Well didn’t Autumn descend rather quickly this year? It was quite the shock to the system. Sat inside watching the persistent Manchester drizzle, my mind turned to steamed puddings, and the pud came to me was the classic suet pudding known as Apple Hat. For the uninitiated, it’s a pudding cooked in a basin lined with suet pastry and filled with apples, sugar and spices.
In the cold autumn and winter months, apples were one of the few fruits that could be stored fresh, therefore there are lots of recipes for apple-based puddings and desserts in British cookery; in fact, someone could probably write a blog on that subject alone! Apples were essentially the spuds of the fruit world: cheap, hearty, easy to grow and a big crowd-pleaser.
So why is it a hat? Well that’s because when the pudding is turned out onto a plate, it looks like a hat, the plate being the brim. Simple as that.*
The dessert doesn’t have to be made with apples of course – rhubarb, pears and gooseberries all work excellently. The tart fruit can be flavoured with any sugar you like, though some believe golden syrup should be used. If you’re being a real stickler for tradition, the apples would be flavoured with a few cloves, but they can be omitted or substituted with mixed spice, cinnamon or even a star anise. I like to substitute some of the apples with a few raisins or with some quinces, blackberries or blackcurrants. If you are feeling opulent, you could add a knob of butter or the grated zest of half a lemon or orange.
Apple Hat appears to be of a Victorian vintage – the earliest example I can find is in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 work Modern Cookery for Private Families, it’s simply called an ‘Apple Pudding’ but it is made up of apples encased in suet pastry and steamed, though in her book it is made in a pudding cloth rather than a basin and therefore boiled, as what typical of puddings at the time.
Steamed puddings were a cornerstone of British cooking, but they are a dying breed now. I don’t think it’s because they are hard to make, folk certainly still like them, and it can’t be that they are too expensive (they are quite the opposite). No, I think it’s because they take so long to cook – often several hours – which seems like a great waste of energy today. Long gone are the days that the family coal range would be on all day every day where it made perfect sense to utilise the energy given off. Nowadays it makes more sense to bake something instead. That said, you can successfully steam a pudding in a slow cooker, and many modern ovens have built in steamers that require much less energy, so there is hope of a comeback yet.
I use a regular steamer, but if you don’t have one you can easily make one by placing a folded tea towel on the bottom of a large saucepan with an upturned saucer on top of that. The pudding can sit on top of the saucer and filled halfway with boiling water. (The tea towel stops the saucer rattling).
Here’s my recipe for Apple Hat but remember you can use whatever spices and fruits you like. I fancied a few sultanas and I went for the knob of butter, natch.
You can make it vegan by making the pastry with your favourite plant milk or water.
Serves 6 (or 4 if everyone has second helpings):
220 g self-raising flour
110 g fresh or shredded suet
140 ml milk or water
Butter for greasing the basin
2 dsp Demerara or light brown sugar (optional)
450 g apples of any kind, but Bramley apples are best, peeled and cored weight
Spices (optional): e.g. 5 cloves or 1 star anise, or ½ tsp mixed spice, cinnamon, etc.
40 g caster sugar, light brown sugar or golden syrup
A knob of butter (about 15 g; optional)
Make the suet pastry either by hand or with a mixer – see this post for instructions.
Grease a 1-litre/2-pint pudding basin liberally with butter, then shake in the Demerara or brown sugar, if using, rotating the bowl to completely coat the butter.
Roll out three-quarters of the dough into a round large enough to line the basin, using the bowl to check it is large enough. Keeping everything well-floured, fold the dough into quarters and place inside the bowl so that the corner is in the very centre of the base and unfold it, pressing the pastry down well and popping any air bubbles.
Chop the apple into chunks between 1 ½ and 2 cm in size and put in the bowl, tucking in any whole spices, if using. If using ground spices, mix them with the sugar and shake over the apples, tapping the bowl a few times to disperse it evenly.
Now roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid, gluing it down with a little more milk or water. Press down the edges to seal and trim away excess. Make a steam hole and pop the lid on and cover with a lid, or tie on a pleated piece of greaseproof paper and foil.
Steam for two hours over a medium-high heat for the first 20 minutes, then turn down to a medium-low heat for the remaining time. Don’t forget to check the water level now and again.
When ready, remove the lid, loosen the edges with a small knife and turn out onto a serving plate. Serve with plenty of proper custard (obvs.).
*Before you write in, I do know that there is another dessert with the same name consisting of steamed sponge topped with a stewed fruit ‘hat’, but that sort of hat is a more recent invention and therefore loses out.
English Cooking: Discover the true value of pie (2015) Sophie Waugh, The Spectator 28 November 2015
Good Old-Fashioned Puddings (1983) Sara Paston-Williams
Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) Eliza Acton