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 When most people on this side of the pond hear the word "pudding," they think of a creamy, custardy concoction.

But Americans are beginning to learn about pudding in the British sense of the word -- a rich, moist, dense dessert that's almost invariably served warm, with a generous dollop of thickened cream.

Dickensian puddings are truly the quintessential cold weather dessert.

There are Queen's Pudding and brandy-torched Plum Pudding -- that classic Christmas confection -- and puddings with funny names, such as Roly-Poly and Spotted Dick. Some are acquired tastes. But one wins over nearly everyone who tries it -- Sticky Toffee Pudding.

The caramelized sweet originated in England nearly a century ago, but it began enjoying a trendy revival in its homeland during the 1990s.

These days, you can find sticky toffee puddings in almost every pub in Britain and Australia -- and it's popped up on a number of restaurant menus, too, including Tyler Florence's new Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. Chef Michael Dotson of Martins West Gastropub, in Redwood City, Calif., has had the iconic British pudding on the menu since the pub opened last year.

"I'm fascinated by old recipes and reinterpreting them," he says. "We pulled it apart and completely rebuilt it. Most people make it too sweet, and we took it in more of a savory direction."

The result is more of a cakelike dessert with deep, complex flavors from chopped dates, brown sugar, coffee and Scotch. Served warm from the oven, the finished pudding is topped with a buttery toffee sauce.

Initially, diners were confused when they ordered "pudding," and a cake arrived.

"Some people got angry," he says. "But, eventually, it stopped. Everybody loved it."

Sticky Toffee Pudding eventually proved so popular that Dotson says he can't take it off the menu for fear of upsetting people.

Tracy Claros, owner of the Texas-based Sticky Toffee Pudding Co., agrees that Americans are finally coming around to the British pudding concept.

The English native, whose creations have been featured in Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine, considers herself a bit of a pudding ambassador. Her sticky toffee pudding won a gold medal at this year's Fancy Food Show in New York City.

Now that sticky toffee pudding has captured American taste buds, can other puddings be far behind?

Anyone who reads Dickens or watches period dramas on BBC knows plum pudding as the classic Christmas dessert, often served with a sprig of holly and set aflame with a little brandy.

There are centuries of tradition behind the recipe most commonly used today, which consists of dried fruits -- the word "plum" once referred to any dried fruit -- as well as flour, breadcrumbs, eggs and spices. The flavors are similar to fruitcake, but less heavy and dense in texture. At one time, beef suet was used, but many cooks now substitute butter for that hard-to-find ingredient. Instead of being baked, the pudding is typically steamed in a covered bowl or pudding mold for several hours.

Plum pudding was often part of American Christmas feasts in the early 20th century, but its popularity declined after World War II with the advent of the first successful boxed cake mixes. Changing tastes caused the pudding to all but disappear from most celebrations.

These days, Claros makes a lighter version with currants, hazelnuts and fresh apples. It's baked in a Bain-Marie, rather than steamed on the stovetop. But even Claros admits plum pudding can be an acquired taste.

"As a child, I didn't like it so much," she says. "You have to have it a few times."

Dotson gets occasional requests for the plum version around the holidays, but he thinks the sticky toffee version holds a special place in customers' hearts.

"I've done persimmon puddings in the past that were very good," he says. "But people didn't get it."

Claros agrees. Her lemon pudding, which she says was inspired by British celebrity chef Delia Smith's Hot Citrus Pudding, won the best baked good category at the Fancy Food Show three years ago, but it lags behind its sister sweet in popularity.

STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING

Serves: 8-9

1-3/4 cups flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

8 ounces chopped dates

1 cup water

1 teaspoon instant coffee powder

1 ounce Scotch

6 ounces butter, room temperature

1 cup brown sugar

4 eggs, room temperature

1/2 tablespoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sift together the flour, salt and spices.

Combine water, instant coffee and Scotch; heat to boiling. Pour over dates and let soften 10 minutes. Puree dates and liquid in food processor.

Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating until incorporated.

Add half the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just incorporated.

Add baking soda to date mixture, then pour into batter, mixing until incorporated. Add remaining dry ingredients and mix until barely incorporated. Do not overmix.

Spray nine 3-inch ring molds lightly with vegetable oil, and place on a baking sheet. Spoon 2 ounces of batter into each mold. Bake for 12 minutes in a convection oven, rotate pan and bake 7 minutes more. (Or, pour the batter into a greased 9-inch round cake or springform pan and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.) Remove cakes from rings when just cool enough to handle. Do not allow them to cool completely in ring molds or they will stick. Serve with toffee sauce.

TOFFEE SAUCE

Makes: about 3 cups

1 stick butter

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cups corn syrup

2/3 cup heavy cream

1 1/2 ounces Scotch

Salt to taste

In a large pot over medium heat, bring butter, sugars and corn syrup to a boil. Let boil for about 4 minutes.

Carefully whisk in cream and Scotch -- it will hiss and steam like a caramel. Cool, and season.

This makes more sauce than is needed but it's great over ice cream or just out of the jar.

Recipe courtesy of chef Michael Dotson, Martins West Gastropub, Redwood City, Calif.

 

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