What is a pudding?

If you are British and trying to explain the word to a foreigner the answer is surprisingly difficult. In America, it is a simple answer: a dessert. We all use pudding to mean dessert or afters, but then there are types of dessert that are true puddings. The true puddings are those that are boiled or steamed. Christmas puddings, suet puddings and sponge puddings fit into this category. In fact, anything boiled or steamed in a basin, cloth or handy piece of intestinal tract is a pudding: black pudding, white pudding, steak & kidney pudding, pease pudding and haggis are the ones that immediately spring to mind. So far, so good. However, there is the odd miscellaneous pudding: Yorkshire puddings aren’t boiled, they are baked beneath the roast beef in the oven.

‘Mixing the Pudding’

So, a pudding is any dessert, or the name for the dessert course. Aside from the proper puddings mentioned above, there are some that go under a false name: bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding and Eve’s pudding are examples of this. Why are these puddings and, say, an apple pie not called an apple pie pudding?

I only realised just how complicated a question ‘What is a pudding?’ is when talking about food with my American friends. All these diverse puddings (whether by my own classification true ones or not) must have some common ancestor. What was the first pudding? To answer this question I needed to hit the historical cookbooks.

I had mentioned in a previous post on the subject of dumplings a little while back that the pudding is a descendant of the dumpling. This was the claim made in 1726 by Thomas Gordon and Henry Carey. They said that dumplings became larger and larger that they had to tied up in a cloth, thus creating the pudding. However, I am not too sure about this claim. Elizabeth Raffald gives plenty of recipes for dumplings in her book from 1769 that are large and therefore require a cloth, but she calls them dumplings (a recipe for sparrow dumplings is in this post). Was the word pudding around a long time before this?

Mr Samuel Whiskers  and Anna-Marie stitch Tom Kitten up a treat in

The Roly-Poly by Beatrix Potter

Going back almost 200 years I have found recipes for puddings that take two distinct forms. In The Good Housewife’s Jewel from 1596, Thomas Dalton gives recipes for familiar puddings like black pudding and haggis, but he also gives recipes for puddings that are baked, such as the ‘pudding of a calves chaldron’ or the ‘pudding in a pot’. He also makes reference to making puddings in the bellies of animals such as coney and carp. It is interesting that none of the puddings are desserts, though they do contain many spices such as cloves, mace and ginger as well as dried fruits such as currants, plus sugar. They must have been very expensive to make in the late sixteenth century – to give some perspective in 1596 Elizabeth I was on the throne and the first production of The Merchant of Venice was put on at The Globe theatre. Back in the day there was no such thing as a first course, a second course and so on, at least how we know them; everything was just sent out together. So having sweetly spiced meat puddings would not have seemed strange. We don’t eat food like that anymore, except for the single survivor of this branch of the puddings – the Christmas Pudding.

[See this future post, however, for a correction]

The earliest description of the word pudding I could find is in the Bibliotheca scholastica from 1589. There is no real definition here, but examples of puddings and things associated with them. They all seem to be the kind made by stuffing intestines with various fillings. There are some interesting terms though: there was a pudding only eaten at funerals called a murtatum that was flavoured with myrtle berries, and a pudding-maker was called a silicernium.

In fact the earliest puddings do seem to be essentially sausages, so it seems our friends Messrs Gordon and Carey were probably incorrect. Though they were right about one thing: the pudding is certainly a British invention that was developed from the sausages the Romans brought into the country in the first century BC. The word pudding comes from the Latin word botellus, which means literally sausage; the French word boudin has the same root.

So there you go, a pudding was originally a boiled sausage, but selection throughout time has evolved them radially into a huge range of foods, both sweet and savoury and as far as I know, there isn’t a single one I don’t like. Usually I try to give an exhaustive list of dishes, but the list would probably go on for ever if I use the word pudding in its broad sense; therefore I’m just going to list the kind that I consider the true puddings, i.e. the boiled or steamed ones. Hopefully I’ll provide the histories and recipes for them. Of course, if I have missed any puddings out please let me know. I’m sure there are some glaringly obvious ones that I have forgotten. Okay, here we go:

Those boiled in intestines:

Black pudding

White pudding

Haggis

Those that are steamed in a basin and are savoury:

Steak, kidney and oyster pudding

Minted lamb pudding

Pork and apple pudding

Leek and onion pudding

Mutton, apple and raisin roly-poly

Mussel and leek roly-poly

Pease pudding

Those that are steamed in a basin and are for afters:

Christmas pudding

Jam roly-poly

Spotted Dick

Sussex pond pudding

Steamed sponge pudding

Sticky toffee pudding

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15 Comments

Filed under food, history, Puddings

15 responses to “What is a pudding?

  1. Kathryn Marsh

    Taking issue on the sticky toffee pudding – try steaming it rather than baking and you’ll never go back.
    Also in the family repertoire are a pork and apple pudding and a mutton, apple and raisin roly poly that is flavoured with cinnamon and cloves.
    By the way, have you ever met the variation on a Scottish mutton pie that is topped up after baking with melted redcurrant jelly?
    But on the classifications I think one should include batter puddings. While the Yorkshire seems to be only survivor nowadays I think this is more that all the other batter puddings are now mislabeled. The Yorkshire pudding as commonly taught these days is a much heavier beast, as I’m sure you know, with extra eggs to make sure it doesn’t collapse after baking so that it is much less airy and crisp than those that came out of the ovens beside cottager grates in the days of my youth. The modern version more resembles what my non-Yorkshire grandmother made as a Lincolnshire batter pudding – though hers had chopped onion, bacon and a lot of fresh parsley. And in the 60s a couple of pubs in Kent served in season Kent cherry pudding which had both more egg and some melted butter in the batter. And Michael’s Somerset grandmother used to serve a plum batter pudding which she called Worcester plum pudding.
    Have you ever tried to make one of those batter puddings on an open hearth under a spit roast? I’ve had a few attempts over the years but nothing has been entirely satisfactory

  2. buttery77

    I felt a bit bad leaving out the Yorkshire pudding, being from Leeds, but I am sure I will get round to adding a post on Yorkshire and other batter puddings. I wanted to be strict with the classifications and just include a certain type, otherwise the list would have been crazyly long. The other puddings you mention I had not come across but all sound excellent. I will have to hit the recipe books.

    I have never tried making Yorkshire puddings on an open hearth, but i would like the opportunity to do that, tohugh i’m not sure how I would find someone who has one that they use for cooking….

  3. Wotcha! I find a few of your points concerning puddings very interesting. The past two centuries have seen an amazing development in the production and cooking methods of puddings and cakes. I hope you will visit my blog when you have a moment. The articles on war-time rationing alone may interest you.
    I shall be following your blog as time allows!

  4. buttery77

    you have a very nice blog – I keep meaning to add you to my blog-roll. I will definitely have a proper look soon…

    I noticed you’ve just done a post on treacle – I was planning to write one on the very same topic…

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  10. Joshua Clark

    Thanks for this clear and concise explanation. I am intrigued with the diference between American and British words and how they are used.

    • Thanks Joshua, glad you’ve found it interesting – after living in the US for a couple of years I found there are many food words that were different. Some older English words have died out in the UK, but are still used in the US! A possible post idea there!

  11. Nancy schmidt

    So how did Americans come to mostly refer to milk puddings as pudding. Tapioca, chocolate etcetcetc. The English nursery rhyme “boys and girls come out to play—–“. Ends with “you find milk and I’ll find flour, and well have pudding in half an hour”. A milk pudding it seems.

    • Hi Nancy – why pudding applies to just one type of dessert in the USA, I’m not sure. Maybe it was just a bottlenecking of terms, phrases and recipes. The rhyme mentions milk, but many desserts contain milk, I’ve assumed the pudding in question to be something like a spotted dick. A yorkshire pudding is just flour, milk and eggs.

      But it’s a good point – if you’re right, then it an amazing coincidence!!

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