A friend of mine was visiting New Zealand at the end of February. All was going well – she’d been welcomed by her daughter and son-in-law, was enjoying immersing herself in the local customs (read: doing the park run every weekend) and had eschewed traditional tourist sites in favour of public toilets so splendid and magnificent they had their own tourist marker on the map and 4/5 stars on Tripadvisor.
And then: lockdown. Months have passed and she remains, in her own words, stuck passing the time on the phone to the airport trying to book various flights home, only for them to be pushed back indefinitely or cancelled. It gives her something to do now the toilets have stopped taking visitors, apparently.
One thing she did manage to do before we were all plunged into quarantine was visit Poor Knights Islands, whose English name possibly comes from the islands’ resemblance to an English dish called Poor Knight’s Pudding – a sort of Anglo version of French toast. Poor Knight’s Pudding was a popular dish at the time of Captain Cook; the man who ‘discovered’ the islands, much to the surprise of the Ngatiwai people who already lived there, in 1769. The islands are also famed for their red flowering summer pohutukawa blossoms which mimic jam on Poor Knight’s Pudding. Maybe I could do some research on the dish, she wondered, and possibly recreate it?
Jammy French toast? Count me in.
The earliest records of Poor Knight’s Pudding comes from ‘W.M.’s 1658 work The Compleat Cook (“To make poore knights”) where bread is dipped in cream and eggs, fried in butter and drizzled with rosewater, but this recipe doesn’t shed much light on why it was called Poor Knight’s Pudding. Foods Of England reveals that there are similar European dishes with equivalent names (a German recipe called arme rittera and a Finnish one called köyhät ritarit), but that none of these alternatives gives any indication as to the dish’s name either. To add some more confusion to the mix, Regula Ysewijn points out that after 1791 the English version of the dish seems to have changed name to Poor Knights of Windsor and the cream was replaced with white wine and sugar before being fried and served with cinnamon.
The original Poor Knights of Windsor were a group of knights who became financially ruined during the Battle of Crécy in 1346 by having to ransom themselves after being captured by the French; probably the most awkward and expensive realization of one’s own unpopularity that ever existed. Though Edward III clearly didn’t think enough of them/have enough money to pay their ransom personally, he did set up The Alms Knights of St. George’s Chapel which provided shelter and a pension to twenty-six ‘Poor Knights’ in exchange for them attending four Church services a day and praying for the king. As time went on, the Alms Knights for retired impoverished military personnel continued to lodge ‘Poor Knights’ at Windsor Castle with subsequent kings and queens decreasing and increasing the number of ‘Poor Knights’ on roll as they saw fit, until William IV renamed them the Military Knights of Windsor in 1833.
Whether or not this dish was named after them, one thing was becoming clear: there was a distinct and disappointing lack of jam in all of the early recipes. Now, it’s very probable that jam or stewed fruit was served alongside traditional Poor Knight’s Pudding so maybe Captain Cook wasn’t totally delusional when he looked at flowery rocky islands and saw a bread and jam based pudding, but as jam is absent from all the recipes I looked at I didn’t include it in today’s experiment.
The recipe used today is a Victorian incarnation from J.H. Walsh’s 1859 The English Cookery Book, chosen for one thing alone: its accompanying side dish.
First I took a stale white bread roll and sliced it thinly into five slices. The slices were then dipped into a mixture of whole milk, one egg, one tablespoon of sugar and nutmeg and left to absorb it for an hour. After an hour the soggy, swollen slices were lifted and drained on a wire rack over a bowl for another hour.
Once the dunking and draining had been completed it was time to transform the bread from globby blobs to golden brown toast. I fried each slice in a pan of butter for a few minutes on each side and then turned to the reason I’d chosen this version of the dish – the wine sauce.
Walsh insisted the way to serve Poor Knight’s Pudding was with wine sauce, which it turned out was melted butter and sugar mixed with sherry and brandy. Who was I to argue?
For some reason (probably because we are both in our 20’s and neither of us is landed gentry) we didn’t have any brandy in. We did have sherry though, left over from Christmas and – inexplicably – cherry brandy. God knows why, maybe we won it in a raffle?
It wasn’t quite what Walsh recommended, but it would have to do. Almost as soon as I added the sherry and cherry brandy to the melted butter I knew I was onto a winner. The liquid turned a deep amber and the smell became intense and fragrant. I added lemon rind and nutmeg and took it off the heat. There might have been a chronic lack of jam, but I felt confident that the wine sauce would make up for it.
Everything looked great, and I was looking forward to eating this alone. I’d timed it all to perfection; the fried bread was still steaming, the wine sauce was warmed through and, best of all, my daughter was napping upstairs only able to dream of stealing my food rather than attempt it for real. And then. And then.
“That looks good. What is it?”
A shadow in the doorway loomed larger and my husband came into the room.
“I’ve just been outside fixing the trellis, like you asked” he said to my plate of food. “I’m starving.”
“Yeah. Really hungry.” Eyes still on the plate.
There was a pause almost as awkward as a knight realising he was going to have to pay his own damn ransom.
Long story short: I did 100% of the research for these myself, I made 100% of these myself, I ate 40% of them. Ladies, add Poor Knight’s Pudding to things that are victims of a gender-gap.
They were bloody brilliant, though. Which kind of made the fact I semi-voluntarily gave three of the five slices up even more bitter. The fried bread was much softer and richer and less ‘toast-y’ than normal French toast because it had been soaking for so long. It had a slight spiciness to it thanks to the nutmeg and a sweetness thanks to the sugar.
But the real star was the wine sauce. Buttery and boozy, it was almost too indulgent. Even once the fried bread had been eaten we sipped at the leftover sauce with spoons. As time went on the butter separated from the alcohol which created a pretty two-tone element to the sauce; gold overlaying amber.
French toast, eggy bread, Poor Knight’s Pudding – call it what you want. As long as you’ve got wine sauce (or jam if you prefer a modern version) I can think of no better way to use up a stale bun.
Poor Knight’s Pudding with Wine Sauce
For the fried bread:
1 white roll
1/2 pint whole milk
Sugar to your taste (I added 1 tablespoon)
For the wine sauce:
2 tablespoons sugar
1 sherry glass of sherry
1/2 sherry glass of brandy
Rind of 1/2 lemon
- Slice the bread roll into slices approximately 2cm thickness.
- Add egg, milk, sugar and nutmeg to a large bowl and mix together well.
- Place the bread slices into the mixture and coat each slice. Then leave the slices in the mixture for 1 hour.
- After an hour, pour off the mixture and drain the bread on a wire rack for 1 hour.
- Fry the slices of bread in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Fry each side for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a warm plate.
- In a pan heat the butter for the wine sauce. When melted, add the sugar and dissolve over low heat.
- Add the sherry and brandy and swirl into the butter and sugar.
- Add the lemon rind and nutmeg and heat on a low heat for a couple of minutes to give time for the flavours to infuse.
- Remove wine sauce from heat and drizzle over the fried bread. Eat immediately before your husband can see.