For years, I’ve drooled over photos of summer pudding — a traditional British dessert that’s the same deep blue and purple color as a serious bruise. Summer pudding features a little bread and a lot of berries, and Massachusetts, where I live, is known for its delicious late-summer harvests of raspberries, blueberries, etc. One of these summers, I’ve long thought to myself, Olde England and New England will intersect in my kitchen, resulting in a stunner of a summer pudding.
Well, it’s been a weird summer here in Massachusetts: lots of rain, lots of thunder and lightning (ask any dog!), and consequently not much chance to go berry picking. Nonetheless, I could no longer resist the pull. It was time to carpe berrium (seize the berry).
Berry, Berry, Quite Contrary
Traditionally, summer pudding contains strawberries and red currants along with other berries. I am not crazy about the texture of cooked strawberries, and red currants can be hard to find. Also, I like to use organic produce whenever possible, particularly when it comes to berries, since strawberries and raspberries are high on the “dirty dozen” list of fruits that are best purchased organic. Cherries make the list as well.
My plan was to go to a local organic U-pick farm, but the weather didn’t cooperate with my schedule, so I ended up buying all my berries at the local Whole Foods. Since this was my summer pudding, I decided to fill it with the fruits that I thought would be delicious together: blueberries, blackberries, and cherries. On the day that I was shopping I was able to get fresh, local organic blueberries but I didn’t see any fresh organic cherries or blackberries, so I bought frozen ones.
I knew that it was traditional to add some sort of wine or liquor to the berry mix. I could have used ruby port, cream sherry, a dessert wine, or any one of a number of fruit liquors. In the end I chose to use blackberry brandy. I also decided to use a tiny amount of cinnamon — not enough so that you could identify the taste, but just enough to give the fruit some extra depth and complexity. Fresh lemon juice added a bright flavor to the mix.
I also added sugar. I thought that I wouldn’t need very much, but I was wrong! When I took a taste of the sauce by itself it seemed perfectly sweet, but once I tasted a spoonful of the sauce with the berries in it I was able to tell that the berries were tart enough to require the addition of extra sugar. My advice to you is to start by adding one cup of sugar to the sauce, cook the fruit in it for a while, and then take a taste of the fruit and sauce together. If it’s still too tart, add the extra half a cup of sugar.
After I made the sauce and cooked it long enough for the sugar to dissolve completely, I added the fruit to the sauce. It was so beautiful — the combination of the blueberries, blackberries, and cherries looked like a pot of garnets and rubies, and the smell was intoxicating. (The cinnamon helped to create the heady fragrance.) You’ll want to cook this mixture long enough for everything to be warmed through but you also want the berries to still hold their shape. If you defrost any frozen fruit that you’re using first (don’t forget to add their juices to the pot) or if you use all fresh berries, the whole cooking process should only take 5-10 minutes on a medium-low flame. If you are using some frozen fruit, start by cooking the frozen fruit in the sauce and then once the frozen fruit is warmed through, add the fresh fruit and cook just until the fresh fruit is also warmed through.
Making the bread shell was easy. I used brioche, but you could also use challah or any sturdy white or egg bread. I have always scored ridiculously high on spatial-relationship tests, but you’d never know it from my bread shell-making experience. Someone who is more perfectionistic than I am would probably make a clever plan of how best to minimize the number of places where tiny pieces of bread needed to be torn and stuffed into the gaps left between the larger slices. Not me. I just buttered the inside of the bowl, put the bread slices in somewhat randomly, and then just stuffed the holes with abandon. (Spoiler alert: It turned out fine, so don’t get too worried about doing this part “right.”)
Once I had the bread shell finished, I took a slotted spoon and moved all the berries and cherries into the shell. Then I added two cups of the juice to the mix. (I reserved the rest of the sauce for pouring over the pudding once I unmolded it. I stored the extra sauce in the fridge.) I added the top layer of bread slices to cover the berry mixture. Then I put a layer of parchment paper over the pudding and added two saucers on top of that to put some weight onto it. I covered the assemblage in plastic wrap (but none of the plastic wrap touched the food because it was kept off the pudding by the parchment paper and the saucers) and stuck it in the fridge. Once the pudding was in the fridge, I added additional weight to compress the bread and berries enough to make it into a single, unified object. (The recommended weight is two pounds but I don’t think I had much more than one pound of weight on it. Again, it worked just fine.)
I let the pudding chill overnight. My vegetarian dining co-op was meeting on Sunday night so I hopped in the car (we carpooled — there were three of us) and drove to Boston’s Southie neighborhood, where we were meeting at my friend Kama’s apartment. Kama prepared a delicious Spanish-influenced vegan meal. I was happy to take advantage of access to a hungry crowd, since I assumed that the pudding would lose its structural integrity once it was cut open, and I wanted as many people as possible to see it and eat it while it was at its peak. A dinner party for seven seemed like the perfect occasion to test-drive the recipe.
After dinner, I whipped some heavy cream with a little sugar in it and added some garnishes at the last minute. The seven of us each had a huge slice of pudding with one giant piece left over. It could easily have served 10 less-piggy people. Once cut, the pudding held its shape fairly well, but I don’t think it would have lasted more than a few hours before falling down. The slices maintained their shape as I moved them from the platter onto the dessert plates.
The taste was amazing. It had the freshness and sweetness of the berries and cherries, the bright note of the lemon, the deep purple flavor of the blackberry brandy, and the depth created by the cinnamon. Nobody spoke for a few minutes. There was, however, a lot of wordless moaning. I have no doubt that someone passing by the apartment door might have thought there was some sort of orgy going on within because all they would have heard was the sound of seven people moaning with pleasure. Repeatedly.
Photo: Roz Cummins
Feeds eight gluttons, 10 hungry people, or 12 people with modest appetites.
20 oz. frozen organic cherries
3 cups fresh organic blueberries
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup blackberry brandy, fruit liquor, brandy, cream sherry, or ruby port
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Butter (to grease the inside of the bowl)
A loaf and a half of brioche, challah, egg bread, or sturdy white bread, cut into slices that are anywhere between 1/2 and 3/4 inch thick. Cut off any crusts.
1 tablespoon sugar
Fresh berries, currants, etc.
- If you are going to use frozen fruit, you can let it defrost (be sure to save the juice for the sauce) or you can put it straight into the sauce you are going to make. Pick over any fresh fruit you are going to use and take off any stems and remove mushy berries. Wash the fresh fruit gently under a light stream of running water.
- Make a sauce in a pot set over a medium-high flame by heating 1 cup of sugar in the cup of water. Cook until the sugar is dissolved. Add any frozen fruit and cook until it has warmed through. When the frozen fruit has warmed through, add any fresh fruit that you are going to use.
- Add the cinnamon as well.
- Cook the fruit for about 5 minutes so that it is thoroughly cooked through but still holds its shape. Add the liquor. Add 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice.
- Taste a spoonful of sauce with some of the berries in it. Add the extra half a cup of sugar now if needed. Add the extra tablespoon of lemon juice if you think the berry mix needs a “brighter” flavor. Take the berries off the flame and set aside to cool.
- Butter the interior of the bowl thoroughly. Cut crusts of bread off and cut bread slices into “finger” shapes and use the pieces of bread to line the inside of the bowl. Fill in any “blank” spaces with small pieces of bread. Make sure the entire surface is covered but don’t worry about making it look perfect. It won’t matter in the end.
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer the berries to the bowl. Pour two cups of the sauce from the berries into the bowl as well. (If for some reason you don’t have enough sauce, add another cup of water to what you have and stir it until it’s incorporated.)
- Place slices of bread across the top of the bowl. (This surface will become the bottom of the pudding when it’s unmolded.) Cover the bread with parchment paper, then put two saucers or plates that fit inside the bowl on top of the parchment paper so that it puts pressure on the pudding. Cover the saucers (and the top of this entire affair) with cling wrap. Place the pudding in the fridge and put two big, full soup cans on top. Add more weight if you think it needs it.
- Now let it sit in the fridge for at least 12 hours. I think the perfect thing to do is make it the night before you are going to serve it, which gives it about 20 hours to set up.
- When it’s time to serve it, unpeel the wrap and parchment paper. Place a platter over the top of the pudding and then flip it over. It should release easily, but if it doesn’t just run a knife around the outside perimeter of the pudding. I did that and the pudding popped out beautifully once I let a little bit of air get between the pudding and the bowl.
- Whip the cream and sugar together until they hold soft peaks. Use a chilled bowl and beaters if possible.
- Place some berries on top of the pudding for garnish. Pour the extra sauce around the bottom of the pudding. Serve with whipped cream.
- Moan with pleasure. Make the neighbors wonder what you do on the weekend.