Why pudding still matters

WOBBLING PLEASURE: Bring a plate of jelly to the table and nearly everyone laughs.
WOBBLING PLEASURE: Bring a plate of jelly to the table and nearly everyone laughs.

After nearly 20 years as an art curator, Alexa Johnston is no stranger to comprehensive research projects.

Johnston, who has also written about Edmund Hillary and Frances Hodgkins, tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia for Kiwi baking classics with her 2008 book, Ladies, A Plate and its sequel, A Second Helping.

She has applied the same academic rigour to her latest book, which explores the most eagerly anticipated research question of them all: what's for pudding?

With its purposely homely feel and recipes for things such as blancmange, junket and jellies, Johnston's new book pays tribute to the times when families sat down to homecooked desserts every night.

Johnston gleaned many of the dishes for What's For Pudding? from studying community and charity cookbooks from the early 1900s to the 1970s.

"I've always thought that these books, which were put together and sold to raise money for a new church hall or school equipment, contained people's best recipes," Johnston says.

"After all, if a recipe was going into one of those books with your name on it, you wouldn't want everyone else saying, 'well, I tried her recipe and it didn't work'.

"I think puddings and baking became a huge creative outlet for a lot of New Zealand women at the time, because there wasn't much you could do to vary meat and three veg."

Johnston made the decision early on in the process to narrow down her selection on the basis of taste rather than historical curiosity.

All recipes were tested at least twice, with only one "absolute disaster", a suet-free sago plum pudding, which eventually made the cut.

She enlisted husband Malcolm and their neighbours in the tasting process.

"We have a family of six on one side of us and a family of four on the other, with more across the road.

"One day I carried a ribbon jelly [a towering mass of different-coloured fruit jellies] across to the neighbours and the look on the children's faces was just wonderful.

"That's the thing about puddings. Bring a jelly to the table and everyone laughs."

Johnston started baking as a child and was cooking dinner by the time she was a teenager.

"I now feel extremely lucky that my mother was happy to encourage me to cook," she says.

"It distresses me that people have an incredibly limited knowledge of how food goes together. I think that's very disempowering.

"Start children off on baking, don't ask them to clean up because that's off-putting, and encourage them to have fun."

Johnston's look at New Zealand baking traditions in her previous books won her legions of fans, but she claims the success of the books is not about her.

"That's all to do with other people's memories. It's about celebrating these women who did a huge amount for their families, and for a long time being at home was seen as second class.

"But feminism is about choice, and women can choose to bake now and not feel tied to a cultural stereotype.

"I always say that if someone makes you your favourite pudding, you can be pretty sure they love you."

Simple Orange Jelly

"This is based on a recipe in Whitcombe and Tombs' Colonial Everyday Cookery. My copy is the sixth edition, published around 1915.

I found a slightly more racy version in The Diner's Digest, published in 1941 by the Auckland Travel Club, contributed by Kathleen Corbin, who suggests including 1 gill/150ml of sherry with the orange juice."

1/2 cup (125ml) hot water

3 oz/85g sugar

3 tsp grated orange zest

4 tsp gelatine

1 1/2 cups (375ml) orange juice

1 Tbsp lemon juice

Put the hot water, sugar and orange zest in a small saucepan and heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.

Remove from the heat, strain into a bowl and sprinkle in the gelatine.

Stir briskly with a fork until the gelatine dissolves.

Add the orange and lemon juice, pour into a wetted 2-cup/500-ml mould, or individual moulds, and leave to set in the fridge.

Chocolate Fudge Pudding

"This is definitely not a chocolate extravaganza. Made from just a few simple ingredients, it is a modest pudding, which bakes away gently as you eat your main course and it is a New Zealand favourite.

"As a child I was always delighted by the way the sugar and cocoa sprinkled on the top combined with hot water to magically create a smooth chocolate sauce under the pudding, and we always had it with very cold milk – or creamy top milk."


1 cup (125g) flour

1 tsp baking powder

2 Tbsp cocoa

pinch salt

3/4 cup (150g) sugar (a mixture of brown and white is a good idea)

1/2 cup (125ml) full cream milk

1 tsp vanilla essence

2 Tbsp (30g) butter, melted

1 egg, beaten*

1/2 cup chopped walnuts (or chopped chocolate)

*If you leave out the egg, increase the baking powder to 2 tsp


4 Tbsp cocoa

3/4 cup (150g) brown sugar

1 1/2 cups (375ml) hot water

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Butter a fairly shallow ovenproof dish that holds about 4 cups/1 litre.

Sift the flour, baking powder, cocoa and salt and mix through the sugar.

Combine the milk, vanilla essence and melted butter, pour on to the dry ingredients with the beaten egg and mix until smooth. Stir in the walnuts or chocolate.

Spread the batter evenly in the baking dish and sift over the cocoa followed by the brown sugar. Pour the hot water carefully over, covering the mixture.

Bake for about one hour until the topping is firm to the touch and the pudding smells cooked. Serve with cream. (A little sweet sherry poured over each serving is a very good idea for a special occasion.) Enough for 4-6 people.

The Dominion Post