This column has tackled classics from Bologna to Bangkok, but the idea of taking on Yorkshire folk makes me a little nervous. Especially as I'm about to take my life in my own hands and suggest they take too much credit for a dish which, strictly speaking, probably isn't their invention.
As Jennifer Stead points out in her essay on the subject in Traditional Food East and West of the Pennines, batter puddings have a long history throughout the British Isles (and elsewhere, as clafoutis lovers will know). Northerners, who tended to cook them underneath the roast to catch the drippings, apparently preferred them crisper and more magnificent than softie southerners, which may be why they became famous for them. Certainly it was Hannah Glasse, a Northumberland lass, who was the first to categorise such puddings as a speciality of England's largest county in her 1747 cookbook The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy: recipes published prior to this make no such attribution. Perhaps Yorkshire folk were simply better at batters than the rest of us?
In any case, yorkshire puddings are deservedly popular around the UK these days – so much so, in fact, that in these straitened times there's a good case for reviving the practice of serving them up first, laced with gravy, to take the edge of one's appetite before the pricier meat arrives on the scene (true Yorkshire thrift, that). This is also an excuse to show off your talents to their best advantage, claiming, like JB Priestley's Jess Oakroyd, that a yorkshire pudding is best "eaten by itsen and not mixed up wi' meat and potaters, all in a mush."
All batters, in Britain at least, are made from the same very basic ingredients: flour, eggs and milk – or, for a lighter result, a mixture of milk and water. James Martin, a professional Yorkshireman if ever I saw one, uses all milk, as do the Hairy Bikers (who, hailing from Cumbria and Teeside, have more doubtful credentials), and even Hannah Glasse eschews the parsimonious joys of free water.
Delia and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, meanwhile, go for near equal amounts of water and milk. Although I'm inclined to go with the northerners on this one, it can't be denied that the puddings made with water have a crisper batter: the all-milk versions are softer and richer. Just the kind of thing a softy southerner might enjoy, in fact.
James Martin calls for the batter to be mixed and rested overnight in the fridge, while Hugh compromises on at least half an hour, pointing out that this "serves as an excellent way of ensuring you carry out [the] vital exercise of resting the meat". Delia, meanwhile, makes it very clear she has no time for any such notion, explaining tartly that "there is no need to leave the batter to stand, so make it when you're ready to cook the pudding."
Marco Pierre White reckons resting "makes the batter lighter", and I'm inclined to agree: Hugh's puddings certainly seem to have risen better, although James Martin's versions are no more impressive, so I think eight hours is a mite excessive. I assume resting allows the flour to absorb liquid, but even Harold McGee is unable to tell me why this might improve the batter's rising potential – can Word of Mouth readers help?
A secret ingredient?
In her wonderful English Food, Jane Grigson supplies the winning recipe from a "Great Yorkshire Pudding Contest" held in Leeds in 1970 which, according to a contemporary Guardian report, produced results that "swelled to the height of a coronation crown" and tasted "superb". This paragon of puddings, made by one Mr Tin Sung Chan of Hong Kong, contained one ingredient mysterious to the assembled hungry crowd: half a teaspoon of tai luk sauce.
Grigson admits that "for years I puzzled over tai luk sauce, asking at Chinese groceries without success". Then an enterprising niece found what seems to be the answer: her request for tai luk was greeted with much laughter: apparently it means "mainland", as in "mainland China". Mr Chan, she concludes, was simply having an "amiable joke at the expense of Yorkshire patriotism".
Having tried his recipe, I suspect the secret ingredient that made actually won him the contest was the extra egg he adds. Grigson's own family recipe uses 3 to 250g flour, as does Delia's version, but Chan plumps for 4. You can go too far down that line though; James Martin uses twice that number, and Hugh sticks in a couple of extra yolks, both things which I think makes the batter too rich. Remember, wherever it came from, this should be a Yorkshire dish in spirit.
Traditionally, in the days when meat was roasted on a spit, the pudding was cooked underneath, so it could absorb the delicious drippings. Although few of us have the necessary equipment to replicate this these days, it seems in keeping with the history of the dish to use beef or lamb dripping, or pork or chicken fat to impart extra flavour nonetheless. (Bear in mind that the association of yorkshire pudding and roast beef is a relatively recent one: a 1737 dripping pudding in The Whole Duty of a Woman calls for it to be cooked underneath a mutton joint. Hooray for more opportunities to eat it.)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, as a dyed-in-the-wool southerner, substitutes olive oil, while those posh Hairy Bikers suggest goose fat. Both produce good results, but I like the more savoury note beef dripping brings to the pudding party.
The single most important thing to remember about yorkshire puddings is that the fat must be smoking hot before you begin cooking – you need a good sizzle as batter hits dripping. Canadian cook Susan Sampson suggests piercing the puddings as they leave the oven to let the steam out and keep them crisp, but all this seems to do is let them get cold. If you do right by your yorkshires, and eat them immediately, such drastic steps are unnecessary. (Whatever you do, don't leave them in a draught – they'll collapse.)
Sampson also insists that chilling the mixture before cooking (cold batter, hot pan is her mantra), as does James Martin. I'm puzzled by this – it simply seems to slow down cooking, giving the puddings a slightly gooier centre which doesn't appeal to me. Perhaps it's a taste thing.
Proper yorkshire pudding should be made in one big tray, ready to carve up and dish out in slabs, but the modern habit of making individual ones is a welcome innovation as far as I'm concerned – you get more crisp edge, and there's less faffing about to distract one from the important business of eating the things. Do as you wish however – after all, what do I, a southerner, know?
Perfect yorkshire pudding
Makes 1 large, or 12 individual puddings
250g plain white flour
150ml whole milk
4 free-range eggs, beaten
2 tbsp beef dripping or sunflower oil
1. Sift the flour into a large bowl with a generous pinch of salt. Combine the milk in a jug with 150ml cold water.
2. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs. Pour in a little milk and water, and then whisk the lot together to make a smooth batter. Mix in the rest of the liquid, until you have a batter the consistency of single cream. Leave at room temperature for at least 15 minutes.
3. Once the meat has come out of the oven, turn the temperature up to 230C (ensuring any potatoes that might be lurking in there aren't going to burn in the following half hour). Put a large roasting tin, or a 12-hole muffin tin, greased liberally with dripping or oil, on a high shelf and leave for 10 minutes to heat up.
4. Take the tin out of the oven, and keep warm on the hob if possible while you ladle in the batter – if it doesn't sizzle when you add the first spoonful, put the tin back into the oven until it does.
5. Put the puddings into the oven and cook for 15–20 minutes until well risen and golden. Keep an eye on them towards the end of the cooking time, but do not be tempted to open the door until they're beautifully bronzed, because they'll sink.
6. Eat immediately.
Do you favour one big yorkshire, or lots of little ones? Does it go best with beef, or does batter make any meal better? And ... can you really get a decent version south of Bawtry?
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