‘I have nothing but rapt adoration and the greatest of respect for this sugary art form’: Tom Parker Bowles on the perfection of puddings

What? More puddings? Definitely yes, says Tom Parker Bowles, as he celebrates our desire to devour sweet, sticky and spoiling delights, from trifles, crumbles and fools to fruit pies and piping-hot, steamed treacle sponges.

Well, here I am again, banging on about pudding. Just like last month. Is the man going mad, I hear you cry? Have we not had enough of his suet-soaked ramblings? How much steak and kidney can one man take?

But worry not, dear reader, as this time, it’s all sweet. And not only steamed puddings, but syllabubs and flummeries, trifles and crumbles, custards, creams and fools. Not forgetting spotted dicks, roly polys, fruit pies and tipsy squires. For the British pudding cabinet is lavishly stocked, our greatest gift to world gastronomy. Well, that and Scampi Fries.

‘Blessed be he who invented pudding,’ sighed French traveller M. Misson during the last spoonful of the 17th century, ‘for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people.’ Better still, he goes on, his senses soaring on a heady sugar high, pudding is ‘a manna better than that of the wilderness, because the people are never weary of it’.

It’s a rare Frenchman who revels in English food, but he’s not alone. Although my tastes are resolutely savoury, I have nothing but rapt adoration and the greatest of respect for this sugary art form. Because sweet puddings are all about pleasure, not guilt. They play no part in dreary diets, faddish fasts or puritanical regimes, nor make up any of your five a day. Nope, a pudding is single minded in its dedication to your own exultation.

“No one can fault a true English pudding”

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I’ll spare you the usual history (this is a treat, after all), save to say that sugar, once a ruinously expensive import, became relatively affordable sometime in the 15th century when the Portuguese, in Brazil, managed to industrialise the process and dramatically bring down prices. Despite the fact that slavery, unfortunately and inevitably, would long sully its sweet allure, a quick glance through Mary Norwak’s English Puddings (a stone-cold classic) shows quite how vast the national repertoire was and still is.

The names alone are good enough to devour: whim wham and spotted dog, cherry whirl and tipsy cake. And there’s one for every mood and whim, from the elegant delicacy of a lemon posset, minimalist in its simplicity, to the baroque magnificence of a proper trifle, heavy on the custard and booze. There’s the nursery-tinged nostalgia of apple snow, treacle tart and bread-and-butter pudding, the comfort of rhubarb crumble and Cambridge burnt cream (take that, crème brûlée, you French interloper) and the tart allure of a gooseberry fool.

Yet, despite the depth and breadth of British pudding culture, one vexing question remains. What do we actually call that last course? ‘Dessert,’ according to Norwak, is ‘an inept refinement,’ and in my view too American, too corporate, too, well, over-sanitised. ‘Afters’ she sees as ‘workmanlike schoolboy slang’.

As for ‘sweet’? Ugh. Trite and twee and makes the teeth ache just thinking about it. A ‘niminy-piminy shortening of the sweet course’, in the great lady’s view. As she so rightly argued, the French have their patisserie, the Italians their fruit and ice, the Germans and Austrians dumplings and strudels. ‘But no one can fault a true English pudding.’

Amen to that. So pudding it was, pudding it is and pudding it always will be.

How to make a perfect teamed treacle sponge pudding

Despite this month’s column being about sweet puddings in their every guise, the treacle sponge really is a steamed superhero, the sort of great British pudding that can melt the heart of even the most strident of sugar avoiders. Few sights can be quite as majestic—a great monolith of light, but substantial, sponge soaked in torrents of treacle. And really don’t stint on the treacle. A judicious splodge of custard makes things better still. The recipe comes from Delia, because, when it comes to the classics, nobody does it better.


Serves 6–8

  • Two-pint (1.2-litre) pudding basin, well buttered
  • 3tbspn golden syrup
  • 6oz (175g) self-raising flour
  • 1 rounded tspn baking powder
  • 6oz (175g) butter, softened
  • 3 large eggs
  • 6oz (175g) soft light-brown sugar
  • 1tbpsn black treacle
  • 3 extra tbspn of golden syrup
  • Custard or crème fraîche


First of all, butter the basin, then measure three tablespoons of golden syrup into it.

Then take a large mixing bowl, sift the flour and baking powder into it, add the softened butter, eggs, sugar and black treacle. Next, using an electric hand whisk (or a large fork and lots of elbow grease), beat the mixture for about two minutes until it’s thoroughly blended.

Now spoon the mixture into the basin and level the top using the back of the tablespoon.

Place a sheet of foil over greaseproof paper, make a pleat in the centre and place this, foil-side uppermost, on top of the pudding.

Pull it down the sides and tie the string, taking the string over the top and tying it on the other side to make yourself a handle for lifting. Trim off the excess paper all the way around.

Now steam the pudding for two hours, checking the water level halfway through. To serve, loosen the pudding all around using a palette knife, invert it onto a warmed plate and pour an extra three tablespoons of syrup (warmed, if you like) over the top before taking it to the table.

Serve with custard or some well-chilled crème fraîche.