To the eater it is homely and warmly familiar, but for the cook, Yorkshire pudding holds a frisson, a few seconds of danger and excitement. It happens when you take the shallow tin, empty but for a thin layer of hot fat from the oven. There is blue-grey smoke, the crackle of red-hot dripping. Then there is the precariousness of the thin, bent tin that warps and buckles in the heat and threatens to tip hot lard down your legs. Lastly, there is the swoosh of cold batter meeting scalding fat. The rest is a matter of patience and crossed fingers.
No two people would agree on the texture of the perfect Yorkshire pudding. For some, the batter should be crisp outside but soggy within; to others it should be ethereally light and have almost no substance at all; others still want it as thick as a duvet and only slightly more digestible.
And once you have your pudding as you like it, the next question is when do you want to eat it? Before the beef with its own sexy puddle of hot gravy; squeezed on to the plate with the meat, horseradish and potatoes, or afterwards, fresh from the oven under a layer of jewel-like golden syrup and double cream.
My pudding is of the crisp edges variety, the centre airy and low, the sides high and as tender as a wafer. It won't please the stodge brigade, but then my recipe is better at soaking up gravy than the thicker version. The idea is that you save a bit to wipe your plate with. Few treats are more worthy of the name than a forkful of gravy-saturated batter pudding.
There is something rather neat about having your own little Yorkshire, made in the same patty tins you make muffins or cupcakes. Yet at the same time it smacks of mass catering and they are too often all crust and no middle. Yet I can't say I'd grumble if I found one on my plate. If you are going to try the syrup-and-cream version, then these doll's house versions are the only way to bring any semblance of elegance to the occasion. Not only that, but their deep hollows act as a cup for the treacle and cream.
To some cooks, the idea of an extra like this may seem outdated - we no longer need to fill our tummies up with stodge so we can get away with less beef, and the pudding may be ditched just as the bread sauce is so often lost with roast chicken. At the risk of guilt-tripping a few people, I must say I feel a bit cheated if someone has dumped the Yorkshire in favour of another vegetable. There are usually too many as it is. But there is more to it than this. I feel that the inclusion of a batter pudding with our beef gives the meal a backbone, makes it somehow more real.
I don't think we should hold on to recipes of the past for the sake of sentimentality, but there is something about starchy padding such as stuffing, bread sauce and Yorkshire pudding that brings us back down to earth and reminds us how lucky we are to be able to take a sizzling roast from the oven every weekend. And I don't think that hurts us one little bit.
Yorkshire pudding (1)
A light-as-a-feather Yorkshire. Due to its lightness, it needs to be served immediately. Serves 4.
For the batter:
110g plain flour
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp salt
150ml sparkling mineral water
25-30g dripping or lard
Put the flour into the jug of an electric blender, crack the eggs into it, then add the salt, milk and mineral water. Blitz until smooth. If you don't have a blender then whisk the flour, eggs, salt and liquids with a hand-held whisk until smooth.
Put the fat into a shallow, square 20-22cm baking tin. Let the fat melt in the oven, at 220çC/gas mark 7. The fat should be hot enough after five minutes in the oven, but to be really successful it should be hissing and should issue a faint, light blue smoke. Pour the batter in all at once and slide the tin back into the oven. Check the pudding after 20 minutes. It should have risen at the sides and the centre, which will be lower and should be soft and lightly puffed. It may need a further minute or two, but should be eaten immediately.
Yorkshire pudding (2)
An altogether heavier, more robust pudding with crisp edges but a doughier middle.
3 large eggs
225g plain flour
Turn the oven to 220 degrees C/gas mark 7. Mix the milk, eggs, flour and a half teaspoon of salt with a whisk. Melt the fat in a shallow baking tin about 22cm in diameter, leaving it until it starts to smoke lightly. Pour the batter into the tin, then let it bake for 20 minutes, until puffed and golden.
Toad in the hole with mushroom sauce
It's a short step from a Yorkshire pudding to toad in the hole. Start the gravy (below) before the toad; it will keep warm while the toad cooks. Serves 2.
2 large eggs
125g plain flour
1 level tbsp grain mustard
2 tbsp lard
6 fat, herby pork sausages
Turn the oven to 220 degrees C/gas mark 7. Mix the eggs, flour, milk, water, mustard and a good pinch of salt and pepper with a whisk. It should be the consistency of double cream. Melt the fat in a baking tin approximately 25x25cm and lightly brown the sausages in it over a moderate heat. Tip off all but a thin layer of the hot fat, then pour in the batter. Bake immediately for 25-30 minutes, until the batter is puffed and brown and the sausages are cooked through.
For the mushroom sauce:
a thick slice of butter
a medium-sized to large onion
2 large, flat field mushrooms
1 tbsp plain flour
Put the butter to melt in a saucepan over a low heat. Peel and slice the onion, then let it cook slowly in the butter, covered by a lid, for a good 15-20 minutes. You want it to be soft and golden. Chop the mushrooms quite small and add them to the onions. Let them soften for a few minutes, then add the flour. Let the flour cook for five minutes or so, then pour in the Madeira and the stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat to a low simmer and leave for 30 minutes, until the flavour is mellow and 'mushroomy'. Serve with the toad.
· Nigel Slater is a judge of the first Observer Food Monthly Awards. Vote for your favourites at www.observer.co.uk/foodawards.