I am sitting at Le Caprice with five incredibly thin women from a fashion magazine - all Prada peeptoes and Fendi bags, pushing their salads round their plates, drinking mineral water and chain smoking. These women don't swallow, they simply rearrange the food on their plates. I am the only one to order pudding. Before you can say stick insect, a perfectly co-ordinated air attack of spoons and fingers entirely demolishes my hot treacle sponge and custard. I am left with three large crumbs, a smudge of sauce and someone else's licked spoon.
You should not mess with anyone else's pudding. Pudding is important for our wellbeing, our soul. You see, pudding is not a treat but a necessity. It is there to heal and comfort, to cosset and hug. Pudding is not food, it is medicine.
There is an unshakeable link between stress and pudding. At least there is in my house. It is not silver that lines my black clouds but butter, sugar, jam and cream. Warm, milky rice pudding and a blob of red jam is as effective an ointment for a bad time as tea-tree cream is for a cut finger.
The puds we turn to for comfort are inevitably those that remind us of our childhood, or more likely, an imaginary one - those dream-like sugar-and-spice-filled early years that never really existed. A mother in an apron brandishing a rolling pin; a cupboard lined with home-made plum jam; a kitchen filled with the smell of baking and warm spice.
The rules are simple: for dessert that heals rather than simply pleases, it must be stunningly sweet or blissfully milky. Like treacle sponge or, better still, treacle tart where you get pastry, too, or perhaps the rice pudding - the ultimate panacea for every ill in the book.
Any sensible person knows that rice pudding was invented for humans either too young or too old to feed themselves. I am willing to bet more rice pud has slithered down chins than has ever been swallowed. Perhaps it is exactly that bland creaminess that has kept this slow-baked slurry of rice, milk and sugar a favourite in home and restaurant kitchens for centuries. It has never been out of fashion, nor, mercifully, 'in' either.
Obviously in serious need of being bounced on someone's knee, I recently tucked into a restaurant dessert of rice pudding in a pastry shell. Come to think of it, I must have needed a hug as well, as it also came with a caramel coat. (I didn't order it, you understand, but was helping out a friend whose eyes had been bigger than her belly.) In theory, pastry, creamy rice and caramel sauce should have been the ultimate in comfort eating. It wasn't. It was as if a much-loved nanny was holding a pillow over your head till you stopped breathing.
Modern versions invariably contain cream and a double dose of sugar. This gives a thick and rich result, but I cannot help thinking of it as sabotage. Throw in cream, eggs or sultanas, and you have lost the spare, delicate purity that is the essence of this pudding. Rosewater, vanilla, cardamom and bay will add a whiff of luxury, but more dairy produce is literally over-egging the pudding.
Cold rice is another matter. Then it's a case of the colder and the creamier the better. It is not true that comfort food must be warm, only that it contain sugar or dairy products, or preferably both. Plump, almost fluffy grains of cold rice will take cream, and sultanas, and cinnamon, and lemon. It will take toasted, flaked almonds, too. In fact, you can throw the whole sweet section of the larder at it and it will come up trumps. Just don't tinker with the warm stuff.
If dairy doesn't do it, then teeth-shuddering sweetness might. They don't come sweeter than treacle tart or sponge. Either will rock us into a better frame of mind. You will come across recipes that contain eggs, cream and both syrup and black treacle, those with a few nuts and even a handful of oats, but for my money you cannot the beat the simple purity of syrup, crumbs and a shot of lemon. This is also one of those mysterious puddings that is better the day after you make it, when the pastry has gone ever-so-slightly soft.
With sugar in mind, you could turn to any one of our school-meal puddings and eat yourself into a good mood. Most of our baked puddings are based on the comforting chemistry of butter, flour, eggs and sugar. If you are lucky, the cook might have thrown in the odd apple, too. Best of these apple puddings is the sponge-topped Eves's pudding. Less of a farce than apple hat, this still has the requisite ingredients and would be the perfect way of using the last of the apple crop that has been in store for so long now and best used for cooking.
All this sounds immeasurably unhealthy. Who cares - it is only once in a while. And what is healthier than ensuring our wellbeing? That is, if you can get to your pudding before the non-pudding eaters scoff it all.
Vanilla rice pudding
This is a reminder of how simple it can be to have a pudding on the table when you need one. Serves 4.
50g round-grain 'pudding' rice
1 walnut-sized knob of butter
2 tbsp sugar
500ml full-cream milk
1 vanilla pod
Pour the milk into a pan and bring it to the boil. Put the rice into a small baking dish with the butter and sugar, tuck in the vanilla pod, and pour over the hot milk. Bake at 180 C/gas mark 4 for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Some good things to add to your rice pudding before cooking
2 tsp rosewater
1 bay leaf
4 cracked cardamom pods
a little grated nutmeg
apricot, plum or blackcurrant jam
For a richer pudding or for serving cold substitute 125ml of the milk for double cream.
Old-fashioned treacle tart
If you fancy more pastry, then make half as much again and cut it into finger-thick strips, laying it in a trellis over the top of the tart before baking. I include white fat in the pastry recipe because it seems more appropriate here than an all-butter version, and is lighter and flakier, too. Serves 6.
125g plain flour
35g lard or Trex
2 tbsp - maybe a little more - water
for the filling
120g coarse, fresh breadcrumbs
1 small tin (454g) golden syrup
Make the pastry in the usual way. I used a food processor, blitzing the flour with a tiny pinch of salt and the cold fats till they resembled coarse crumbs, then adding ice-cold water 1 tbsp at a time until the mixture could easily be brought together as a ball.
Roll the pastry out on a floured board (it is much more manageable than sweet paste) and lift it into a 30cm tart tin. Push the pastry well into the corners and up the sides of the tin then prick it with a fork, and, lining it with greaseproof paper and baking beans if you wish, bake it at 200 C/gas mark 6 for 15-17 minutes (less if it's unlined) until it is dry and pale-biscuit coloured.
Meanwhile, mix the breadcrumbs (which should be fairly coarse) with the golden syrup and the lemon juice. Pile them into the tart case and smooth them a little. Turn the oven down and return the tart, baking it for a further 25 minutes. Remove and leave to calm down for 10 minutes or so.
Pudding fanciers need to arm themselves with a collection of recipes before the pudding police ban them all. Best of the lot is Mary Norwak's glorious little book English Puddings (£13.99, Grub Street). This is Mary's apple pudding, which is light and fruit-laden but also deeply healing. Make the most of the majestic Bramleys that I notice are still in good nick right now. Serves 4-6.
450g cooking apples
75g light, soft, brown sugar
100g caster sugar
100g self raising flour
grated rind of 1 lemon
tsp vanilla extract
extra caster sugar for sprinkling
Peel and core the apples and chop coarsely. Put into a greased ovenware dish and sprinkle on the brown sugar. Mix the fruit and sugar lightly together. Cream the butter and caster sugar. Work in the eggs, sifted flour, lemon rid and vanilla and mix to a soft batter. Spread over the apples. Bake at 180 C/gas mark 4 for 40 minutes. Sprinkle the surface with caster sugar and serve at once with cream or custard.