Suet, the solid white fat that surrounds the kidneys and loins in beef, sheep, and other animals, is a common ingredient in British recipes. To me, it’s food for the birds. Well, birds and squirrels, but not for puddings. According to my grandfather, the former has exclusive rights to the hard flaky fat. This he was sure of.
Bird watching was one of my grandfather’s hobbies along with fishing, golf, and playing cards. But, I think he was the most passionate about looking out his big picture window at the cloud-high maple tree where the birds and other wildlife gathered.
Once a week, my grandfather placed a suet cake rolled with cornmeal, nuts, oats, raisins, and seeds inside the wooden box covered in chicken wire that he build by hand. After filling the suet and bird feeders, he often sat back with either a smoking pipe or cup of black coffee and observed the eating patterns of his cherished egg-layers.
He was even known to whistle on occasion being in such a relaxed state before the flutter of cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and others who fed on suet. As he took his binoculars off the shelf for a closer look at his favorite birds, invariably the inevitable followed.
The black squirrel came.
It sauntered up the tree to the suet feeder, as if it had first rights to the coveted fat cakes and gorged itself.
That’s when grandfather ran to the bathroom and pulled the B B gun out of the top cabinet. At times such an offense merited a warning cry, “GET OUTTA HERE, SQUIRREL” before a shot was fired at a fast moving tail. Other times he simply fired first, claiming that he wasn’t aiming the gun at the squirrels.
“I’m just scaring them off,” he said.
So when it came time to make a classic suet pudding for April’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge, the last thing on my mind was a savory or sweet steamed pie.
Despite my initial suet reservations, I read on.
The April 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet.
In the U.K. and a few Commonwealth countries, pudding generally means any dessert. Pudding also means blood sausage; a boiled or baked soft food usually with a cereal base; a dessert of a soft, spongy, or thick creamy consistency; or a dish often containing suet or having a suet crust and originally boiled in a bag (1).
The challenge was to make a savory or sweet pudding using suet or a suet substitute, like vegetable suet, Crisco, or lard. I opted for vegetable shortening, which creates a soft flaky crust.
Since it’s rhubarb season, I used classic crisp ingredients for the filling: rhubarb, walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon baked in a sweet cinnamon and vanilla crust and topped it with sugared strawberries and homemade yogurt.
Next time, I think I’ll skip the suet and its many substitutes and use butter instead; the rich buttery flavor surpasses the flake factor.
Sweet Crust Rhubarb Pudding
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (or use self-rising flour and leave out the baking powder)
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup organic vegetable shortening (I use “Jungle Soft Shortening” made from organic cold pressed sunflower oil and partially refined palm fruit oil)
a pinch of sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
a scant cup of water, milk, or a mixture of both
1. Mix the flour and suet together.
2. Season the flour, baking powder, and vegetable shortening with salt, cinnamon, and vanilla.
3. Add the water, a tablespoonful at a time, as you mix the ingredients together. Make up the pastry to a firm elastic dough that leaves the bowl clean. The liquid amounts are only an estimate and most recipes just say water to mix.
4. Don’t over handle the pastry or it will be too hard.
5. Reserve a quarter for the lid and roll out the rest and line a well-greased bowl.
6. At this point add the Rhubarb Filling (see recipe below).
7. Roll the final piece of pastry out into a circle big enough to cover the top of the basin, dampen the edges and put in position on the pudding, pinching the edges together to seal.
8. Seal well and cover with a double sheet of foil – pleated in the center to allow room for expansion while cooking. Secure with string, and place it in a steamer over boiling water.
9. Steam for up to 5 hours, you may need to add more boiling water halfway through or possibly more often. There is a lot of leeway in this steaming time and different recipes give different steaming times. Delia Smith says 5 hours for Steak and kidney where as Mrs. Beeton says 2.5 for a similar dish! One way to tell that it is cooked is when the pastry changes color and goes from white to a sort of light golden brown. It is also hard to over steam a pudding so you can leave it bubbling away until you are ready.
adapted from Lindsey Remolif Shere’s “Rhubarb Crisp” recipe found in Chez Panisse Desserts
1 amount of suet pastry (see recipe above)
1 1/2 to 2 pounds rhubarb (chopped)
1/2 cup raw sugar
1/2 cup toasted walnuts (chopped)
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Wash the rhubarb and cut off the leaves and any brown tips. Cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices and place in a medium bowl.
2. Toss rhubarb with the sugar, then add remaining ingredients.
3. Finish building the pudding as per the pastry recipe.
4. Steam for 3 ½ hours, or longer (for a really tender lemon), adding more water if needed.
5. To serve, turn the pudding onto a plate, cover with sugared strawberries and homemade yogurt or creme fraiche.