Mrs. Beeton’s Valentine’s Day Bake-Off: Lucie’s Pouding au Cognac (Brandy Pudding)

The Challenge || Lisa’s Half-Pay Pudding || Lucie’s Brandy Pudding || Ryan’s Savoy Cake

Sunday 4th February 2011

Yesterday, we, the editors of JVC online, decided that we would bake a Valentine’s treat from Mrs Beeton’s Household Management for our respective partners. I am very excited for several reasons. Firstly, British readers will already know that the ‘bake off’ has become a part of our mental landscape (well, at least mine) with the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off, a competition which sees 12 people compete with one another to win the coveted title of Britain’s best amateur baker. Secondly, I have just finished teaching a third year special subject at Swansea University entitled Victorian Domesticities. We met Mrs Beeton early in the course as we considered middle-class women’s experiences of housewifery and the art of household management. This competition therefore provides me with an excuse to experience the Victorian ‘tastescape’ and what it would have meant to be one of Mrs B’s housewives. I just hope that I actually like my chosen pudding!

In preparation, I have spent the afternoon looking through this classic Victorian text for a dessert. I have decided to give James (my husband) a choice of puddings, but what strikes me is how similar Mrs Bs’ desserts are to one another. The majority of them seem to be based on a basic foundation of milk, cream, egg with something else (alcohol and/or fruit). Halfway through, I decide to take a different approach, and chose desserts as much for their name as for their taste. 100 pages later, I have selected 11 puddings:

  • BRANDY PUDDING. (Fr. Poudingau Cognac.)
  • CHESTNUT PUDDING. (Is actually chocolate based tart)
  • GINGER PUDDING. (Fr Pouding au Gingembre.)
  • MARROW (beef) PUDDING.

The winner is Brandy pudding. I’m rather pleased because I still have some brandy left over from Christmas so don’t need to buy that. I think that I would have struggled to have got some of the ingredients for the other desserts, especially the sago. The downside is that I actually dislike alcohol based desserts. I had thought that James would chose the chocolate tart, but he informs me that he went for the Brandy pudding because ‘it seemed other worldly’ whereas the chocolate pudding would have been ‘too familiar’.

Sunday 11th February 2011

We have decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day early, which means that I will be tackling the brandy pudding this afternoon. I’m going to write this as I go along.

Mrs Bs’ recipe for BRANDY PUDDING. (French Poudingau Cognac; Recipe number 1786):

Ingredients: 1 wineglassful of brandy, ½ a pint of cream, a pint of milk, 4 eggs, a stale French roll, 2 ozs. of macaroons or ratafias, 4 ozs. of sugar, a teaspoonful of grated lemon-rind, grated nutmeg, glace cherries.

Method: Decorate a well-buttered mould with halved cherries, and afterwards line it with thin slices of roll. About 1/2 fill the mould with alternate layers of macaroons and sliced roll, adding a few cherries, the brandy, and a little sugar. Mix the eggs, cream, and milk, add the sugar, lemon-rind, and a little nutmeg, and pour the whole into the mould. Let it stand for 1 hour, then steam it gently for 1 hours, and serve with a suitable sauce.

Time. 1-1 ½ hours. Average Cost, 2s. 3d. to 2s. 6d. Sufficient for 6 or 7 persons.

The first thing that strikes me when I re-read this (and perhaps I should have registered earlier on) is what does Mrs B mean by a ‘wineglassful’ of brandy? I’m sure that modern wine glasses are bigger than Victorian glasses. A quick glance on Google reveals nothing. Should I take it to mean that it is a dash? I think I will.

I am also concerned by the term French roll. I’ve brought a mini French stick, but I’m not sure that I have enough now that I’ve cut it up. I think I will have to pop out for another one. More importantly, however, I have another problem to overcome before I can start. I need to find somewhere in my village that sells macaroons. The village Co-op doesn’t have any, so I’m off to one of the village’s many newsagents to see if they have any left over from Christmas…

I quickly discover that all the newsagents are closed. I should have guessed this would be the case. After all, I do live in a Nottinghamshire village that still observes half-day opening on Wednesdays. Thankfully, we have a mini Sainsbury’s (that’s global capitalism for you!). However, I’ve left there empty handed because I’ve realised that I don’t actually know what a macaroon is…I thought they were the multi-coloured biscuits, but Sainsbury’s is selling coconut macaroons…maybe they are the same thing, but I think I might have to do some investigation…argh!

Right, I think I’m going to change tactics; I’m going to use ratafias instead of macaroons because Household Management has a recipe for them, which is also available on the BBC food website. Extra work, but they seem quite easy to make and I’m sure this would provide me with the true experience of pudding making in this period. What it does confirm to me is that I am no ‘angel in the house’. After all, a Victorian housewife was supposed to be organised and efficient; a general in the house! I now have to head out of my house for the third time today to buy some almonds for the ratafias. Thank God we no longer have to observe the Sabbath.

Making the ratafias has probably added an extra hour to this challenge; I can’t cook them all in one go. Looking at Mrs B’s recipe I’m not sure this figured into her timings either. The Victorian housewife must have made them in advance, bought them or had to do what I’ve done and make them from scratch without realising that she needed too. My first batch didn’t go very well as I didn’t leave them in the oven for long enough. They weren’t quite cooked in the middle and simply feel apart. I took them out of the oven too early because I had no idea what Mrs B meant by the oven temperature being ‘hot’. I started at 180 degrees fan assisted but they were catching on the top, so have now decided to turn it down to 160 degrees. On the other hand, they are really easy to make and delicious- although they should be with the amount of sugar that has gone into them! They’re a bit like almond marshmallows- yummy.

Putting together the pudding was rather easy. I am a little concerned that I might have put too much brandy in, but hey ho, I’ll have to wait when I taste it to see if this is the case. I have however added an extra step at the end. I have decided to put a layer of bread on at the top. I’m sure the liquid will set in the steaming process but just in case it doesn’t, then there will be a base to hold it together [a bit like a Summer Pudding]. I didn’t have a mould so I have used a pudding bowl instead.

Mrs B. recommends that you make a sauce to go with this pudding. However, she does not make any suggestions about which one, so I’ve decided to make her basic custard [recipe number 332]. It looks easy enough, but I’m slightly wary- and unsure- as to why you would want or need the bay leaf.

I leave the pudding to rest for two hours, whilst I make dinner (a Spanish stew)

At 7.20 it’s on the hob to steam for an hour…

8.20 it is off the hob, now for the tasting…


My reflections:

I was a little worried that I might find myself crying into a custardy bready mess when I first un-wrapped the pudding. It was quite runny in the middle. However, plunging the bowl into cold water for 10 minutes seemed to do the trick and set the custard middle. I was also pleased I went with my gut feeling and added bread to the base of the dessert; it would have collapsed otherwise. I’m chuffed with the results. It was- I have to admit- rather tasty. James must have liked it as he had two portions! I think I might have been a bit too generous with the brandy, but I might be a wee bit prejudiced.

On reflection I’m left wondering if, like a summer pudding, this should actually be served chilled rather than warm. The recipe doesn’t indicate. Also, Mrs B. says that it is for 6-7 people, but we’ve eaten less than a fourth, so either the Victorians ate loads or she’s very generous. I’ll definitely make it again, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort for two people. It was a little time consuming because I had to make the ratafias. I would not have wanted to have made it on the day I was hosting a dinner party.

James’s reflections:

It was such a relief that the pudding emerged intact (Lucie seemed sure that it wouldn’t!) that I’d more or less forgotten about the eating stage. What greeted me after the grand unsheathing looked a bit like a bread pudding or perhaps a summer pudding, but once sliced open it was clear that this was something else altogether. Brandy sauce oozed from its centre and filled the serving plate. Cherries gradually descended from its precipice into the bread-soaked mass below. Delicious. It tasted like a particularly sophisticated biscuit in pudding form. Just as I’d hoped, it was unlike anything I’d eaten before. Rich, sweet and, one imagines, strictly for adults, this pudding deserves to be back on the menu.

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