“A bowl of stale bread and stewed fruit keeps the doctor away…” Hydropathic pudding: 1894

It’s the start of the summer holidays, and what a year it’s been for teachers and students!

By 6pm on the last day of term I’m usually arse-deep into a profusion of cocktails of unhealthy quantities of alcohol and sugar (sorry for that image). But this year felt a bit different.

For one, it felt like a less triumphant end to term than previous years. After weeks of sanitising upon entering the classroom (“one squirt’s enough, Ryan!”), mask wearing (“for the last time, it goes over your nose, Ryan”) and learning ‘zones’, (“I don’t care if the year 7 toilet area is nicer than year 10’s, Ryan, you still can’t use it!”) the final day felt more like a hobble over the finish line rather than a victory parade. Maintaining COVID protocol and encouraging 1000 kids to as well had been truly exhausting, but somehow* our school managed to avoid the tsunami of cases that overwhelmed many other local schools by the end.

The second reason the end of term felt a little flat was because it was my last one (as a teacher at least). From September I’m off to become a student again and get my Masters. Will I return to teaching? Possibly (probably?) – it’s a career I’m passionate about and I really believe there are very few other jobs that will fulfil me like teaching did. But for now I’m going to try something else – wish me luck!

So I spent Friday evening reading my goodbye cards (“my favourite lesson was when we drew castles” – a supply lesson, as I was away that day…) and generally moping. Until my husband pointed out that with the longest summer holiday ahead of me, I had more time than ever before to focus on historical cooking.

Summer pudding…

He was right, and summer was making its presence felt with a week-long heatwave, so I decided my first foray into summer-hols-historical-cooking should be distinctly sunshiney. Summer pudding, anyone?

Summer pudding is something I remember eating once or twice as a child. I recall being in a gloriously sunny garden aged six or seven, sitting on a stripy deckchair and being handed a bowl of purple and pink bread with vanilla ice cream and thinking it was the oddest jam sandwich I’d ever seen. For the uninitiated: summer pudding is essentially stewed fruit which has been left to soak into a mould of stale bread. It should resemble a bright red/pink/purple dome which when cut into spills forth oozing summer fruits. It’s been decades since I last ate summer pudding and I’d come to associate it with other old fashioned desserts that are slowly dying out.

summer pudding with berries on blue table
The ideal, I’d say. Copyright: BBC Good Food.

Of course it’s not true that summer pudding is completely dying out; Nigella Lawson, pinnacle of modern British baking, includes an updated recipe in her most recent cookbook. Search ‘summer pudding’ in the BBC Good Food website and you’ll get a fair handful of decently reviewed recipes. But for some reason when I think of summertime desserts I think of lemon tart, choc ices and eton mess before I think of summer pudding.

Perhaps it’s the name. It’s too eager, isn’t it? Too full of hope, and if there’s one thing a Brit knows not to trust, it’s the promise of summer of any kind. So come July, we eschew summer pudding for something that can be enjoyed with less irony as the gazebo and BBQ collapse in gale force winds, and hypothermia sets upon Uncle Alan.

But as poor as it may be now, summer pudding’s branding problem is nothing compared to what it was.

…or hydropathic pudding?

Let’s be clear: summer pudding’s reputation and history is murky at best. How do you sell a dome of stale bread drenched in stewed fruit, which has spent 24 hours being squashed down by a plate laden with the heaviest kitchen objects you could find – a cafetiere of stale coffee and a bottle of ketchup balanced precariously atop a kilogram bag of sugar?

To find the first truly identifiable summer pudding reference I had to move my research to the 19th century, when summer pudding went by many different names, including the infinitely less marketable name ‘hydropathic pudding.’ Today’s experiment is from the earliest reference I could find to anything resembling summer pudding and comes from Lizzie Heritage’s 1894 work Cassell’s new universal cookery book.

Hydropathic Pudding

This has many names. It is very nice when properly prepared, and the pudding served very cold. Required: fruit, sugar, and bread. Cost, variable; generally moderate.

The nicest fruits for this are raspberries or currants, or a mixture, or strawberries, with or without a few red or black currants; plums are sometimes used. Take a plain mould, and cut a piece of bread to fit the bottom; then put fingers of bread round; the sides should be bevelled a little so that they overlap and prevent the escape of the fruit. The latter is stewed with enough sugar, and poured in, and a cover of bread put on. A plate with weights on is put on the top, and the pudding put in a cold place to set.

Another way is to line the mould, and then fill up with layers of bread and fruit; and if the bread is cut very thinly, this will be generally liked better than the first mode, as there is less fruit, and it suits the majority better. For a plainer dish a basin may be used, and slices of bread put to line it entirely; then either of the modes can be followed. These should be turned out with care, and may be served plain, or with a simply made custard. They are useful for those who cannot take pastry or rich puddings, and for children.”

Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book, 1894.

As you can see, the recipe above is almost identical to summer puddings today, further cementing my feelings that it was a very old fashioned dessert. But I wondered: if nothing had changed, ingredients wise, then why the name swap?

References to “those who cannot take pastry” and the suggestions to serve it plain suggest that the pudding was offered as a healthy alternative to heavier steamed puddings that were popular at the same time.

Even more compelling to the ‘healthy’ origins of summer pudding is the original name: hydropathic pudding.

Hydropathy is/was a belief that water alone can cure ailments – be it through drinking particularly pure water or through the use of water therapies like bathing. Now, no one’s disputing that getting plenty of H20 in your system is a good thing, but believing that Radox and a rubber duck will cure you of your gluten intolerance is nonsense. While immersing yourself in water will certainly alleviate certain symptoms (e.g. joint pain or muscle inflammation), it’s unlikely to actually cure you of the actual illness.

The rise and rise of hydropathy

Hydropathy experienced a boom during the 19th century thanks to Austrian farmer Vincent Preissnitz who apparently cured his own broken ribs by wrapping his chest in damp bandages and drinking a lot of water. Inspired by the seemingly miraculous healing properties that clean water, stripped down diets and regular exercise had on patients abroad, English Captain Richard Tappin Claridge popularised hydropathy in Britain.

In 1842 he published Hydropathy; or The Cold Water Cure, as practiced by Vincent Priessnitz, which was an instant hit and ran to multiple editions within a few months. Hydropathy dealt mainly with the various forms of bath invalids could take**, but one chapter explained the diet that hydropathic spas should offer to their customers.

Ah, bottom left corner – my favourite: stand on a balcony wearing a sheet, looking into a bath.

Unsurprisingly, Claridge recommended a diet of water and cold foods. He explicitly stated that hot food or food that had “stimulating properties” such as spices or rich sauces should not be served. Furthermore, he states that the ideal breakfast consist of bread, cold milk (or water), and fruit. Fruit should be eaten cold and regularly, but only the types of fruit that grow naturally in Britain; according to Claridge, exotic fruits were often particularly juicy “to refresh the blood [of those who are] parched up by a burning sun” which is hardly an issue in Britain, so fruits such as mango or pineapple were thought to overstimulate the temperament of the average Brit, undoing the good work of previous hydropathy treatment.

Summer pudding – or rather, hydropathic pudding – fit the bill perfectly: cold, wet, bready and British summer-fruity, it must have had a prominent place on the dining tables of hydropathic spas.

But while holidays to spas were all well and good for the social elite of Europe, when it came to home dining frugal health food wasn’t something you necessarily wanted to serve to guests. Hydropathic pudding might sound enticing to someone who had survived four days on tepid mineral water and raw carrots, but in real life – where the cakes and buns exist – it just sounded… naff.

Hence the name change; by the early 20th century, hydropathic pudding had fallen out of recipe books and had been replaced with identical instructions for summer pudding instead, which was infinitely more appetizing and far less reminiscent of urine-filled pools and eggy smelling water.

Today’s experiment

Whatever you want to call it, the 1894 recipe I followed was delicious. Yes, I had to pour over extra syrup when I turned it out because not all the bread had soaked the juice up. And yes, I did get a tiny bit of ketchup on the bottom of my pudding because someone hadn’t screwed the cap on properly before I used it as a weight. But despite this, my summer pudding was divine: tart and sweet, spongy and, above all, summery.

I stuck mostly to blackcurrants and raspberries as per Heritage’s instructions and added a couple of extra layers of bread inside the pudding itself as she suggested, which went down very well. Rather than plain, as I suspect Claridge would have liked, we ate ours with clotted cream – healthiness be damned.

Would I make it again? Absolutely, and to be honest I don’t know why I don’t make it every summer. Perhaps it’s because it takes a little bit longer than other desserts because it has to be left for quite a while to soak. Perhaps it’s because it seems like a bit more of a faff than ripping open a Vienetta and going to sit in the paddling pool. But I suspect, really, it’s because of the reason I mentioned before: its name is too gloaty, too self-confident; the day after I made this the heatwave ended and the heavens opened. Summer pudding indeed.

Extra juice may or may not have been poured on top…

E x

*It wasn’t really “somehow”; it was down to exhaustive, careful planning by SLT – who worked really hard to keep everyone safe – and sheer luck. Also the fact that Ryan went on holiday the last week of term helped stop the spread within year 10.

**I couldn’t not tell you about one of Claridge’s specific types of bath: the douche bath. Here, he says people can find relief for afflicted parts of the body by stripping off and exposing themselves to the “powerful action” of running water. Now, I’m sure that some people genuinely used these douche baths for purely medicinal purposes, but Claridge’s slightly disapproving instruction to stop using them “when it produces feverish excitement” and that, for some reason, the average duration of a douche bath “is from three to fifteen minutes” and that “most of the patients…are very much pleased with this part of the treatment” suggests many hydropathy spa patients weren’t finding complete relaxation from drinking twenty glasses of water a day alone…

Apricot Ice-Cream: 1747

In under two weeks September will be here and autumn will be just around the corner. It seems strange to think that summer will be over in a month when it feels like it never really got going: No festivals, no big getaways abroad, school holidays that seemed to be welcomed mostly by worn out parents exhausted from pretending they knew their 12 times tables off by heart or what a fronted adverbial was.

I’m looking forward to autumn in a month, but I’m not ready for summer to end yet. For that reason I wanted to make something sunny and bright and quintessentially summery while I still could: ice cream.

Actually, I don’t like ice cream that much. It’s not that I won’t eat it – I’m not a total weirdo – but it’s not my go-to treat food. If I’m having ice cream it’s usually because other people are having it and I’ve bowed to a peculiar form of creamy peer pressure. I thought my aloof detachment would help me be objective, then, when reviewing the end result of today’s experiment. My husband just hoped it meant there’d be more for him.

The recipe I’m using today comes from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (more about the background here). I almost missed it as I flicked through the book because it was sandwiched between a recipe for Mock Turtle Soup and Jellied Turkey – I don’t know why.

Hannah’s signature is at the top. Credit here.

Pare and stone twelve ripe apricots, and scald them, beat them fine…add to them six ounces of double-refined sugar, and a pint of cream…

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse

It seemed delightfully simple. Almost like cheating. I decided to follow Hannah’s method word for word in order to allay my feelings of fraud; there would be no electronically aided blending, no fridge-freezing, no automatic churning here. Instead, I would endeavor to copy out both her ingredients and method as closely as possible.

The first step was to peel the apricots. I had never tried to do this before and the knife kept slipping as juice ran over my fingers.

“Hey, Google,” I said out loud to my ever present master. “How do you peel an apricot?”

“The perk of using an apricot is that most recipes don’t require the smooth skin of the apricot to be peeled,” Google recited back to me.

Wanting to bank some brownie points in preparation for the day technology rises up and overthrows us, I quietly thanked Google for its time and research instead of doing what I wanted to do which was hold the device under water in frustration.

It turns out that if you scald apricots in hot water and then transfer them to ice water, the skin becomes marginally easier to peel off. It still took ages and I still ended up slicing my finger with a knife, but I actually think that lent a pleasant pink colour to the ice cream…(joking.)

I mashed the hot apricots in a mortar until they were pulpy and added a pint of just boiling double cream and six ounces of sugar. Then I strained the whole lot through a sieve into a tupperware box with a lid.

Tupperware wasn’t invented until 1946.

I checked the instructions again.

Put it in a tin with a close cover, and set it in a tub of ice broke small, with four handfuls of salt mixed among the ice. When you see your cream grow thick round the edges of your tin, stir it well, and put it in again till it is quite thick…

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse

It implied the use of a metal tin, which would also help to lower the temperature too once surrounded by ice and help with the freezing process. I tore the kitchen apart looking for something metal with a lid and found a tin with an icing bag set in it I’d been given as a gift. Having tipped the nozzles and bag out of the tin to meet their fate as ‘detritus on the bottom of the baking equipment drawer’ I carefully poured the mixture from the tupperware to the tin.

With the tin filled, I piled a large salad bowl (I know, I was amazed I owned one too) full of ice which I then sprinkled with coarse salt and placed the tin in. This was a common way of making ice cream before the invention of freezers and the principle behind it was based on the fact that salt lowers the freezing temperature of water, which aids the production of ice cream. I dropped all science subjects as soon as I could in school, so here’s a little more about the physics (or is it chemistry?) behind that for boffins people who like that sort of thing.

Ice cream on ice.

I left the the tin of cream, nestled in ice and salt, for twenty minutes to thicken. After that time, I returned, stirred the mixture and recovered with more ice and salt. Hannah Glasse stated that if I liked I could pour the ice cream into a mould at this point, to create fancy displays, but since I’d had to search high and low for something as simple as a metal tin, the chances of finding a fancy ice cream mould were slim. I made the decision that my ice cream would be served straight out of its tub.

In 1885 Agnes Marshall – the Queen of Ices – patented one of the first British ice cream makers. This was a wooden device with a metal bowl in the middle that cream was poured into. Crushed ice and salt were added to the wooden bowl and a handle was turned to churn the cream round. It dramatically reduced the wait time for home made ice cream and was a pioneering invention at the time. Unfortunately, Mrs Marshall’s invention came over 100 years too late for me, and I was forced to wait for four hours before my ice cream was anywhere near done.

After what felt like an age I was able to spoon it into bowls.

It was the consistency of a Mr Whippy, if Mr Whippy served ice cream from the pits of volcanoes. I had succeeded in making a very thick, very creamy soup, but it definitely wasn’t cone worthy. You could drink it through a straw, for God’s sake. How on earth this was ever meant to have held its shape in a fancy mould was beyond me. Perhaps somewhat tellingly, Hannah Glasse had added an instruction to “never turn it out [of the mould] till the moment you want it…”

Clearly, I had gone wrong somewhere and closer inspection showed me that the likely culprit was melted ice, which had leaked through the tin lid over time. I was crushed, as earlier inspections had been so promising. Nonetheless, I dutifully tried the liquid concoction anyway. Cream was the main flavour, with a subtly fruity aftertaste. Though it clearly contained fruit, it was a delicate flavour and not immediately recognisable as apricot – guesses ranged from greengage to peach. It was also not too sweet, which was at least a refreshing and welcome take on Mr Whippy.

Despite the somewhat disappointing structure, it was delicious. How could it not be when all it contained was fruit, cream and sugar? My husband polished off two bowl in one sitting, arguing that since it didn’t look like “proper ice cream” it couldn’t be as unhealthy.

Overall, though I am grateful to Hannah Glasse for showing me an ice cream alternative to the saccharine sweet offerings in my local Sainsburys, I have to admit that it looked far better after a few hours in the freezer, when I could actually scoop great lumps of it out of the tin. However, if anyone was after a very labour intensive milkshake, then this is the recipe for them.

Hannah Glasse would be turning in her grave if she could see this…

E x

Apricot Ice-Cream

12 apricots
1 pint of double cream
170g sugar
Rock salt
3kg ice

  1. Peel and stone the apricots
  2. Plunge the apricots into boiling water for 30 seconds, then remove.
  3. Pound the apricots in a mortar and pestle until they form a pulp.
  4. Add cream and sugar to the apricots.
  5. Push the mixture through a sieve into a metal tin with a tight fitting lid.
  6. Place 2kg of ice and 4 big handfuls of salt in a large bowl. Place the tin among the ice, trying to cover the sides and top.
  7. After 20 minutes, stir the ice cream. Replace the ice.
  8. Replace the ice with the remaining kg as it melts.
  9. After no less than 4 hours, check on the ice cream. It should be thick and able to be scooped. Eat it immediately, as it it will melt fast.

Cabinet Pudding: 1895

If you’ve bumped into any good history teachers today they may have bored you with the information that Queen Victoria died on this day 1901. As any BBC docudrama will tell you: she reigned from 1837, becoming queen at the age of just 18, until her death 64 years later which at the time made her the longest reigning monarch in British history. At the time of her death it was said that Britain had an empire “on which the sun never set”. Which all sounds very impressive if you imagine David Starkey animatedly frothing about it with something by Elgar playing in the background, but doesn’t really mean anything on its own; are we supposed to praise her for being fortunate enough to afford decent medical care and comfort to aid her long reign when at the same time approximately 25% of the population in lived in poverty? Or is it that if you’re the sort of person who believes the positives of the empire outweigh the negatives, we should laud her for personally hitching up her skirts and striding across India to plant the flag and introduce the ever so grateful natives to civilisation because apparently those 1000 year old languages and temples don’t count?

That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her status as Golden Girl of the Royal Family. She patronised many new inventions and supported rapid industrialisation which made Britain wealthy beyond measure. Likewise, her decision to open Buckingham Palace up for public events whilst still being used as a family home in an attempt to connect with her people (as long as they weren’t too smelly and dirty), was nothing short of revolutionary and her modifications are still used today to help bring the nation together. She may have been known for being a bit dour and hard to amuse in public, but her wit and warm nature (spoken of by those who knew her well) helped form strong international links with countries in Europe, even through times of great political uncertainty. It’s telling that she appears to have had some kind of influence in creating an uneasy peace between her two grandsons Wilhelm II of Germany and George V, as Wilhelm lamented after the outbreak of WW1 that if she’d still been alive she would never have allowed George and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (also one of her relations through marriage) to form an alliance which would help lead to war. He did keep quiet about what she might have thought about Germany’s own alliance system and its contribution to the war, though.

It’s therefore a bit frustrating when you Google Queen Vic and, other than a dodgy pub in London, the first things that come up are clinical facts dressed up as personal hard-won achievements. With this in mind, then, I present to you Cabinet Pudding – a dish I can find no account of Queen Victoria particularly enjoying, nor one that takes its name from her. But it happened to be created in her era and so by Google standards that’s close enough.

Also known as Chancellor’s Pudding, Cabinet Pudding is something that some people might have heard of but aren’t quite sure what it is. This recipe is from Mary Beale’s Wholesome Cookery which was published in 1895 and which I found in this book. Apparently it was on the menu along with another Victorian fave, Charlotte Russe, at a dinner at Erddig in December 1914. By all accounts the whole evening was a delight, “notwithstanding poor Philip’s gout”, as one guest wrote, but I heard he was putting it on for attention.

It quickly became apparent that it was lucky I had the day off. Now I understood why cooks in period dramas always seemed so angry and fraught – I swear at one point I was meant to be simultaneously straining custard whilst stirring something else, chopping fruit, juggling rolling pins and fending off the advances of the footman*.

My first job was to butter an oven proof bowl and “ornament the bottom and sides with pieces of preserved fruit”. That was it. Let me tell you: I’m still angry at how such a monumentally difficult task was disguised as being so simple in one short sentence. I don’t know what kind of butter they must have been using 100 years ago but I’m certain Pritt Stick would be interested in the recipe.

I picked glace cherries, sultanas, tinned apricots and tinned peaches as my fruits because thanks to the invention of canning in 1810, they were all used in the Victorian era and I thought would work well together.

Since starting this blog it’s become a theme that my expectations don’t match reality: I had imagined the inside of the bowl becoming a stained glass window of jewels glistening with ruby and amber hues. In actuality, every piece of the damn fruit peeled itself from the side and slumped to the bottom in a heap of brown.

This was about the time I began to question whether superglue would really cause that much internal damage

Once I’d built the fruit back up to about 1/3 of the way of the bowl and decided to quit while I was ahead, I found I had to add some stale slices of cake and alternate with crushed ratafia biscuits. If the fruit shenanigans hadn’t immediately proven it for me, it was now apparent that Mary Beale was a woman who had lost her grip on reality if she thought ordinary people were letting their cakes sit around long enough for them to get stale. I made a basic sponge cake in 15 minutes (humble brag, don’t care) and left it in the oven for a bit longer to dry out so it would mimic the dryness of these imaginary uneaten treats Mary wrote about. Having no idea how to throw together a ratafia biscuit I consulted the Victorian powerhouse that was Mrs Beeton.

In her Book of Household Management, Mrs Beeton talks about these being small, round almond biscuits but what’s more important is that she also says cooks should just as well buy these from a good shop as make them themselves. Guilt free, I bought a packet of the first Amaretti biscuits I could find.

I made layers in the bowl of alternating cake and ratafia biscuits, separated with spoons of apricot jam, (the original recipe also says cooks could use “lumps of guava jelly” – thanks, empire!) and then turned to the custard.

No idea why the idea of making a custard from scratch scared me because it was quite simple, (apart from the twenty hands needed bit at the end), but I had visions of scrambled egg, so was put off. I heated 450ml of whole milk with the rind of 1 lemon very slowly until it was almost but not quite boiling. In the meantime, I whisked 4 eggs together with 1 tablespoon of caster sugar. When the milk was hot enough, I strained it over the eggs, whisking continuously. It sounds easier than it was, so don’t look like that. The recipe also calls for a wine glass of brandy to be added to this at this point, which I forgot to do, but which would have been a good addition.

Once it was all mixed it had to be very carefully poured over the bowl of cake and fruit. The quantities were perfect and even once my fake-stale cake had absorbed it there was still liquid on top. Then it was wrapped in buttered greaseproof paper and foil and steamed in a pan for 1 hour.

“Why have you made a fruity brain?” my husband cowered as I held it triumphantly above my head

Ok. Let’s just cut to the chase: it looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in a neurosurgeon’s lecture room as an example of rare and unusual brain diseases. But! It didn’t taste like that. (I think. Who knows – maybe brain is delicious?!)

Because of the mish mash of ingredients in this, every bite was different. One moment I was mostly getting almond and then the next cherry. The whole thing was very soft and melt in the mouth, even the dry cake and drier ratafia biscuits just dissolved. Because of the tiny amount of sugar in it, the custard wasn’t particularly sweet but just sort of mild and creamy – more of an eggy background to the nuttiness of the cakes and syrupiness of the fruit. The recipe advised to serve with custard that had been topped up with yet another glass of brandy, but I found it rich enough on its own.

E x

*Not really. But I can dream.