The case of the pudding

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I have a book called English puddings Sweet and Savory by Mary Norwak. Actually it isn’t my book, it’s my dad’s, a gift from my mum to her pudding devoted husband. Dad – it will be returned. It’s a glorious little book, part history, part recipe book and part rhapsody on the noble treat that is English pudding. I’ve spent the last few days lost in fools, flummeries and frumenty, in thoughts of thin cream pancakes scented with orange flower water, tipsy cakes and trifles, in hungry contemplation of apricot tansy, spiced cherries and Mrs Wightman’s delicious sauce.

Uncharacteristic behaviour I know. For although I am most definitely my father’s daughter: height and shortsightedness, views on breakfast and taking the bus, Elvis Costello and fractious Philip Larkin, I don’t usually share his intense passion for pudding. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a spoonful or slice every now and then, I do. I just don’t save space or get unduly excited about pudding. Well not usually.

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I pulled The book of English puddings from the shelf to cross reference a recipe that had caught my eye in Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy called tartarà dolce. Always on the lookout for connections and similarities, a sort of inept Miss Marple contemplating evidence in old recipe books, the recipe for tartarà dolce or almond pudding seemed familiar. On opening my dad’s treasury of puds at chapter 3: Custards, creams and fools, I realised why! Tartarà dolce, an old farmhouse recipe from Piemonte in northern Italy, is almost identical to an old English recipe for almond cream I’d bookmarked a while back.

Of course there is sense to this gastronomic likeness, reasons why two such different places have almost identical dishes. Sense and reasons comprehensible even to an incompetent detective like myself (that said, I did single-handedly resolve the case of the missing gorgonzola last week: it was Ms Roddy, with a cheese knife, in the kitchen.) The Greeks are credited with the invention of custard; that is milk – whether it be cow’s, sheep’s or almond – thickened with eggs. The Romans, great keepers of domestic fowl, borrowed the idea. The Normans too. Both of whom brought these ideas to England. Medieval recipes in both English and Italian recipes books note the delicate custards and creams of the wealthy (often scented with spices and thickened with almonds brought by boat from the Mediterranean,) while folklore gives us clues about the elemental and sustaining dishes of those of more modest means.

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It was timely connection too. I’ve been meaning to write about a custard-like pudding here for a while. I was toing and froing between something Italian: zabaglione (whipped eggs yolks, sugar and Marsala wine) or Creme di mascarpone (mascarpone cheese with egg yolks, beaten whites, sugar and an unruly slosh of rum) or something English: honey syllabub (double cream, sherry, clear honey) or the irresistibly named suck cream (cream, sugar, egg yolks and white wine.) Then there was this, a recipe common to both here and there, a gentle egg custard scented with lemon zest and thickened with both sweet and bitter almonds! Almond cream or tartarà dolce it would be.

Having separated the eggs (and set the whites aside while mumbling I will, I will make meringues! I will not watch you slither shamefully down the plughole on Sunday) you put the yolks and sugar in a bowl suspended over a pan of gently boiling water. You stir until the mixture is as pale and smooth as Tilda Swinton and then you add the milk you have warmed with the lemon zest. You keep stirring diligently, figure of eighting and beating as best you can with a wooden spoon (a metal balloon whisk would make the mixture too frothy.)

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Once the mixture has thickened a little – not much though, it should coat the back of the spoon in much the same way as single cream – you add the ground and chopped bitter almonds. You stir and stir. The almond cream is ready when the mixture is as thick as double cream but still pourable, at which point you divide your almond cream between four glasses or ramekins.

Luca and I ate a glassful immediately while sitting on the kitchen floor. I spend rather a lot of my time on the kitchen floor these days! Alas no! I’m either wiping, weeping, picnicking, arranging farm-yard animals or constructing some sort of tiny transport system. Sat on the floor eating a warm, softly set custard-like-cream. A custard-like-cream given substance by almonds, a tart lift by lemon zest and marzipan whiplash by bitter almonds.

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There is something othertimely about this pudding. It’s adaptable too, one moment an elegant, scented cream fit for a fine table, the next a wholesome, nourishing pud at ease in a rowdy family kitchen or a cramped Roman one in April.  Ah yes, what an excellent thing is an English/Italian pudding I might have thought if I was Dr Johnson or hadn’t been quite so busy supervising an over excited 18 month old brandishing both our spoons and a glass of sweet cream pudding.

We ate another at lunchtime, chilled, which meant it was another thing altogether; more firmly set, the flavours settled but more pronounced without the warmth. It was maybe even more delicious! I think almond cream would be nice with shortbread or sable biscuits. Now If you’ll excuse me I need to go and investigate the case of the missing telephone. I have a horrible feeling the child did it, with a splash, in the bathroom.

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Almond cream, Almond pudding or Tartarà dolce

Adapted from English puddings Sweet and Savory by Mary Norwak and Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy

serves 4

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 75 g fine sugar
  • 500 ml whole milk or single cream
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • 100 g ground almonds
  • 6 bitter almonds finely chopped or a few drops of almond essence
  • a few drops of orange flower water (optional)

Beat the egg yolks together with the sugar in a bowl sitting over boiling water until smooth, pale and creamy. In a small pan mix the milk and the lemon zest, bring to the boil, cool slightly and then add to the egg mixture which is still balanced over boiling water.

Keep stirring the mixture until it thickens (it will only do so a little.) Add the almonds, essence and orange flower water if you are using it and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has become a thick cream. Pour into glasses or ramekins. Serve warm or cold.

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42 Comments

Filed under almonds, Eggs, food, Puddings, recipes

42 responses to “The case of the pudding

  1. I LOVE almonds, I think I’m going to have to try this!

    • rachel

      It is an almond lovers pudding. I hope you can find the bitter almonds (health food shops or specialist spice shops may have them) they heighten the flavour.

  2. Rachel, I hate to ask what feels like a question I should know the answer to, but what are bitter almonds? Will they be called that in the store? Thanks in advance – loved the phrase “as pale and smooth as Tilda Swinton”! -s

    • rachel

      Shanna, it is an excellent question and one I should have answered in the post. There are two types of almonds: sweet and bitter, We are all familiar with sweet. Bitter are – as their name suggests – bitter with a pronounced marzipan flavour. They taste very similar to the kernel inside a peach or apricot stone (in fact apricot kernels are often used instead of bitter almonds in macaroons). Health food shops, Italian delis and spice dens may have them. They are really worth seeking out as just one or two heighten the flavor making the pudding intensely almondy. Just ask for bitter almonds, They look just like slightly small and slim sweet almonds. Hope you and Tim are well x

  3. Would love to try this! Just a question- do you think it will set the same way without the sugar?

    • rachel

      Hi Deepa, I am not absolutely sure but I imagine so, it is the eggs and almonds that are doing the thickening. The pudding does need some sort of sweetener though, especially if you include the fantastic bitter almonds too. I wonder if honey would work?
      Let me know
      R

  4. that looks so simple to prepare yet I believe I believe I will have a hard time preparing this one since I’m not good in cooking. The only thing I know is I’m good in eating…

  5. I love puddings and almons as well! A must try!

  6. Have been living near Piemonte for two decades and had never heard of that dessert. It sounds delicious, whether Italian or English or both. A must try. Perhaps listening to some Elvis Costello… what could be better?

    • rachel

      I had never heard of it either and I couldn’t find any other references except for an Artusi recipe for Tartarà with ricotta. The Roden recipe has good credentials though (she always does), Franco columbani I think. Apparently it is an old farmhouse recipe. There is also a recipe for savory Tartarà. I want to investigate further. It is a nice pudding. Elvis costello always. Rx

  7. Delightful. I love that Luca gets excited about his food. Lucky boy.

    • rachel

      So excited he throws it, everywhere. I might make it sounds romantic in the blog, in reality it is such hard work, so much cleaning, but you know that. I shouldn’t complain though, being a mum suits me (mostly)
      Rx

  8. Ann

    This sounds SO delicious. In America pudding means exactly this type of custardy sweet, but I’ve always loved the British use as well.

  9. Beautiful recipe and photos.

  10. Ah, I do love a good pudding. I defy anyone to read this piece and not want to eat a dish of almond cream which starts with a base as smooth and pale as Tilda Swinton.

  11. Egg whites freeze really well, in little jam jars. Then there is no need for meringue guilt. And macarons (so probs other beaten egg white cookies?) are technically better with ‘aged’ (48 hours old) whites.

    Tartara dolce looks divine. Much more ethereal than the solid word Pudding, satisfying though it might be to pronounce. Buon weekend! xx

    • rachel

      You see I need to know this. This information will prevent much guilt. Aged whites! Excellent advice and perfect for an age(ing) mum.
      So I have confronted both caramel and custard fear! Now for the real test – creme caramel.
      Buon weekend to you too xx

  12. As soon as i can get to the shops, I shall buy the ingredients for this. Definitely one to try. :-)

  13. “…fractious Philip Larkin…” “Mrs. Roddy, with the knife, in the kitchen.” “Alas, no.” “…the child did it, with a splash, in the bathroom.” Just in case you need a reality check: we get it, and we laugh a lot.

    Don’t get me wrong, the pudding sounds delicious, it’s the icing on the cake. The cake is above. Ken

    P.S. I don’t think I’ve even heard of Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy

    • rachel

      Ken, what can I say? You are a rare sort, one who reads all attentively. You even got the Alas no. I really should buy you (both) an aperitivo. Which I am sure I will one day, in Ostuni ideally, before a very long dinner.

  14. Anna Noble

    You can buy Mary Nowarks’s book very cheaply and it will be sent directly to your Dad. http://www.awesome.books.com Also egg whites are even better if they are frozen and later used for meringues!

  15. Rachel! Loving your blog, the fennel and orange number is fast becoming a fave in this house. Love it all, love the food, love the pictures, love the blog, well done. Mega bravo. If you are ever in Amsterdam look me up. Samira xxx

    • rachel

      Hello Samira,
      It is so nice to hear from you and I am so happy (and flattered) you like the blog. I really think Rom and I should come and visit (and eat obviously)
      love to you all xxx

  16. marzipan whiplash
    toing and froing
    othertimely

    oh, my dear. to read your words is better than to sip a strong hot cup of my beloved black brew. few things make that cut. very very few.

    thanks, as always, again.

    molly

    p.s. flummery. flummery flummery flummery.

  17. You are quite gifted. You even make me want to give weeping on the kitchen floor a go.

    • rachel

      In less than a month, you too can be weeping on my floor. I shall give you a kilo of onions to peel, then instruct you to take over farmanimal arranging with the child xx

  18. In order to make this, I must solve the case of the missing bitter almonds.
    looking forward to hanging out on the kitchen floor–less than two months!
    xN

    • rachel

      I cannot wait. You do know you will be missing Tracy in Rome by just days….there will be plenty more opportunities I know. I will take you to my bitter almond shop – you will love it. xx

  19. This recipe sounds divine! Your photography is gorgeous, as always. I’m going to try to make this with regular almonds (if you approve?) and am wondering how ground they need to be? Flour-like or more chunky? Any good recipes for meringue, or whatever else, to utilize the 4 leftover egg whites?

  20. Kasia

    I just love your blog. Thank you for existing!

  21. Pingback: Relish Blogs – Week 4.15

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