugar refining business, and enjoyed by generations of doughty pudding lovers including Scott of the Antarctic, who commissioned photographs of penguins pecking at the familiar tins in an early example of product placement.
With sugar as the primary ingredient, this is the kind of hearty end to a meal that most of us can't afford to indulge in on a regular basis, now we're no longer spending hours running around the playground, or indeed trekking to the South Pole. But as a treat on a cold, miserable day, it takes some beating.
Syrup v treacle
Most of the recipes I find, whether they label the dish syrup or treacle sponge, use golden syrup as the principal flavouring ingredient. The exception is Constance Spry, who provides a recipe for a real treacle sponge which, sadly, lies outside my remit for this week. Delia Smith, in a rare maverick move, adds a tablespoonful of treacle to her sponge mixture in addition to the golden syrup topping. It gives her sponge a lovely colour, but the bittersweet flavour of the treacle seems out of place – I decide the sponge itself should be quite plain, to set off the intensely sweet, sticky syrup.
The aforementioned syrup is generally spooned into the buttered pudding basin before the sponge mixture, so it will sit on top of the pudding when it's eventually turned out, but Tamasin Day-Lewis mixes a hefty 225g of golden syrup into the batter itself. This produces a quite different kind of result: a sweet, caramel-flavoured pudding, but one with a quite uniform texture and flavour. One of the joys of the traditional method is the contrast between the gooey, syrupy sponge at the top, and the fluffy stuff that sits beneath, and for this reason it's important not to stint on the initial layer of syrup. Nigel Slater's four tablespoons seems a bit parsimonious to me, and my testing panel ask if they can can have some extra to drizzle on top. The six tablespoons in the olive magazine recipe seems much more reasonable.
Margaret Costa's treacle sponge recipe, from her classic Four Seasons Cookery Book, mixes the syrup with one tablespoon of breadcrumbs which, I think, makes the top of the sponge a bit gummy in texture, rather like a treacle tart, and serves no other discernible purpose. She also, and rather more cunningly, loosens the syrup with lemon juice first – without the breadcrumbs, this helps it dribble down the pudding in a most satisfying fashion.
Syrup isn't the only sweetener here, however: the base, of course, is commonly a sponge mixture, made with butter, flour, eggs and sugar. Caster sugar is the default, but Delia uses light brown sugar, and Day-Lewis suggests either light or dark muscovado. I find the dark muscovado too treacly, but the lighter version gives the sponge a subtle caramel flavour without competing with the syrup itself, which surely deserves to be the star of this particular pudding.
I say the base of a syrup pudding is commonly a sponge, but variations do exist. Mary Norwak gives an intriguing recipe for a suet pastry layered pudding in her English Puddings Sweet and Savoury, which I regretfully decide doesn't qualify for inclusion here, and Day-Lewis makes a suet batter instead of the classic creamed mixture for her recipe.
Although people often grumble about the heavy suet puddings of the past, in fact it lends lightness to a dish: its higher melting point allows the mixture to cook around it, so that when it eventually dissolves, it leaves a network of tiny air holes behind. I'm a great fan of suet in jam roly poly and the like, but here, I don't think it works: the slightly savoury flavour seems at odds with the golden syrup, and I miss the richness and fluffiness the butter brings.
Most of the recipes I try simply use self-raising flour, but Delia adds extra baking powder, and Day-Lewis boosts her plain flour with bicarbonate of soda. I have a confession to make regarding Delia's pudding, however – I've no idea how the baking powder might have affected it, because when I came to turn it out, it simply hadn't cooked properly, despite two hours in the steamer. I attach no blame to Delia herself for this, although I am mystified, given how tightly I sealed the basin, and the pan, but as every other pudding was deliciously fluffy without the extra baking powder, I think it's safe to assume it's unnecessary. Any feedback on this point would be most welcome.
Steaming, then, is the traditional cooking method here, but olive magazine gives two alternative suggestions for their recipe, both, it must be said, considerably easier and quicker. Their "gooey school treacle sponge" can either be baked at 180C for 30 minutes, or - brave new world! - microwaved on medium power for seven-and-a-half minutes.
I try both to see if I can wave goodbye to all that faffing around with pleated paper and kettles once and for all, but I'm disappointed. The baked version is admittedly delicious, crunchy on top, gooey within, but it doesn't strictly count as a pudding – a syrup cake would be more accurate. And given how quickly it allows you to produce a decentish sponge I wouldn't discount the microwave out of hand, but the results are definitely spongy rather than fluffy and the colour unappetisingly pallid. Two options to consider for syrup sponge emergencies, certainly (in a time of national crisis, what could be more comforting?) but not a rival, sadly, for the steamer.
Most recipes, wisely, keep things simple, but there's always a few who have to add their own touch: olive in the form of vanilla extract, Day-Lewis with ground ginger. The first makes me think of a Victoria sponge, and the second, in combination with the dark muscovado sugar, gingerbread. Costa and Day-Lewis also add lemon zest to their mixtures which, although the flavour does work quite well, means that the pudding itself competes for attention with its syrup adornment – and this is a dish that needs no such gussying up.
Costa is the only writer to recommend adding salt however: vital in a mixture this sweet, and my only extravagance. Otherwise, I'm going to keep things as plain as possible, for maximum contrast. Fluffy sponge, sticky syrup – that's all this pudding should be about. And lots of Bird's custard, obviously.
Perfect syrup sponge
6 tablespoons (90ml) golden syrup
¼ lemon, juice only
150g softened butter, plus extra to grease
150g soft light brown sugar
Pinch of salt
2 eggs, beaten
150g self-raising flour
1. Butter a 900ml pudding basin and spoon the golden syrup into the bottom. Stir in the lemon juice.
2. Beat the butter and sugar together with a pinch of salt until fluffy, and then gradually beat in the eggs until well mixed in. Fold in the flour, followed by enough milk to give a smooth dropping consistency, and spoon into the basin, stopping just short of the top to give it room to rise.
3. Cover the basin with a lid or secure layers of greaseproof paper and foil, pleating the centre to give the pudding room to rise, and securing with string. Trim the excess from the sides and steam for 2 hours, topping up the water as necessary.
4. Run a knife around the inside of the basin, and turn out on to a lipped plate. Serve immediately.
Is syrup sponge the ultimate sticky winter pudding, or do you have other classics, British or otherwise, up your sleeve for the long dark months ahead? Or do you believe there's no room for such sugary stodge in the modern diet – what's wrong with a nice fresh apple instead?