Say what you will about English cooking, the Brits know pudding.
They so love their custards, fools, trifles, and duffs that they’ve come to refer to all desserts as pudding. None is so magical to my mind as summer pudding. Only alchemy could turn something as prosaic as white bread, berries and sugar into something so gorgeous, elegant and delicious.
The Oxford Companion of Food traces the first published recipe for summer pudding to a missionary in India. But I first tasted it in a hip East Berlin restaurant not long after the wall came down. I still remember the vivid fuchia color and the bright berry flavor that seemed to distill the essence of summer. It was like no other dessert I knew, neither as rich as pastry or as creamy as a typical pudding. I was smitten.
So when I was casting about last week for something different to make with a portion of the 15 pounds of olallieberries my husband and I had just picked at Coastways Ranch north of Santa Cruz, summer pudding leaped straight to mind.
Traditionally the pudding is made with red currants – like the one I ate in Berlin. But currants aren’t nearly as common in Northern California as they are in England. I see them rarely at farmers markets and then only in the tiniest cartons.
Still, many British chefs use a combination of blackberries and raspberries for summer pudding, which leads us right to olallieberries. Developed at Oregon State University in 1949, the popular hybrid traces its genetics back to both blackberries and raspberries. The berries are fat and juicy like the best blackberries but carry some of the sharp tang of raspberries.
The hardest part of making a summer pudding may well be finding a loaf of nice, firm-textured white bread. In this era of whole grains, the only white bread my local grocery store carries is those airy balloon loaves I grew up with and they’re tucked away on a remote shelf. Area bakeries tend to specialize in artisan and whole grain breads. All of which is good news for nutrition but not so good for summer pudding.
I made a loaf of brioche in my bread machine for the recipe but later found some good organic white bread at Whole Foods and some old-fashioned white loaves at Safeway. They would work just fine with the bonus that you don’t have to worry about cutting slices to a uniform thickness.
The outline of this recipe is drawn from a collection of cookbooks by British culinary icon Elizabeth David, who specifies fresh red currants. To add a little depth to the olallieberries, I stirred in a couple of tablespoons of French creme de cassis that I keep around for making kirs. If you don’t have any of the liqueur, try adding lemon zest to pump up the flavors. I like that approach, too.
Although this recipe is incredibly easy, unmolding the pudding can be problematic. My first effort fell to pieces when I turned it out onto the plate. Yet the pudding still tasted so good when I spooned it into bowls, no one noticed.
A little creme fraiche or Greek yogurt covers a multitude of sins.
5 cups berries
1¼ cups sugar
2 tablespoons Creme de Cassis
or the grated zest of 1 lemon
8-10 slices day old white bread, cut thinly as if for sandwiches.
Rinse berries with cool water in a colander and let drain. In a medium saucepan, bring berries and sugar to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until berries begin to soften and exude their juice. Do not over cook, You want most of the berries to remain whole.
Remove crusts from bread and line a deep 2 quart dish – a souffle dish works well – with bread, cutting the slices to fit and overlapping them slightly to avoid creating any gaps through which the berries and juice could run out. Although you can patch the bread together in any fashion, one good plan is to cut one or two large pieces to fit the bottom and long rectangles to place vertically along the sides. Using a slotted spoon, fill the cavity to the top with berries, reserving some of the juice. Cover the berries with additional slices of bread. Drizzle the reserved juice evenly all.
Cover the dish loosely with plastic wrap. On top, place a plate that fits inside the dish. Weight the plate with a heavy can to compress the pudding and refrigerate over night.
Before serving, run a butter knife around the inside edge of the dish to loosen the pudding, then invert dish on a large, deep plate and shake to release. Serve with creme fraiche, sour cream or thick Greek yogurt.