Puddings, in their wonderfully various forms, were a uniquely English culinary invention, as was the cloth in which they eventually came to be cooked. In particular, by the Regency, most families enjoyed a Christmas pudding during their holiday meal, and those puddings were cooked in a pudding cloth. However, since the use of the pudding cloth nearly died out at the beginning of the last century, few people today are familiar with the details of that all-important pudding cloth, as would have been most Regency home-makers.
The history and use of the pudding cloth . . .
The first puddings made in England were closer to what we know today as sausages. They were a mixture of minced meats, suet, oatmeal or other grains, blended with spices and other seasonings, all of which was stuffed into the freshly prepared stomach lining or intestines of an animal which had been recently slaughtered. These stuffed entrails would then be roasted, baked or boiled in order to cook the pudding. The special casing needed to make a pudding had the result of restricting the times when this popular dish could be enjoyed, since one could be made only when an animal had been recently slaughtered and their fresh entrails were available to contain a pudding.
But that all changed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when some unknown cook, perhaps a steadfast devotee of puddings, conceived of the idea of cooking a pudding inside a piece of woven cloth. The earliest known record of a pudding boiled inside a cloth dates from 1617, in a recipe for "College Pudding," also known as" Cambridge Pudding." The success of puddings cooked inside a pudding cloth made it possible to enjoy such rich and filling dishes at nearly any time. There was no longer any need to wait for the slaughter of an animal in order to obtain its entrails for a pudding casing. The pudding cloth served the purpose just as well and was available any time a pudding was wanted.
The advent of the pudding cloth seems also to have fostered a great deal of experimentation in the creation of puddings in England. Through the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, the various types of puddings expanded significantly. Like the earliest puddings, there were savory puddings made of minced meats, suet and starches derived from cereal grains blended together and seasoned with salt and spices. But gradually, sweet puddings were developed as well, most of which were made with some combination of flour, milk, eggs, butter, fruit, a sweetener such as honey, molasses or sugar, and spices. By the turn of the nineteenth century, there were literally hundreds of recipes for both savory and sweet puddings in use across Britain. Many were named for the region, or even the village, when they originated and may have only been made or served in those locales. But the majority of them had one thing in common, most of them were cooked by being boiled inside a pudding cloth.
Most pudding cloths were made of an even-weave linen, probably similar in weight to the linen used for bed sheets. In fact, it is entirely possible that many pudding cloths were made with the remnants of cloth left over from the making of bed linens. Some pudding cloths may even have been made from the unworn sections of old bed linens. Most cooks preferred unbleached linen, which was believed to be stronger since it had not been subjected to bleaching. Not only was unbleached linen more likely to be stronger than bleached linen, there was no chance that any residual bleaching agent might be transferred into the pudding during cooking. By the Regency, some pudding cloths may have been made of unbleached cotton muslin, but they would have been very expensive. Most cooks would still have preferred linen, which was a stronger, tougher fabric and could stand up to repeated use. The edges of a pudding cloth should be finished to ensure that it did not unravel during use.
Pudding cloths were used in Ireland, Wales and Scotland as well as England. However, in Scotland, "cloot" was the most common term for cloth and many puddings there were known as "clootie dumplings". One of the most common of "clootie dumplings," or puddings, was that quintessentially Scottish dish, haggis. It must be noted that when a proper pudding cloth was not available, there are records which note that a cook might use a pillow case, or even the sleeve torn off a shirt, to contain a pudding for cooking. Puddings made in such cloths were known as "bag" or even "shirt-sleeve" puddings.
It must be noted that though the pudding cloth had become ubiquitous in the kitchens of Regency England, it took a certain amount of knowledge and skill to employ it correctly in the making of a pudding. If the pudding cloth was not used properly, the resultant pudding might be very disappointing or even completely inedible. All cookbooks and household hint books of the period strongly stressed that the pudding cloth should be very clean and well-rinsed before it was used. There should be no trace of soap left in the fabric. Water should be set to boil in a large pot while the pudding mixture was being prepared. When the pudding was ready to be cooked, the pudding cloth should be placed into the boiling water for up to an hour. Then it should be removed and the bulk of the moisture wrung out so that it was damp, but not soaking wet. While still steaming, it should then be quickly spread flat on a clean, firm surface.
There were two schools of thought on the next step in the preparation of the pudding cloth. Many of the cookbooks in the Regency period directed that the hot, wet cloth should be dredged with flour. The flour should be firmly and vigorously rubbed into the area of the cloth that would cover the pudding. But other cookbooks recommended that the damp cloth should first be greased with butter, lard or meat drippings before it was vigorously rubbed with flour. This flour, or flour and grease, treatment would produce a thin crust on the outside of the pudding as it cooked. In some cookbooks, the use of both grease and flour on the pudding cloth was recommended only for mince meat or rich fruit puddings, while only flour should be used on pudding cloths which would be used to cook more delicate custard and batter puddings.
Once the pudding cloth was prepared, the pudding mixture should be placed in the center of the cloth and shaped into a round ball. The cloth was then to be pulled up around the shaped pudding mixture. Depending upon the type of pudding, the cloth would be pulled tightly around the shaped pudding mixture, or some space should be left around the pudding mixture in order to allow for the swelling of the pudding as it cooked. The last step was to tie the pudding cloth closed at the top, usually with a length of twine or string.
After the pudding cloth was firmly tied closed, it was to be plunged into the large pot of water which had been set to boil earlier. The pudding was only to be dropped into water which was at a full boil and the water should fully cover the pudding. If this was not done, cooler water might penetrate the floured cloth and spoil the pudding. The heat should be reduced so that the water simmered steadily. Most puddings had to be left to simmer in the water for anywhere from two to five hours, depending upon the type and size of the pudding. As the water level dropped due to evaporation during the cooking process, it was only to be topped off with more boiling water, again, to prevent the pudding from being spoiled. Many cookbooks recommended that puddings be boiled in an earthenware pot, if one was available, since the pudding cloth would be less likely to stick to such a surface. However, if the pudding was to be boiled in a metal pot, the cook should periodically lift the pudding slightly by way of the gathered section at the top to ensure the cloth did not stick to the surface of the pot. It seems that some experienced cooks who had to use a metal pot to boil their pudding put an inverted ceramic saucer or small bowl at the bottom of the pot to prevent the pudding in its cloth from resting directly on the bottom of the metal pot, nearest the heat source.
There were also variations in how the pudding should be removed from the cloth once cooking was completed. The traditional Christmas pudding was usually made a few days early, and when it was removed from the boiling water, the exterior was blotted dry and the entire pudding, still inside the cloth, was hung in a cool, dry place for a few days to as much as a week before it was to be served. Many pantries had a cool area where food was stored and most households would hang their Christmas pudding in their pantry, often by means of a meat hook through the top of the pudding cloth. On Christmas Day, the pudding, still in the cloth, would be plunged once again into boiling water for a couple of hours before it would be ready to serve. The pudding would then be turned out onto a large plate or platter, often garnished with some holiday decor, such as a few sprigs of holly, and then it would be carried to the table, where it would be cut into wedges and served.
However, more delicate puddings, which were intended to be served soon after cooking, had to be more carefully handled. Custard or batter puddings typically had to be cooked only a couple of hours, and then had to be removed from the boiling water and placed in a ceramic basin to cool for fifteen to twenty minutes before they should be turned out onto a serving dish. Such puddings should then be served immediately. But minced meat and some vegetable and fruit puddings should be turned out of the pudding cloth as soon as they were removed from the boiling water. Otherwise, the cooling pudding cloth might adhere to the surface of the pudding and the pudding would be broken when the cloth was removed.
After the pudding cloth was removed from the pudding, most cookbooks recommended that it be immediately placed into a basin of cold water to soak until it can be washed. As soon as possible, the cloth should be washed thoroughly in hot water with soda or lye soap. Once the pudding residue is completely removed from the cloth, it should then be rinsed thoroughly until all of the soap has been rinsed out. As soon as it completely rinsed, it should then be hung to dry, after which it should be stored in a cool, dry place. A pudding cloth should always be washed immediately after use and care should be taken that all pudding particles and residue is removed. The clean pudding cloth should never be stored in a damp area or any place where it might be subject to mold or vermin. All cookbooks warn that any pudding cloth that is not kept scrupulously clean might impart an unpleasant taste to the pudding cooked in it.
From the seventeenth century, well into the nineteenth century, including the Regency, the pudding cloth was a uniquely British cooking implement. Puddings were not popular on the Continent, so there was little demand for pudding cloths in the kitchens of Europe. However, puddings, and also pudding cloths, did migrate with British immigrants to North America, Australia and other British colonies around the world. However, making a pudding in a pudding cloth was very labor intensive, so that most cooks needed some assistance in order to accomplish the task. After World War I, when fewer people went into service, the use of the pudding cloth gradually died out in the homes of those without servants. By the middle of the twentieth century, most puddings were steamed in a ceramic basin set inside a pot of boiling water. Even so, for many years, those who remembered puddings made in a cloth always thought they tasted better. There are some cooks who have returned to making their puddings in a pudding cloth in the twenty-first century.
Now that you know something of the lore of pudding cloths, Dear Regency Authors, how might you find a use for one in an upcoming story? Perhaps a lazy, or villainous, cook has used a dirty, or even a poisoned pudding cloth, which has made members of the family ill. Or, could it be that the new young cook at the manor house has failed to properly flour the pudding cloth so that the pudding is spoiled by water leaking in to it. Will the tender-hearted heroine, perhaps the lady of the house, or the new governess, show the cook how to properly prepare a pudding cloth? Then again, perhaps the hero has been in an accident in a small village and has been taken in by one of the village families. When he realizes that the ladies of the house have not prepared any puddings due to a lack of a pudding cloth, might he offer them the sleeve of one of his fine linen shirts for the purpose? Are there other ways in which a pudding cloth might serve a purpose in a Regency romance?