To be honest, I was never much of a fan of bread and butter pudding. My dislike of soggy bread and cake put desserts like this and trifle off the menu for me for a long time.
But somehow it has started to find favour with my palette and, while I probably wouldn’t cook it myself or choose it from a menu, I will happily wolf down seconds when it is served to me.
But now I’m putting my own preferences aside to explore the origins of this humble dish and give it the recognition it deserves as a classic British pud.
Bread and butter pudding seems to have originated in the 11th century, its original purpose being to use up stale bread rather than let it go to waste. It was known as “poor man’s pudding” in 13th century England due to its association with the lower classes. The upper classes, presumably, could afford to let their bread go to waste and so had no need for such a recipe.
The first know published recipe for the dish is in Eliza Smith’s 1728 book The Compleat Housewife.
“Take a two penny loaf, and a pound of fresh butter; spread it in very thin slices, as to eat; cut them off as you spread them, and stone half a pound of raisins, and wash a pound of currants; then put puff-paste at the bottom of a dish, and lay a row of your bread and butter, and strew a handful of currants, a few raisins, and some little bits of butter, and so do till your dish is full; then boil three pints of cream and thicken it when cold with the yolks of ten eggs, a grated nutmeg, a little salt, near half a pound of sugar, and some orange flower-water; pour this in just as the pudding is going into the oven,” she wrote.
And that’s all there is to it really – buttered bread, currants and/or raisins, covered in a spiced custard and baked in the oven until crispy on top.
Some modern-day cooks may argue that the custard mixture should be left to soak into the bread for an hour or so before being cooked, but everyone has their own personal preference and this dish can be adapted in any number of ways.
A later recipe published in 1845 by Eliza Acton suggested using lemon rind, cinnamon and almonds to flavour milk, which was then added to cream, sugar and beaten eggs. She also had the fantastic idea of adding a glass of brandy to the mixture (and who’s to say how big a glass is?).
The sky’s the limit really when it comes to deciding what to add. In the spirit of using up left-overs, have a rummage through your cupboards and if you find a nearly-empty packet of chocolate drops or dried fruit pieces, mix them in! Some people like to add a layer of jam or marmalade to each slice of bread to create an even more decadent pudding.
You needn’t limit yourself to just plain old white bread, either; anything from brioche to muffins to croissants will soak up the liquid nicely as long as it’s stale. If you’re using it fresh from the packet, leave it out overnight or dry it by putting it in the oven for 10 minutes so it can absorb the sauce properly.
Bread and butter pudding has come a long way from its origins as a pauper’s food. Nowadays you wouldn’t be surprised to find it on the menu at a Michelin starred restaurant (tarted up with a few fancy ingredients, of course).
Gordon Ramsay’s recipe, for example, features pain au chocolat, apricot jam, and vanilla pods. And Nigella has a recipe which uses ginger jam and rum, inspired by her grandmother’s way of making it.
Bread and butter pudding is so simple to make, it’s a great way to get children involved with baking as well. They will have fun arranging the layers of ingredients in the dish and, of course, devouring the end result. So get baking today and keep this great British dish alive.