A sticky date pudding is not what you might expect to find on the menu of an Indian restaurant, but the huge comfort factor attached to this classic pud means it’s now a star of the takeaway offerings from Melbourne’s Tonka.
When Tonka pivoted from restaurant service to eat-at-home recently, two desserts made the new menu: gulab jamun and sticky date pudding, and that sticky pud, served with a lush caramel sauce, has been proving more popular than the Tonka team expected.
“I think people are craving something comforting,” says Kay-Lene Tan, executive pastry chef of Tonka and its sister restaurant, Coda.
Whether you call it sticky date or sticky toffee, this hearty pud, usually served with lashings of caramel or butterscotch sauce, has been a comfort classic for decades.
Writer Jan O’Connell, in her Australian food history timeline, describes 1984 as the Year of the Sticky Date Pudding. But while many ingredients and dishes that reach peak popularity then fall away, or become an object of scornful backward glances, this hearty dessert has endured.
It’s not hard to see why: as Stephanie Alexander writes in the introduction to her recipe for sticky toffee pudding, “it is delicious, easy to make, requires no fancy equipment and everyone loves it”.
By now, you may be wondering if there is any difference between sticky date and sticky toffee puds.
“Australian sticky date is very similar to Britain’s sticky toffee pudding. From what we can see, the only difference is in the name,” says Vianni Crennan, of Hunter Valley-based company The Pudding Lady, which sells puddings all over Australia.
“Our classic sticky date pudding is loaded with jammy sweet dates and cultivated Australian honey. It screams for some caramel or butterscotch sauce and a dollop of thick luscious cream."
Like many classics, the origins are debated, as Regula Ysewijn explains when SBS Food chats to the food writer and photographer with a particular interest in food history, and one of the judges of the Belgian version of The Great British Bake Off.
“Many people lay claim to inventing the sticky toffee pudding but I the love the story of it being invented in a hotel by the majestic Ullswater Lake in the Lake District around 1960,” she says. “The chef who invented the dish called it ‘icky sticky toffee sponge’ which sounds rather adorable. The legend goes that the original recipe is locked in the hotel’s vault. The hotel still stands on the banks of Ullswater. It is the perfect setting for this pudding.”
Ysewijn has written two books about British desserts - the National Trust Book of Puddings, and Pride and Pudding, in which she includes her own version (get the recipe here) which uses prunes instead of dates. Controversial, we ask?
“The more traditional versions - using dates instead of prunes - are equally satisfying, I just find prunes a better match because they are less sweet than dates are. Prunes were indeed used in puddings in history so it isn’t that adventurous, but using it in a sticky toffee pudding is something I haven’t seen - though to be honest, I didn’t go looking because that’s just how I’ve made my sticky toffee pudding for over a decade!”
At Tonka, Tan’s version is traditional; it appeared on the menu as a special for the festive season last year, but proved so popular, it stayed.
“It's actually a very traditional sticky date pudding but instead of serving it with whipped cream or chantilly cream, we served it with a chai ice-cream, so that was a point of difference when we were serving in the restaurant. Once Christmas season was over, it only stayed on the menu because so many people loved it, they didn't want us to take it off. And after the lockdown hit it was also one of the desserts, like our gulab jamun, that was easily translatable to takeaway.” The ice-cream doesn’t work for delivery, but the pudding has proven a hit, requiring just a few minutes in the microwave to send sticky sauce cascading down the sides.
Tan still remembers her first taste of sticky date pudding.
“I was born in Melbourne but I grew up in Singapore. On one of my first trips back to Australia, I think I was about 10 or 12 years old, we did this really long trip where we went to Perth, to Melbourne and we drove to Sydney. I can't remember where it was, I think it was probably in Melbourne with my parents, and we had a sticky date pudding. I think it was probably so awesome because it was pretty cold [in Melbourne] and it had this really delicious warm butterscotch on it.
“It’s always been one of the desserts I associate with Australia.”
It’s an enduring favourite at The Pudding Lady, too.
“Pudding is great comfort food, especially during these trying times,” says Vianni Crennan, a director and owner of the family-run company, which has been making sticky date pudding for more than a decade.
“It doesn’t need an occasion – it is a pudding to enjoy every day of the year.”
SBS Food’s Bakeproof columnist, Anneka Manning, describes this classic as “sweet, sticky and completely addictive”. Her sticky toffee pudding recipe includes a two-step application of toffee sauce for maximum indulgence (some is poured over the hot pud when it comes out of the oven, the rest served alongside the easy-to-make crowd-pleaser).
And like any classic, you can put your own spin on it. If you really want to double-up on classics, how about Donal Skehan’s mini sticky toffee pudding baked Alaska, with a pudding base and a meringue top, which he whips up in Donal’s Kitchen Hero: Feast.
Whichever way you indulge, don't forget the sauce!
"A sticky toffee pudding or any other steamed traditional pudding is what I crave after a hike in the British countryside," says Ysewijn, recalling past adventures. "You’ve just burnt off a lot of calories - usually from your full English breakfast that morning - and you have built up a massive appetite. ...It’s the only time I eat my dinner quickly so I can get to that sticky toffee pudding, glistening from the toffee sauce and accompanied by a moreish custard or refreshing scoop of clotted cream icecream!"
See Donal make his version in Donal’s Kitchen Hero: Feast, Sunday's 5.30pm on SBS Food then on SBS On Demand.
In summer, leave them in the fridge to chill and cool, and in winter go for the classic pudding served warm with ice-cream atop.
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