|Queen of Puddings|
Not that long ago, breadcrumbs boiled in milk was a perfectly acceptable supper. In 1833, Scots essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote that,
"On fine evenings I was wont to carry forth my supper (breadcrumbs boiled in milk) and eat it out-of-doors...many a sunset have I, looking at the distant western mountains, consumed, not without relish, my evening meal."
Mary Novak reminds us in 'English Puddings':
"It is difficult now to realise the important part that bread played in so many people's lives."
When bread was the staff of life you certainly did not waste it and the last of a staling loaf was wont to find its way into a pudding. The first such domestic puddings were boiled or steamed. It was not until the early nineteenth century that many domestic kitchens had ovens. However, establishments catering for larger numbers would have had their own ovens, primarily for baking bread. Soaked, spiced and fruited leftover bread packed into earthenware dishes and baked in mighty college ovens made the College Puddings that sustained poor scholars through their studies, while in grand houses lighter assemblies, often enriched with eggs, might be served.
Queen of puddings is part of a large family of puddings based on sweetened milk thickened with breadcrumbs. Sir Kenelm Digby, an early seventeenth century adventurer, had certainly encountered a pudding of this type, for he has a recipe in 'The Closet Opened', published in 1669 after his death. Similar puddings were often named after a place. For Monmouth pudding, soaked bread is elevated with whisked egg whites and baked in layers with raspberry jam or fruit.
Closer still is Manchester pudding, which enriches the crumb mixture with egg yolks layers them with jam and sometimes spreads the whites as a meringue on top. This recipe was recorded in Theodore Francis Garrett's 1895 'Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery'. It differs from Queen of Puddings in that the meringue was spread over the unbaked base and the whole pudding baked in one, for a firmer meringue. However, many cooks may find that it is much easier to spread a meringue on a firmer base and would bake the custard firm first and go for a frothier meringue. Indeed, in his recent mighty tome, 'The Oxford Companion to Food', Alan Davidson suggests that Queen of puddings was probably renamed by the chef when Queen Victoria, on a royal visit to Manchester, admired his local pudding.