I love suet. I know it’s as unfashionable as lard these days, but I love the stuff. A fluffy suet dumpling on top of a rich stew is such a winter treat that I will bear a lot of cold grey days just to have the excuse to embrace this most British of dishes. I also love the rich stickiness of Christmas dishes filled with fruit and suet and welcome sweet suet dishes that are a stunning vehicle for custard. But despite this love, I have never made a proper steamed suet pudding before. The sticky soft texture that is so dinky as dumplings, scares me in larger quantities. I have visions of sheer stodge, something you could kill someone with if handled incorrectly. Add in the traditional filling of kidneys and I feel a moment of blind panic. So it makes perfect sense that I offered to cook one for several friends on Friday night…
I’m oddly prone to this (usually after a glass of red wine) and it usually works out quite well, but this time I was really nervous. I scoured the internet fror recipes and techniques, baffling myself further with explanations of coring kidneys and wrapping puddings in muslin. Then I stumbled across a recipe for a magnificient looking pudding in Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess and felt much calmer. For a start she suggested using a plastic pudding bowl rather the more complicated system of wrapping and swaddling others mentioned.
One fear dealt with, it was time to get cracking with the filling. I hit up Dombey’s Butchers in Market Row as I wanted shin of beef rather standard steaking steak and they always oblige if you ask specially. I needed about a pound weight for the filling, but got double so that I could make beef stock with half of it. I also got 250 grams of cleaned lambs’ kidneys from them to avoid all the complications I had read about. I also popped into Marks and Spencer and got a bottle of their Meantime London Porter to add some depth to the stew (and use the other half of the bottle to take the edge of my nerves…)
The filling is very very easy to make, following a standard casserole recipe, apart from the addition of the kidneys. I cut these in smallish chunks, stripped any excess fat from them and browned them briefly. They smelt incredibly unappealing and I had visions of myself trying to pick them out of the finished pudding without anyone noticing. Everything then went into a low oven for about two hours, coming out looking very tender and with a lovely velvety gravy. I left it for about 24 hours to cool and allow the flavours to mingle nicely.
Next day, following Nigella’s extortations that suet pastry must be made at the last minute, I only started making the pudding about 3 hours before we were due to eat. Feeling confident with my buttered pudding bowl, I got the pastry under way. Unfortunately Nigella chooses this moment to be utterly vague, telling you to use enough cold water to make a stiff dough, but not giving even a vague idea as to how much water that might be. A teaspoon or a pint? I started with a cupful which wasn’t quite enough. Being cautious, I went for another half cup added in dribbles which was too much. Suddenly I had a massive bowlful of wallpaper paste and had to start adding fistfuls of flour to it to try and bring it back to a malleable texture. This took quite a while, putting me about 20 minutes behind schedule, but eventually I had a easy dough to work with and lined the pudding bowl quite easily. Mine was a 2 litre bowl instead of the monster sized 3 litre one she suggests, so I had a lot more overhang than suggested. I trimmed it down to the 3cm suggested and spooned in the cold filling, before adding the lid. I trimmed it back as much as possible to make sure the basin lid fitted tightly and plunged the whole thing into the pan of already boiling water.
And the basin lid promptly popped off, leaving me panicking and trying to fish the whole thing out on a pan of boiling water without the pudding getting any wetter or me scalded. Thanks to the adrenaline of blind panic and a pair of Marigolds to shield my hands, I scooped the basin out and replaced the lid with a angry firmness that made it aware I meant business. It went back in and although the lid of the pudding looked a little damp, I had more luck the second time. Once you’ve mastered this bit, it’s all very easy, leaving it to bubble away for two hours while you have a nice catch up with your guests and a glass of fizz.
I then cheated slightly and got a guest to help me get the pudding out of the basin and onto the serving plate as this is the kind of task that needs a third hand. Thanks to judicious buttering, the pudding slid out easily, settling on the plate langurously before sliding opening to reveal an appetising lake of rich gravy. I’m glad Nigella warns that the pudding will crack or I’d have thrown a pitched fit at this point, thinking it was a total disaster. Instead I served it up calmly with a bowl of buttered cabbage on the side and sat down to face the dreaded kidneys.
And they were fabulous. Meltingly soft, without even a hint of the ammoniac tang they had emitted when I was frying them, they coated the meat and the gravy with a wonderful texture and flavour. I was converted! The suet pastry was surprisingly light and not at all stodgy, making it the perfect vehicle to scoop up the gorgeous gravy without feeling overwhelmed. This is a dish just made for seconds. I think we might even have had thirds! I have rarely seen such clean plates at the end of a meal…
Having successfully confronted my fear of both suet pastry and another type of offal, I feel that pudding basin won’t be gathering dust in my kitchen cupboards. Inexpensive, surprisingly easy and utterly delicious, I will be steaming up a storm with a steak and kidney pud again very soon!