The proof of the summer pudding is finding out that life is just a bowl of berries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If ever a recipe demanded to be made, it's Summer Pudding, and the time is today, right now, this very minute. One of the quintessential English dishes, it upholds that people's reputation for terrific desserts -- whatever one may say about their other courses.

More to the point, the pudding is a triumphant celebration of berries, particularly raspberries and blackberries, and these are just about to reach their seasonal peak.

Some varieties are fairly easy to find, including:

Raspberries. These bright scarlet berries have become enormously fashionable in recent years, so demand has encouraged a considerable supply, even out of season.

Uniquely with raspberries, the fruit comes loose from the pulpy core, giving them a more delicate texture than their close relatives, the blackberries. Flavor is distinctive, too. The golden variety has a milder flavor and a much higher price tag than the standard red type. There's also a black raspberry.

Blackberries. Several types can be included under this heading. The boysenberry is a particularly elongated, juicy hybrid. Marionberries, ollalie berries, youngberries and loganberries are other types. The other day, I came across the tayberry, which seemed to be a cross with the raspberry, with much of its flavor.

Blueberries. This is a native American fruit, long gathered wild and then commercially cultivated for the first time around 1910 in New Jersey. Botanically, it is closely related to another native of this continent, the cranberry, which comes along in the fall.

Now we get to berries that are seldom encountered here, even in markets that specialize in fancy produce:

Currants. These tart red globes grow in clusters something like grapes, only smaller. Black and even white varieties are known. Quite popular in Europe, they often are combined with raspberries and strawberries in a combination known simply as "red fruit."

Currants grow extensively in Oregon, but many go to make jelly. To prepare currants, use a fork to comb through the clusters, separating the berries from the stems. (Dried currants, found alongside raisins on supermarket shelves, are different; these are made from small grapes.)

Gooseberries. These distinctive green relatives of the currant have an even more pronounced tartness. They are almost always cooked with a good deal of sugar and have a flavor somewhat like rhubarb.

Gooseberries are a nuisance to prepare; you have to pinch off the stem and the dried remnant of the blossom from each berry.

Wild strawberries. We're not dealing with the very familiar cultivated strawberry in this survey, but we should mention this European delicacy, being grown here in very limited quantity. They are not actually wild and so may be more properly known by their French name, Fraises de Bois (strawberries of the woods). They are smaller and seedier than their common cousins, as well as far more costly.

Summer pudding can be made with any kind of berry, but a combination is perhaps most characteristic. Off-season, you can use frozen berries that have been defrosted. We offer two versions. The first was run up for Queen Elizabeth by the staff of the Adolphus Hotel, Dallas, during the royal visit to this country in 1991. A traditional version follows.

In both recipes, use firm bread with good body, not a squashy white sandwich loaf. The better the bread, the better the result. A good-quality sourdough would work well here.

Though summer pudding is classic in Britain, it is much less well known here. A benefit of this dessert is that it is not grossly caloric, if you go easy on the cream.

Summer pudding for the queen

Makes 5 servings

10 slices firm white bread with good body (crusts removed)

3 pints (6 cups) mixed berries (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries or strawberries)

2 cups water

4 cups sugar

1 stick cinnamon

juice of 1 lemon

cassis syrup to taste (see note)

4 packets (4 very scant tablespoons) gelatin

1/2 cup cold water

additional berries, whipped cream and mint leaves for garnish

Oil inside 5 1-cup molds and arrange sliced bread around sides and bottom. Pick over berries, removing any hulls, stems or debris. Wash and drain well.

In saucepan, combine water, sugar, berries, cinnamon, lemon juice and cassis. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and strain, reserving cooked berries. Soften gelatin in cold water and let stand for 5 minutes then add to hot berry juice. Stir until gelatin is thoroughly dissolved.

Fill middle of each mold with reserved cooked berries. Pour hot juice over berries and bread until the bread is soaked and the molds cannot hold any more liquid.

Cover molds with wax paper and place stiff cardboard on top, holding it down with about 2 pounds of weight, such as canned goods; refrigerate overnight.

Just before serving, remove the cardboard and wax paper and run thin knife around edge of each mold to loosen pudding. Invert onto plates and garnish with whipped cream, fresh berries and mint.

Note: Cassis, a syrup made from black currants, is available at specialty markets.

Summer pudding

(Traditional version)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 quarts (8 cups) fresh berries (raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants, blackberries or, ideally, a mixture)

1 1/4 cups sugar (or to taste)

12 slices firm white bread with good body (crusts removed)

heavy whipping cream

Pick over berries, removing any hulls, stems or debris. Wash and drain well. Combine berries with sugar, crushing them somewhat. Allow to stand until sugar dissolves and berries render juice. The mixture should taste a little too sweet at room temperature; Chilling will reduce apparent sweetness.

Line a fairly tall 2-quart mold, such as a charlotte or mixing bowl, with bread. You don't have to be terribly neat about this, but make sure surface is fully covered, overlapping slices. Fill mold with crushed berries and their juice, mounding them up somewhat. Cover with additional bread. (Economical cooks place layers of bread amid the berries; in that case you need fewer berries.)

Cover with plastic wrap and a flat plate or piece of stiff cardboard. Hold down plate with something weighing 3 or 4 pounds, such as canned goods. Place mold in a container to catch any overflow and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

To serve, unmold and slice. Serve with whipped or table cream.

In making this dish in a 6-cup mold, I used an unsliced loaf of firm-textured white bread from a bakery; the recipe took most of it. We needed about five of the small cartons raspberries come in. A carton of strawberries would equal two cartons of raspberries.

Be sure to let the berries render plenty of juice; the dessert needs it. Also be sure to weigh it down as directed; otherwise, it will fall apart when unmolded.

Variations: Some cooks heavily butter the mold and coat it with sugar; then they butter the bread, lining the mold butter side out. This runs up the calorie count greatly.

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