Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sticky Toffee Pudding

For the past couple of months, I've had sticky toffee pudding on my mind. I've only had this dessert once before. I found a pre-made pan of sticky toffee pudding in Whole Foods and I bought it on a whim. Even though I knew it was probably a poor substitute for the real thing, I thought it was delicious.

This sweet treat is a modern English recipe, thus the use of the word "pudding", which our neighbors over the big pond use to describe a number of different styles of dessert.  It involves a moist and fluffy cake, traditionally steamed, bathed in a buttery toffee sauce and served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. The secret ingredient, the thing that gives the cake its sticky texture and fruity richness, is chopped dates. 

I was watching Kevin Dundon's show on PBS and he prepared this dessert. I became somewhat obsessed. My mind would wander and I would find myself thinking sticky toffee pudding.  Just the words "sticky toffee pudding" evoke images in my mind of this unique dessert.  I'd been reading recipes and reviews and finally had a free weekend to experiment. 

I poked through a number of different recipes and settled on one that yielded the smallest quantity, just in case my first attempt was a failure. All the recipes I'd seen called for the large and meaty medjool variety of dates, which I found at my favorite gourmet store. Since this recipe uses a lot of butter, I chose high quality Plugra Europpean style butter. 


1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup pitted, chopped dates
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup unsalted butter at room temp, very soft
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cinnamon 

1 stick butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup light brown sugar, packed

The recipe starts with the cake. I set the oven to 350 and greased a 10 inch square baking pan. I chopped up the dates, placed them in a bowl and poured the boiling water over them. Following the recipe, I added the baking soda to the dates and set them aside to soften. This step helps to activate the baking soda, which makes the cake rise in the oven. Next I sifted together the flour, cinnamon and baking powder and set it aside. In the bowl of the mixer, I creamed the butter and sugar together until they were fluffy and well mixed. Then I added the egg and vanilla and mixed it until well blended. Then it was time for the dates. 

Some recipes suggested adding the dates in pieces, which would result in sticky little chunks in the finished cake. Kevin Dundon pureed the dates and blended the puree into the batter, resulting in a dark and dense cake. My approach was to blend the dates but to leave them still just a bit chunky. I added the blended dates to the batter and mixed well.  Finally, I added the dry ingredients and mixed them in by hand to avoid over-mixing.The batter was speckled with date pieces and it had a golden color. I poured the batter into the greased pan and put it in the oven. The recipe called for a 35 minute bake time, but my cake was done in about 25 minutes. The cake is done when the top is slightly springy, it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 

While the cake was baking, I turned my attention to the toffee sauce. I had a moment of panic when I started to assemble the ingredients and realized that I'd forgotten to buy heavy cream. I substituted half and half, but I think my sauce would have turned out better if I'd had proper cream. I used the same proportions and put the ingredients into a small saucepan over medium low heat. The recipe instructed to let the sauce simmer until it began to thicken and turn a rich caramel color. Mine cooked for about 10 minutes and it looked good to me when I took it off the heat. By the time my sauce was done, the cake had come out of the oven and I poured a thin layer of the sauce over the top of the cake while it was hot from the oven. I let it cool for about 15 minutes, but by the time the cake had cooled, the sauce had started to seize up in the pot, so I put it back over low heat to remelt it. 

To serve, I poured a little sauce on the plate, placed a square of cake over the sauce and poured more sauce on top. I added a scoop of vanilla gelato to the side. The cake itself was fluffy and ethereal with little sticky pieces of dates studded throughout. The sauce was not exactly as I'd hoped - the consistency was just a little too thick for my taste, but it tasted wonderful, especially with the vanilla ice cream. I definitely have room for improvement, but this was a good first attempt. I have family coming for Thanksgiving this year. Guess what I'll be serving for dessert?