The word ‘pudding’ is seemingly innocuous, but it has been one of the biggest causes of debate between me and my American friends. To an English person, pudding is self-explanatory. Pudding is pudding, dessert is pudding, and pudding is sometimes dessert (or pudding). To an American, pudding is pudding. Dessert is dessert. Pudding is dessert but dessert is not pudding. Confused? Allow me to explain.
In America, pudding specifically refers to the custard-like dessert pictured above – although it can come in different flavours such as vanilla and butterscotch too. There. Done explaining. In England…things get a bit more complex. For Brits, pudding is a blanket term for the sweet course at the end of a meal (American dessert), but it is also a specific term used for a number of sweet and savoury dishes.
Alrighty, so let’s get started. In England, pudding can refer to a number of savoury food items, such as steak and kidney pudding, black pudding (yes, the pig’s blood thing) or Yorkshire pudding. Why do we call these ‘puddings’? I really have no idea. The word ‘pudding‘ is supposed to have been derived from the French ‘boudin’, which came from the Latin ‘bodellus’, meaning sausage. This makes sense – kind of – because originally English puddings were basically things stuffed with meat.
Alright, so take ‘thing stuffed with meat’ and what do you think about? Pies, or meat-filled pastry. We Brits often shoved things in pastry or wrapped them in cloth (and called them pudding) and this evolved into both sweet and savoury results. Likewise, a pudding in the old-fashioned meaty sense often had suet (animal fat) in it for flavour and moisture, which explains why sweet puddings also contain suet more often than not. OK let’s face it, the medieval English were just wacky cooks and we’ve continued to follow their recipes unquestioningly and just calling them all pudding. Got it?
Then we have the fact that the English refer to ‘dessert’ as ‘pudding’ – so if the word ‘pudding’ is used on its own, you are invariably talking about a sweet dish. “What’s for pudding?” in England means “What’s for dessert?” in America. Why did we start using the word ‘pudding’ to refer to sweet things when puddings were originally savoury? Again, beats me. It might be because we used a lot of the same cooking methods used for savoury puddings to cook these sweet puddings – sticking them in pastry or wrapping them up tight and steaming them. So the word just sort of transferred from one thing to the other. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, you know?
Well, setting the etymology to one side, here is a brief explanation of a few of the most well-known British puds.
The Christmas Pudding
This little guy is a classic example of a British pudding. Traditionally made using suet and originally wrapped up tight in a pudding cloth and then boiled, though most folks steam it in a pudding basin nowadays (or buy one at Tesco). It bears all the classic hallmarks of a traditional pudding, and is stuffed full of dried fruits and booze, so it keeps pretty much forever. This pudding is traditionally eaten at Christmas (as the name might suggest) and for some reason it never caught on anywhere else.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Another pudding classic, the sticky toffee pudding is another steamed pudding (as is the Spotted Dick, source of much amusement amongst Americans, believe me). I think it is the steaming that makes it a pudding and not a cake. This little beauty is sweetened with chopped dates and topped with a toffee sauce. I really wish it had caught on in the United States, but puddings are generally a pretty English thing. Everyone else thinks they are weird.
Another super English one most Americans have not heard of, which qualifies as a pudding because it is formed in a pudding basin (notice the classic pudding shape). Basically this is a bunch of fruit wrapped in bread, where the bread has soaked up all the fruit juices and gone all soggy and delicious.
So there you have a few sweet ‘puddings’, but remember, the word ‘pudding’ also refers to any form of dessert even if it does not have ‘pudding’ in the title. So if you are eating cake after a meal, you are eating pudding. What a versatile little word! I hope this has helped you to sort out the confusion and mystery surrounding the humble pudding.