Ask Peter: Steamed puddings
Why do some steamed puddings have to be cooked in those special basins with baking paper on top and steamed for hours and hours, while others can be made quite quickly? If they have suet in them, does that make them unsafe if they are not steamed for all that time? I love the taste of those old fashioned puds Mum made, but only have an hour or so to make a pudding during the week.
It might be good at the outset to point out that those vegetarians reading this should avoid suet completely. Suet is the very dense white fat that surrounds and protects the kidneys from bumps and knocks in both cattle and sheep and it’s also found protecting the loins of these animals. Though it’s used in traditional desserts such as Christmas pudding and treacle puddings, you can use alternatives such as butter, although the result will be quite different. Suet is also used to produce tallow, which is basically fat that has been simmered for a long period of time before being filtered, then cooked and filtered again. Tallow is used for frying chips, as a candle fuel, it produces biodiesel, and is used in shaving foams and soaps.
When I was a child we rendered our own beef fat down — and indeed used it to deep-fry our chips as well as beer battered fish and oysters. I have to say I prefer the lightness oil gives to these but a good tallow-roasted potato can be a thing of beauty. Tallow needn’t be kept in the fridge, whereas suet most definitely should be. If you were to eat an undercooked suet pudding you wouldn’t become ill — unless the suet had been out of the fridge on a sunny windowsill for a few days turning rancid. But then you wouldn’t eat anything under those circumstances.
As to the difference between those puddings cooked in “old fashioned” closed containers, often wrapped in pudding cloth, and those cooked quickly in muffin tins or loaf tins and the likes, traditional puddings have a history of sorts. In days gone by, with home kills the norm and a leaning towards austerity and a lack of food waste, the fat around the kidneys was a prized thing. It wasn’t something to be thrown out, especially as vegetable oils were rare, and butter was costly. Someone obviously discovered that suet added a moistness to a pudding, and preserved the shelf-life of a cake or dumpling. The fact they took longer to cook was less of an issue, but now of course we want immediate results . Usually we are time- short, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good alternatives out there. And also we have microwaves!
Most years I tend to buy a Christmas pudding. I always intend to make one myself, but suddenly it’s December 10 and I realise I haven’t even thought about the process. I hunt around and find the latest one on the market — possibly Heston’s delicious orange-stuffed ones, perhaps a gorgeous whiskey-soaked one from Fortnum’s, or a chocolate, chilli and currant number from my local market in Hackney. I read the instructions , which say: steam for two to three hours, or microwave for six to seven minutes. For me it’s a no-brainer (sorry Gran) — the environmentalist in me feels that a 7-minute electrical blast must be kinder on the environment than all that water, gas, and steaming for several hours. Plus, to be honest, I generally only think about the pudding as I’m clearing away the turkey. I always make the custard and brandy butter.
But this year I will make my own . . . So, to make a great pudding without using suet, search for recipes on Bite. Many “steamed pudding’’ recipes are not steamed at all, but they do produce a texture similar. A sticky toffee pudding made in a deep roasting dish, can be a great substitute for Gran’s steamed pudding; it will be lighter, quicker to make and possibly more universal in its appeal.
But, and I do mean this, find the time to make an old fashioned steamed pudding with a marmalade base, and you’ll never regret it.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.