On the face of it, few desserts are more peculiarly ill-suited to sticky, sweaty weather than claggy bread pudding – yet, in a long-suffering nod to Britain's changeable climate (and in homage to our stubborn love of stodge: do mushy peas ever taste sweeter than on a windswept August beach?) we've bestowed the contrary designation "summer pudding" upon this determinedly solid sweet. Well chilled, however, and sodden with wine-dark fruit juices, it's surprisingly refreshing stuff – especially when served with the obligatory dollop of thick, ivory cream.
(To digress briefly, bread puddings have been around for almost as long as stale bread but, according to the invaluable Oxford Companion to Food, this particular cold confection first pops up in the 19th century, when they were popular at pastry-phobic health farms – under the strikingly unappealing name, "hydropathic puddings". Suddenly, "summer" seems a little more apt, doesn't it?)
For those unfamiliar with the joys of this seasonal classic, a summer pudding is made by closely lining a pudding basin with bread, and then filling it with summer berries, often lightly cooked in sugar to take the edge off their tang. The pudding is then chilled, weighted down so the bread soaks up the fruit juices, and turned out before serving, like a rather stolid jelly. The French would no doubt use brioche, or the Italians panettone for the purpose, but in Britain, it's always white bread (as Nigel Slater points out, wholemeal is all wrong here – "disgusting" in fact) because it should act as a bland, blank canvas for the fruit within.
However, the nature of that white bread is contested – many cooks, however fastidious in normal life, will reach for the white sliced at this point, as more convenient for cutting into shape. Indeed, Tom Norrington-Davies specifically recommends the stuff in his book Just Like Mother Used to Make, suggesting, albeit slightly apologetically, that he thinks it "best made with the most plastic sliced bread you can get your mitts on, since the slicing has been so perfectly, homogenously done by machine". Nigel Slater, Elizabeth David and Tamasin Day-Lewis beg to disagree however, with Slater claiming that, in this context, "soft, 'plastic' bread turns slimy rather than moist … it's like eating a soggy J cloth."
A side-by-side tasting reveals he's overstating the case a little – the sliced stuff is indeed soggier and more pappy than those made with the white bloomer from my local bakery, but it's far easier to make into an elegant pudding. I have a sufficient phobia of decomposing bread to plump for the good stuff, but I recommend asking your baker or supermarket to slice it for you if possible.
Let them eat cake
Ballymaloe Cookery School gets all Marie Antoinette with its recipe, which involves baking something called a "Great Grandmother's Cake" (rather like a Victoria sponge) and then cutting it up to use in place of bread.
While I have an absolute mania for trifle, I don't think cake works here – not only is it hard to slice thinly without crumble issues, but it's simply too dense and sweet for the dish: it competes with the fruit.
Elizabeth David introduces her recipe, in Summer Cooking, with the characteristically haughty reproach that, "although nearly everyone knows of this wonderful pudding, authentic recipes are rare". By authentic, it seems, she means the traditional combination of raspberries and redcurrants, which has been jazzed up in recent years with other seasonal fruits. Nigel Slater explains that, while "purists will not accept a blackcurrant in a summer pudding, I add them for their glorious colour and for the extra snap of tartness that they bring".
David's pudding, of course, is more conservative, with a time-honoured ratio of 1 part redcurrants to 3 parts raspberries. Although I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, and find David too generous with the sugar, I am surprised to find that I prefer the more delicate flavours of the red fruit unadulterated by the aggressive tang of blackcurrants, which seem too intensely flavoured for this gently old-fashioned dessert.
Maceration and other tips
Jane Grigson macerates her fruit in sugar and leaves them overnight before gently heating to release the juices, but, loth as I am to admit it, if this method yields more juice, then I can't detect it. I'm also not keen on her addition of an extra piece of bread in the middle of the pudding, which seems to serve no discernible purpose, save for slightly upping the stodge factor.
One very useful tip I take from the Ballymaloe pudding, however, is to pour the fruit into the pudding mould while the syrup is still boiling, in contrast to Tom Norrington-Davies, who leaves it to cool completely – the bread seems to soak up far more of the hot juice than the cold stuff, and no one likes a patchy pudding. To help release the pudding itself though, Tom's idea of lining the inside of the bowl with clingfilm is a clever one – although butter works nearly as well, and is certainly less wasteful. Elizabeth David is insistent one needs to add no water to your fruit, but (whisper it) I find her pudding slightly dry – a couple of tablespoons creates a more generous amount of syrup.
You don't want to muck around too much with summer pudding – the berries have a delicate flavour that's easily overpowered, which is why I'm not keen on the idea of adding alcohol, as Tamasin Day-Lewis does with her raspberry liqueur, or even infusing the syrup with geranium, as Ballymaloe does, pretty as the idea is. Ditto for Tamsin's vanilla sugar, which I find a bully. The one concession I have made is to add a dash of rosewater to the simmering berries – it's such a delicate and very British summer flavour that it seems to enhance, rather than fight with the fruit.
Perfect summer pudding
Butter, to grease
Half a loaf of slightly stale, good quality white bread, crusts removed
2–3 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp rosewater
1. Line a pudding basin or deep bowl (about 1 litre capacity) with bread, cutting it so it fits snugly with no gaps. Cut a lid.
2. Put the fruit in a small pan with the sugar, 2 tbsp water and rosewater and heat gently to simmering point – don't stir unless absolutely necessary to avoid crushing the fruit. Taste and add more sugar if necessary.
3. Pour the hot fruit and most of the syrup into the basin and top with the lid of bread, reserving any excess fruit or syrup for serving. Put a plate on top of the basin, pressing into it, and weight down with a tin or similar. When cool, refrigerate overnight before turning out and serving with extra syrup (useful for covering any pale patches) and plenty of cream.
Is this pudding the true taste of summer in Britain or just more proof that we don't really know how to deal with sunshine? Are you a sliced white or a sourdough fan, what fruit do you put in – and will anyone admit to using frozen?