Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are on the menu for traditional Christmas dinner in many homes in Great Britain and in parts of the former British empire, even today. They were, of course, a regular part of many British Christmas dinners during the Regency. But just what is Yorkshire pudding, where and when did it originate, and how was it made?
The rise of Yorkshire pudding …
The word "pudding" itself has an ancient and confused history. Linguists are not sure if the English word has its origins in Anglo-Norman, Spanish, Middle French, Low German, Dutch or Middle English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the word is first attested in print in the 1300s. Among others, it has had the meaning of stuffed sausage, stuffing for roasted birds, fireworks, a sweet dessert dish, rope padding, a stupid person or a sweet or savory dish made with milk and flour, &c. Yorkshire is pudding in the last sense, a sweet or savory dish made with flour, milk, and usually eggs and salt, sometimes with sugar or spices.
Though no one is certain of the exact date, more than a century before the Prince of Wales became Regent, puddings of various names but similar recipes were being made in the north-eastern counties of Britain. A number of manuscript recipe collections dating from the mid-seventeenth century into the nineteenth century include recipes for pan pudding, fraze pudding, tansy cake, bakken pudding or a pudding to bake under meat. The batters made from all these recipes included flour, milk or cream, eggs, some of which also included salt, butter, sugar, suet, or spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves or mace. Beer was sometimes added to help the Yorkshire pudding to rise well. The cooking instructions for each recipe were all also very similar. But these many recipes are all to be found in collections of private papers which have never been published and are held in various libraries around Great Britain.
The first published recipe of what would eventually come to be called Yorkshire pudding was initially printed in a book which instructed English women on their duty. In 1737, The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, an infallible Guide to the Fair Sex. Containing, Rules, Directions, and Observations, for their Conduct and Behavior through all Ages and Circumstances of Life, as Virgins, Wives, or Widows. was published, anonymously for the "benefit," if you will, of women. In between the exhortations to virgins, wives and widows regarding morality, meekness, pride, vanity, compassion, and affability, were mixed many "Receipts in every Kind of Cookery." One of those receipts was for "Dripping Pudding," a dish meant to accompany roast meats.
Make a good Batter as for Pancakes, put it in a hot Toss-pan over the Fire with a Bit of Butter to fry the Bottom a little, then put the Pan and Batter under a Shoulder of Mutton instead of a Dripping-pan, keeping frequently shaking it by the Handle and it will be light and savoury, — and fit to take up when your Mutton is enough; then turn it in a Dish, and serve it hot.
A decade later, one of the best known English cooking writers of the eighteenth century, Hannah Glasse, published one of the earliest editions of her best-selling book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy; Which far exceeds any Thing of the Kind yet published, …. In the 1747 edition, Glasse, a native of Yorkshire, published her own recipe for dripping pudding which she titled "Yorkshire Pudding."
Take a Quart of Milk, four Eggs, and a little Salt, make it up into a thick Batter with flour, like a Pancake Batter. You must have a good Piece of Meat at the fire, take a Stew-pan and put some Dripping in, set it on the Fire, when it boils, pour in your Pudding, let it bake on the Fire till you think it is high enough, then turn a plate upside-down in the Dripping-pan, that the Dripping may not be blacked; set your Stew-pan on it under your Meat, and let the Dripping drop on the Pudding, and the Heat of the Fire come to it, to make it of a fine brown. When your Meat is done and set to Table, drain all the Fat from your Pudding, and set it on the Fire again to dry a little; then slide it as dry as you can into a Dish, melt some butter, and pour into a Cup, and set in the Middle of the Pudding. It is an exceeding good pudding, the Gravy of the Meat eats well with it.
Unlike The Whole Duty of a Woman, which never achieved a wide circulation, Glasse’s book sold well throughout the British Isles, though she had lost ownership of the copyright by 1755. Despite her loss of control, her recipe for Yorkshire pudding remained in subsequent editions right into the nineteenth century. By the second half of the eighteenth century, Yorkshire pudding was regularly made and enjoyed in many British homes, though it remained especially popular in the northern shires.
The point of traditional Yorkshire pudding was identified in its previous name, dripping pudding. The batter was placed in a large pan into which had been allowed to drip the fat and juices of meat roasting on a spit over the fire. Once the pan had been heated in the fire and the fat was bubbling, the batter was poured into it and placed under the roasting meat as it continued to turn on the spit, thus catching all the remaining drippings. Meat was very expensive through much of the eighteenth century, and none of it was wasted, even the drippings produced when it was roasted. Though the health-conscious today would shudder in horror, the fat from the meat drippings provided crucially needed calories, particularly for men doing heavy manual labor. The drippings also imparted a rich flavor to the Yorkshire pudding, and the high heat needed to roast meat was necessary to ensure the pudding would rise and had a light and crispy texture.
Traditional Yorkshire pudding was not served with the roasted meat, it was served before, as an appetizer or starter course. The pudding was cut into smaller pieces which were served drenched with the gravy made from the roasted meat. It is generally believed that this was done to take the edge off the diners’ appetites so that they would be satisfied with the small portions of the much more expensive meat which would be served during the second course. In poorer households, the children would receive only Yorkshire pudding and gravy, while the adults were served both the pudding with gravy and the roasted meat. Since the gravy was usually all consumed with the first course on the Yorkshire pudding, the meat and vegetables which typically comprised the second course were served with parsley or a cream sauce. Though Yorkshire pudding could be made with any roasting meat, the eighteenth-century Englishman was very fond of his roast beef. Thus, by the turn of the nineteenth century, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding had become a quintessential traditional meal throughout England. Even before the Regency, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were a favorite Sunday dinner, especially among the middle and upper classes. There were even many among the aristocracy who enjoyed such a meal.
Even before the Regency began, there were many British households who considered roast beef and Yorkshire pudding the perfect Christmas dinner. Dear Regency Authors, should you need a menu for a Christmas dinner in a story set during the holiday season, you cannot go wrong with a traditional dinner of Yorkshire pudding drenched in gravy for the first course, followed by roast beef and vegetables garnished with a white or parsley sauce. Maybe the hero is especially fond of Yorkshire pudding and the heroine makes it for him. Will she be an experienced cook, or will this be her first attempt at Yorkshire pudding and roast beef? Or, perhaps a young lady from the country has come to London to stay with friends and is very disappointed to learn the Christmas dinner will not include Yorkshire pudding and roast beef. Might the hero arrange to change the menu, unbeknownst to the lady of the house, in order to please her? Will a traditional meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding find a place on the table in one of your upcoming novels?