Could this forgotten Victorian ginger pudding take you time travelling?

‘I got them at a flea market in Lewes’ she said and hands me an envelope. Inside are ten sheets of faded brown paper covered in copperplate script. ‘I’ve held on to them for 20 years not knowing what to do with them, and I want YOU to have them’.

She presents me with a haul of historic handwritten recipes. They did, however, arrive without juicy family details or poignant backstories. 

I have a weakness for anonymous recipes. My own family was ruthless in their destruction of old recipes and so I find myself drawn to these rejected scraps of paper, remnants of past times in old kitchen made by people long dead, in kitchens long gone. They allow any number of possible stories to be attached to them.

I’d like to share instructions for making a ginger pudding. Old newspaper articles will take the place of family memories. Through archival research, the ghosts of ginger pudding’s past will be conjured up and we can time travel to the 1880s and 1890s. The heyday of the ginger pudding.

Clues are in the recipe

Some of the ingredients help me to date the recipe. Baking powder and custard powder are both available after 1837. The use of golden syrup, advertised from the 1850s but marketed by Lyles in a big way from the 1880s, makes me certain of a date from the 1880s to 1890s.

Celebration fare

Was it a pudding suitable for a slap-up repast in Dundee for a group of gourmands?

From the archives of the Dundee Courier of Wednesday 4th May 1898 comes a bracing midday dinner of soused mackerel, braised duck and green peas. A ginger pudding is the dessert.  A dinner of healthy Scottish appetites. Crofters or hunters I imagine. The ginger pudding is served with a ‘pint of good cream beaten to a stiff froth’ sweetened and heaped on the top and on the sides of the puddings.

Upstairs and downstairs

But contrast that abundant profusion of food with much fancier daily menu suggestion in the Westminster Gazette of Thursday 26th March 1896. 

The menu was intended, perhaps, for a cook feeding a rich household as two menus are proposed. A fancy French menu, for those upstairs, including Jambon aux petit pois, Pigeons a l’aurore and concluding with Plombiere au fruit (candied fruit ice cream). Then there is a ‘plain fare’ menu’ likely for those below stairs of Cold Beef, mixed salad, potatoes and finished by a Boiled ginger pudding and sweet sauce. 

I like to imagine a cook happy to make ‘fancy’ Plombiere au fruit to grace her employers’ dining room upstairs but favouring ‘simple’ and sustaining boiled ginger pudding downstairs.

An economical recipe for alcohol abstainers

And another simple ginger pudding is found in the Woman’s Signal, a weekly British pioneering women’s magazine published in London from 1894 to 1899. 

A ginger pudding is listed with the recommendation that ‘it will appeal to those who keep economy well to the front’ the writer explains ‘because it is quite independent of eggs’, though it is assured, ‘few would suspect this’.

Extolling the virtues of (pudding) economy was the founder and editor Lady Henry Somerset, a temperance believer and public speaker. As the owner of many properties in poor areas, she was aware of the problems of the lower classes and this recipe was prized, by the writer, for its cheap but nutritious ingredients.

From cheap Ingredients to cheap lodgings

Journalist Mrs Alfred Praga writing under the guise of ‘a careful cook’ in the Daily Telegraph in 1899 lamented the disgusting food served by landladies to their young gentlemen lodgers.

With pursed lips, I imagine, the careful cook expanded on the horrors of ‘half-cooked lumps of onions’ or the ‘old enemy’ cold rice pudding. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, she said that ‘age can not wither nor custom stale, the unappetizing aspect’ of lodging food.

But she had a solution. Hand your landlady who cannot cook, she beseeched us, a few choice recipes, such as the ginger pudding recipe, and get her to try them.

What would you have thought, dear reader, if handed an improving recipe from a lodger, having just served him the best cooking you could do? How well would that have gone down?

A badly attended Cookery Class

Let me take you to the half empty Cottage Cookery Class in Barford, Warwickshire. Here the lesson was described as ‘interesting’ because Cornish pasties, lentil soup and ginger pudding were made. But, unfortunately, ‘attendance was not as good as former weeks, owing to the prevailing illness in the district’, only Mrs Mills and Miss Goodies were present clattering round the empty cookery classroom. 

Picture one of these ladies scribbling down the recipe picked up in class, intended for an aunt or a sister, never imagining it would end up 140 years later in my hands.

The Recipe you can make

Warm your oven to 180 degrees C or equivalent. Scatter 50g of suet, 50g of breadcrumbs and 50g of flour into a bowl, then sprinkle ½ a teaspoon of ginger powder, ¼ a teaspoon of baking powder and a pinch of salt. 

Four tablespoons of sticky golden syrup need to be added to the dried ingredients as best you can.  

I mix first with a spoon, then with my hands, dividing the tacky mixture into two and putting it into two small pudding tins. Two teacups would work too, something of that size. 

They do rise a little bit so allow a cm or two space.

Boil a kettle and half fill a dish that can go into the oven, you want the water to come halfway up the pudding tins. Use greaseproof paper or foil to seal the top of your tins.

Put in the oven steam/bake for half an hour. Serve warm with custard.

The pudding eaters before you

When you serve your pudding, imagine all the other ginger pudding eaters who went before you. Those two ladies learning how to make ginger pudding in a school room emptied by the local sickness. The cook making a fancy French menu for those upstairs but secretly prefering her ‘plain fare’ menu for those below. The Dundee gourmands feasting on their soused mackerel but hardly being able to wait until their ginger pudding. And Lady Henry Somerset devising unachievable recipes for the deserving and most importantly temperate poor.