What is pudding?
The history of pudding is a complicated topic. Why? Though time, many different kinds of foods have been known by this name. The creamy, rich pudding dessert we (Americans) think of today is more closely related to custard. The history of custard is likewise ancient. This food followed a separate, though parallel, path that managed to converge with pudding in 19th century America.
Food historians generally agree the first puddings made by ancient cooks produced foods similar to sausages. The British claim pudding as part of their culinary heritage. Medieval puddings (black and white) were still mostly meat-based. 17th century English puddings were either savory (meat-based) or sweet (flour, nuts & sugar) and were typically boiled in special pudding bags. The "pease porridge" most of us know from the old nursery rhyme was most likely a simple boiled pudding of pease meal. By the latter half 18th century traditional English puddings no longer included meat. 19th century puddings were still boiled but the finished product was more like cake. These puddings are still traditionally served at Christmas time. Plum pudding (aka Christmas pudding)is a prime example. Modern steamed puddings decend from this tradition.
About custard? Ancient Roman cooks recognized the binding properties of eggs. They were experts at creating several egg-based dishes, most notably patinae, crustades and omlettes. These foods were either savory (made with cheese, meat, pepper etc.) or sweet (flavored with honey, nuts, cinnamon etc.). Food historians generally agree that custard, the sweet almost pudding-like substance we Americans know today, dates to the Middle ages. At that time custard was eaten alone or used as fillings for pies, tarts, pastry, etc. Flan is probably the the most famous and widely adapted custard dessert in the world. It is important to note that custard was not unique to Europe. Similar recipes flourished in Asia.
The distinction between European custard and American pudding became muddled sometime in the 1840s. At that time in America, traditional boiled puddings were no longer necessary to feed the average family. There was plenty of food. This also happened to be the same time when Alfred Bird, an English chemist, introduced custard powder as an alternative to egg thickeners. It wasn't long before Americans began using custard powder and other cornstarch derivatives as thickeners for custard-type desserts. This proved quite useful for overlander (conestoga wagon) cooks who did not have ready access to a reliable supply of fresh eggs.
Chocolate pudding & custard
The earliest print reference we find for chocolate pudding is 1730. Chocolate custard, a thick creamy cousin, dates to the 19th century. These sweets were enjoyed by wealthy people. In the last decades of the 19th century some American social reformers and food companies endeavored to promote these products as health food. American custards and puddings converged and were thusly marketed for their nutritional benevolence with special emphasis on invalids and children.
Some pudding-type foods have been considered healthy since ancient times. Case in point: rice pudding. This ancient recipe was traditionally prescribed for the young and infirm. The formulae were inscribed in medical texts before the showed up in cookbooks. Tapioca, arrowroot, and cornstarch puddings (made from new world thickeners) were also recommended as restoratives.
"Chocolate Puddings. To a Pint of Cream take eight Eggs, the Whites of four, beat them well together, and mingle with your Cream; put in some Nutmeg, Cinnamon, and Ginger, a quarter of a Pound of Naples Bisket, and a quarter of a Pound of Chocolate grated very fine, put in a little Orange-Flower Water, and a little Citron minc'd; mingle it mighty well together, and if you bake it, put a Sheet of Puff-paste in your Dish, and raise a little Border in the Rim, put in your Pudding and cross-bar it, and ice it with thick Butter and Sugar, and bake it in a gentle Oven, and when bak'd serve it away, or you may boil it if you please."
The origin & evolution of British puddings:
"To focus attention on British usage (of the word pudding) is legitimate, since pudding may be claimed as a British invention, and is certainly a characteristic dish of British cuisine...It seems that the ancestor of the term was the Latin word botellus, meaning sausage, from which came boudin and also pudding. Puddings in all their variety and glory may be seen as the multiple descendants of a Roman sausage. The Haggis, by its nature and the ways it is prepared, illuminates the connection. In the Middle Ages the black pudding (blood sausages) was joined by the white pudding, which was also made in a sausage skin, or sometimes a stomach lining...White pudding was almost completely cereal in composition, usually containing a suet and breadcrumb mixture. It was variously enriched and flavoured, and there were sweet versions. In diverging from these origins English cooks found two paths which could be taken to advance pudding cookery. The first was to take advantage of th fact that by the 16th century many ordinary houses had small ovens built into the chimney breast, or at the side of the main bread oven where there was one. These ovens were not very hot. It was possible to bake a white pudding mixture or a cereal pottage slowly enough to suit it. Often, it was enclosed in pastry...this path led to baked puddings. The second path involved finding a different container to replace the gut used for sausages...The breakthrough came when the pudding-cloth was invented, around the beginning of the 17th century...During the 18th century, suet mixtures were joined by the first sponge puddings, and boiled and baked batters became common. Sweet puddings included all kinds of fruits, jam, spices, meringue, and other delicacies. Plain puddings remained important. Among savoury types, the first beef steak and mutton puddings appeared. Sweet milk pottages made with cereals such as rice or barley persisted. As new kinds of starchy product began to be imported...these were also adopted for that purpse...The disappearance of domestic servants in the 20th century brought further changes. The pudding-cloth was found to be difficult for housewives...boiled pudding were now almost made in basins covered with greased paper and foil and steamed partly immersed in water. Thus did the British steamed pudding come fully into its own. Roll-shaped puddings were either converted to basin format or baked in specially made tubular tins."
19th century Bakewell pudding (sometimes called Bakewell tart) descends from Medieval egg enriched custards which, in turn, descend from Ancient Roman Flan. Prehistory here. Bakewell is named for a place in Derbyshire England, not a description of the product. Or is it?
"Bakewell Tart, or Bakewell pudding, as it was originally called (tart seems to be an early twentieth-century alteration), appeared on the scene in the mid-nineteenth century. The first recorded reference to is was made by Eliza Acton (in her Modern Cookery, 1845)...Its basic concept...of a layer of jam beneath a main filling, was far from new then; it is part of a long tradition of so-called transparent' puddings, in which a layer of jam, preserved fruit, or candied peel was overlaid with a sugar, egg, and butter mixture and baked. They were made with or without a pastry case--and indeed Eliza Acton's recipe for Bakewell pudding makes no mention of pastry...The characteristic feature of Bakewell puddings, as opposed to all other puddings, was and is almonds. Originally they were introduced in the form of a few drips of almond essence in the overlaying sugar, egg, and butter mixture, but gradually it became the custom to use ground almonds, thereby radically altering the nature and consistency of the topping. The dish is of course named after Bakewell, a town in Derbyshire, but how this came about it not known. Legend (and probably no more than that) has it that the pudding was created by accident in the kitchens of the Rutland Arms in the centre of town."
"Bakewell tart...was always known as a pudding until the 20th century...Medieval precursors date back to the 15th cnetury and were called flathons'...There were two main kinds. One was filled with a sweet, rich egg custard over a layer of candied fruit on the pastry shell. A second version was originally made without eggs, butter, or milk, and was a Lenten flathon; the filling was of ground almonds and sugar made into a liquid paste and flavoured with spices. In the succeeding centuries names such as 'egg tart' and 'almond tart' came into use. The name Bakewell pudding' first occurs in Meg Dods (1826), referring to the custard version; but thereafter the name was used for both. The recipe for Bakewell Pudding given by Eliza Acton (1845) was essentially a rich custard of egg yolks, butter, sugar, and flavouring...poured over a layer of mixed jams an inch...thick and baked...During the latter part of the 19th century the custard version fell into disuse, and the recipe evolved towards its modern forms....There are now two principal versions. One is the pudding' recognized by the inhabitants of Bakewell...The other current version is a shortcrust case with a filling of something like almond sponge cake over a layer of jam."
"Bakewell Pudding. One should not apparently refer to Bakewell tart, but to Bakewell pudding, according to local pastry cooks and restaurateurs. I had always understood, from Good Things in England, that first bible of our regional cookery, that the original Bakewell tart/pudding did not contain ground almonds at all, but was closer to the rich custard of butter and eggs still favoured in Rouen for mirliton tarts. Such things are a warning to the dogmatic: food changes with time to suit different tastes., and where they are an improvement we should be receptive to the differences. I must confess that I do prefer Bakewell pudding with ground almonds, but you may leave them out if you wish to be more authentic and make the kind of thing Jane Austen may have tasted when she stayed in the inn at Bakewell."
---English Food, Jane Grigson [Penguin Books:London] 1974, revised edition 1992 (p. 274-275)
This pudding is famous not only in Derbyshire, but in several of our northern counties, where it is usually served on all holiday-occasions. Line a shallow tart-dish with quite an inch-deep layer of several kinds of good preserve mixed together, and intermingle with them from two to three ounces of candied citron or orange-rind. Beat well the yolks of ten eggs, and add to them gradually half a pound of sifted sugar; when they are well mixed, pour in by degrees half a pound of good clarified butter, and a little ratafia or any other flavour that may be preferred; fill the dish two-thirds full with this mixture, and bake the pudding for nearly an hour in a moderate oven. Half the quantity will be sufficient for a small dish. Mixed preserves, 1 1/2 to 2 lbs.; yolks of eggs, 10; sugar, 1/2 lb.; butter, 1/2 lb.; ratafia, lemon-brandy, or other flavouring, to the taste, baked, moderate oven, 2/4 to 1 hour. Obs.--This is a rich and expensive, but not very refined pudding. A variation of it, known in the south as Alderman's Pudding, is we think, superior to it. It is made without the candied peel, and with a layer of apricot-jam only, six ounces of butter, six of sugar, the yolks of siz, and the whites of two eggs."
Ingredients.--1/4 lb. Of puff-paste, 5 eggs, 6 oz. of sugar, 1/4 lb. of butter, 1 oz of almonds, jam.
Mode.--Cover a dish with thin paste, and put over this a layer of any kind of jam, 1/2 inch thick; put the yolks of 5 eggs into a basin with the white of 1, and beat these well; add the sifted sugar, the butter, which should be melted, and the almonds, which should be well pounded; beat all together until well mixed, then pour it into the dish over the jam, and bake for an hour in a moderate oven.
Time.--1 hour. Average cost, 1s, 6d.
Sufficient for 4 or 5 persons. Seasonable at any time."
"Bakewell Pudding. Mix a pint of milk with the yolks and whites of four eggs beaten separately. Add three ounces of finely-sifted sugar, thre ounces of butter, which should be first melted, and one ounce of well-pounded almonds. Lay three-quarters of a pint of breadcrumbs in a dish with a little preserved fruit over, and fill up with the mixture. Bake one hour in a moderate oven. Probable cost, about 1s 6d. Sufficient for four or five persons."
---Cassell's Dictionary of Cookery with Numerous Illustrations, [Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.:London] 1875 (p. 42-43)
[NOTE: This book also offers Bakewell Pudding (another way)...including nutmeg and Rich Bakewell Pudding...with more eggs.]
"Bakewell Pudding is the glory of Derbyshire. One might have expected some miracle of excellence for the palate form the ducal residence of Chatsworth, with all its fame and its splendor, and the highest fountain jet in the world. But, although a Duchess of Devonshire once kissed a butcher, the great house of Cavendish has done nothing for our tables which can compare with the humble achievement of some unknown genius in teh small town of Bakewell, nigh to the prodigious Chatsworth. Line a pie-dish with a light paste. Place on this a thickish layer of any preserved fruit from the most common to the most refined--let us say peaches or apricots. The Bakewellians are in the habit of intermingling this with candied citron or orange-peel, cut into thin stripes-- a part of the ceremony which may be omitted. make a custard of six yolks and three whites of eggs, from four to five ounces of clarified butter, six ounces of sifted sugar, and three spoonfuls of what the Bakewellians call lemon brandy--that is, brand which has been flavoured by long maceration with the zest of lemons. A little of the zest of a lemon may be used instead, or any other flavour that may be preferred. Pour the custard over and among the apricot jam, and bake the pudding in a moderate oven for thee-quarters of an hour."
---Kettner's Book of the Table, E.S. Dallas, facsimile 1877 edition prefaced by Derek Hudson [Centaur Press Ltd.:London] 1877 (p. 52-53)
An early nineteenth century recipe still used in Derbyshire.
Ingredients: Eggs (4 yoks and 3 whites); casto shugar 1/4 lb; butter 1/4 lb.; some rich pastry.
1. Line some patty pans with rich pastry.
2. Cover the bottom with a thin layer of strawberry jam; now make the following mixture.
3. Put the butter into a brass or aluminum pan.
4. Let it boil up.
5. Skim it carefully.
6. While boiling stir into the eggs and sugar beaten up together; again beat all well together.
7. Place a thick layer of this mixture on the strawberry jam.
8. And bake until it is delicately brown."
4 oz Butter.
3 drops Almond Essence.
2 Egg Whites.
Apricot or Greengage Jam.
6 oz. Castor Sugar.
5 Egg Yolks.
Utensils--Pie-dish, saucepan, wooden spoon, 3 basins, metal spoon, egg-beater. Line a pie-dish with puff pastry. Spread a layer of jam, about 1/2 an inch thick, on the bottom. Melt the butter, and mix it in a basin with the sugar, almond essence, and the well-beaten yolk and whites of eggs. Mix well and pour over the jam, then bake first in a sharp oven, and then in reduced heat, till ready. The mixture can be flavoured with brandy before pouring over the jam."
This is named after a small town in Derbyshire; they are sometimes called Bakewell tarts. Line a deep earthenware piedish with short crust, cover the bottom with mixed preserved fruit and sugar and moisten with cider or wine. Melt 1/4 lb. of butter with 1 oz. of ground almonds and 6 oz. of fine sugar, best in the yolks of 3 eggs with a little milk and fold in the stiff whites--use this to fill the pastry-lined piedish over the fruit. The whole art is in getting this mixture the right soft consistency. More milk may be added to make the custard softer, or a few fine white breadcrumbs to make it set more steadily, but the result, when carefully baked, should be set, but must be quite soft and creamy."Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food that Makes Us Who We Are, Dorothy Hartley, facsimile 1954 edition [Piattkus:London] 2012 (p. 628)