Growing up as a child in 80s northern Britain, the idea of fine dining — or food that didn't come out of a can, or the freezer, in fact — was pretty much alien to me.
Largely left to my own devices (I could work the microwave from the age of five) I existed on a diet of boil-in-the-bag curries, microwave pizzas and Findus Crispy Pancakes. When my mother did cook something from scratch, she rotated between fish fingers paired with Iceberg lettuce smothered in salad cream, corned beef hot pot, and a unique take on spaghetti bolognese using canned tuna and peas. Yum. But amid this culinary desert, there was one glimmer of sunshine: our weekly Sunday roast.
Whether you ate one at home, or one at a local country pub gathered around the fire with friends, when it comes to quintessentially English food, there's nothing that comes close to a Sunday lunch with all the trimmings. A tradition that spans both generations and classes, for most the star of the show is the hunk of juicy meat. However, for me, the crowning glory has always been the humble Yorkshire pudding.
Light, crispy, fluffy on the outside, soft and chewy in the middle, and gorgeously golden brown in colour, these savoury pancake-like creations made from flour, eggs and milk, were designed to be served with meat and filled with lashings of gravy.
I can still picture their weekly ritualised preparation — my young nose pressed against the oven window, watching the batter magically rise and darken, as steam that rose from saucepans containing carrots and broccoli, filled the kitchen. Once ready, the puddings, filled to the brim with hot Bisto, crowned the mountain of meat and veg on each plate. Apple crumble and custard always followed, then it was off to the lounge to sleep off the belly-busting fare in front of an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Bliss!
Yorkshire pudding was traditionally served as a starter with gravy to curb appetites before the more expensive meat course was served. The first recipe for "dripping pudding" made its debut back in 1737 in a book titled The Whole Duty of a Woman. In a classic example of northern thrift and penny-pinching, cooks made use of the fat that dropped from the meat being roasted (usually mutton) by placing batter under the meat as it cooked. And while the dish is now forever interlinked with Yorkshire, it was actually Hannah Glasse in Northumberland (close to where I'm from) who renamed the puffed-up-pancake after England's largest county in her 1747 cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
Regardless of its precise birthplace, the dish has travelled throughout the UK and all the way to Australia, where the British introduced the pudding and its accompanying roast. It's a food that becomes more prolific during the cooler months. Certainly, winter, coupled with the reverberations of COVID-induced anxiety, has meant that I'm craving childhood comfort food from my homeland with ever-increasing regularity. Especially a yummy Yorkie.
I can still picture their weekly ritualised preparation — my young nose pressed against the oven window, watching the batter magically rise and darken, as steam that rose from saucepans containing carrots and broccoli, filled the kitchen.
However, while my mother was schooled in the ancient art of crafting the perfect pud by her grandmother (and likely her mother before her), it's an alchemy that she failed to pass on to me. You see, long before I was of an age where cooking solo appealed, my mum discovered the convenience of Aunt Bessie's frozen Yorkshire puddings. So, in my late-30s and bereft of ancestral guidance, I decided to go it alone and promptly invited friends over for, and I quote, "an authentic" British roast.
The showman in me wanted to dazzle, but it turns out that making a good Yorkshire pudding is, as with many seemingly simple dishes, a task filled with potential pitfalls. Don't open the oven door, now don't close the oven door; use beef fat, no, use olive oil; use only milk, no, use milk and water…argh! The result of my attempts were puds that had utterly failed to rise, and had spongy, soggy bottoms.
However, before admitting defeat and relinquishing my British passport after being unable to master the most English of English dishes, I decided to turn to an expert for help. Enter my fellow countryman — and the executive chef and owner of Sydney's Nel Restaurant — Nelly Robinson.
"I remember when I first got here 11 years ago," Robinson recalls. "I realised how popular a roast was, but then I went to a few pubs to try them and when the Yorkshire's came out, I looked at them and went: 'hmmm!'
"I can guarantee that a lot of Aussies cook them at a low heat and take them out [of] the oven far too early. They haven't been brought up at the heart of the pudding, where you ate it every Sunday, and where [your] mum passed down the recipe. It's pretty natural for us Brits."
Ahem. Keen to hear more, I drilled the Yorkshire-born kitchen whiz for his top tips to perfecting the Yorkshire pudding — and here they are:
All batters, in Britain at least, are made from the same basic ingredients: flour, eggs and milk — or, a mixture of milk and water.
"I use self-raising flour," says Nelly. "Pure milk — rather than milk and water — as I think milk is best for the fat factor. I've never used water for…ever! When it comes to the number of eggs, you don't want the batter to be too quiche-like. So, for a litre of milk, I use two eggs to ensure the puddings are crispy. I then add my salt after the batter is mixed."
While not traditional, Nelly also adds some star anise and nutmeg to the mixture. "Nutmeg just goes so well with beef and horseradish — it's a match made it heaven. I adore it. But my top tip is to make the natter the day before to let it rest, and to just give it a whisk the next day before you cook it."
Finesse your fat
Back in the origins of the pudding, when it was made under meat roasted on a spit, delicious dripping was the go-to. These days, varying oils are being touted as the best for the job.
"I use half-beef fat and half-vegetable oil," he says. "The beef fat is for flavour, while the vegetable oil can be heated to a really high temperature without burning.
"One major mistake is not heating the oil in the tins up enough beforehand — the oil needs to be so hot that it's smoking. What you're trying to do is accelerate the cooking process so as soon as the batter hits the fat, it starts to rise."
Handle the heat
The most common stumbling block when cooking Yorkshire puddings is the challenge of choosing the right oven temperature.
"I heat...the trays with oil at 220°C and leave it in the oven for a good six minutes, so it's really, really hot. Then I quickly fill the moulds halfway with the batter, and stick it back into the oven and cook for a further eight minutes, before dropping the temperature to 180 for three or four more minutes. This helps cook the inside of the pudding.
"Just like with a souffle, many people open the oven too early — the rule is: look through the glass, but don't open it! If you open the oven too early, you risk deflating your Yorkie."
And there you have it. Top tips to craft the ultimate Yorkshire Pudding from an expert. Tips that I'll employ when I cook my Yorkshire pudding comeback lunch — perhaps I won't have to relinquish my citizenship just yet.
Nelly Robinson's recipe for the ultimate Yorkshire pudding
You can prepare the batter the night before.
- 100 g vegetable oil
- 100 g beef fat
- 2 large free-range eggs
- 100 g self-raising flour
- 100 ml milk
- ½ whole nutmeg, grated
- 5 g star anise powder
- Beat the eggs, flour, milk together in a jug until light and smooth. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and star anise powder.
- The next day, preheat the oven to 220°C.
- In a cupcake tin pour the mixture about a quarter of the way into each mould.
- Pop into the oven for 10 to 15 minutes so the oil gets really hot and steamy.
- Carefully remove the tray from the oven, then pour the batter evenly into the compartments ½ to ¾ the way up.
- Pop the tray back in the oven to cook for 8 minutes and turn the oven down to 180°C without opening the oven and leave for 4-5 mins until crispy.
- Once cooked, immediately put on a cake rack to cool.