Sticky Toffee Pudding

About mid-way through first grade my family moved into a house that was close to where my dad worked, a local hospital. In fact the hospital was only separated from our house by one other house, which at the time served as the convent. I did mention it was a catholic hospital right? Both our house, which we rented from the hospital, and the convent were grand two story Victorian homes. Of all the places we lived I liked that old Victorian home the best. I remember much about that house even though it was well more than forty years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday, yesterday, yesterday… cue the harp music. The day we moved into the house it was late in the afternoon so there was only a little time to explore before we were called in to dinner. I will never forget that first dinner, we had pizza (or was it Kentucky Fried Chicken?) and we sat on the floor of the kitchen where my mother had laid out newspaper and we had orange flavored soda (pop, as we called it) to drink. We had to sit on the floor because the movers had not arrived with any of our furniture.  I remember in the big back yard there was a set of bars, like on the playground at school that you could climb on or hang from.  I remember these bars all too well as my brother told me to hang upside down from them but didn't tell me I needed to clench my knees tightly around the bar and thus I fell to the ground and cracked my head pretty hard while he stood by and laughed at me (yes I know, this could explain a number of things).  It also had a tetherball pole.  I remember this because one summer day, dressed only in a pair of shorts, I was holding on to the pole with one hand and walking around and around the pole as fast as I could and I stepped on a bee.  My brother and sister found this to be the funniest thing that has ever happened and they howled with laughter as I screamed so loudly, that my father, in his office, heard me and came home to see what happened. Mind you his office was in the middle of the Hospital and remember our house was separated from the hospital by the convent.  I know he really came home to tell me I had better knock off the noise or else, but what I choose to believe is that seeing his child with a bee sting to the foot, the interaction became not as harsh as it normally would have been. 

This was not the only time I made so much noise I was heard down the street. We had a Welsh Corgi puppy that was given to us by the nuns next door.  Her “favorite” thing to do was to run in a large circle in the backyard and would continue running as long as you chanted, loudly, over and over “look at her go” which we did – nonstop. This was accompanied with clapping your hands as quickly as you could… “lookatergo, lookatergo, lookatergo” - clap clap clap clap clap, until my father would call the house and tell us to keep quiet!  And you knew you were in real trouble if he suddenly appeared in the backyard and grabbed the dog to put her in the house.  When we finally left that house there was a ring worn out of the grass where she had run.  She was a good dog, and my dad obviously had great hearing. It is more likely that the nuns would simply call his office and complain that we were making too much noise I will admit, but that isn’t as much fun. However, there was one time we were all packed in the car, off to somewhere not important, when backing out of the driveway my dad stopped the car, got out, and ran to the backyard to pull out a piece of a stick that had become lodged in the dogs throat and was causing her to screech in pain.  I look back at that day and know that had he not heard her yelp, most likely she would have choked to death (or at least been seriously injured) before we returned. 

I remember the driveway to the house was super long and so narrow that the car we had, a white Plymouth, with gears that could be changed by pushing buttons on the dash, just barely fit.  My younger brother and I used to sit in the car and pretend we were driving places. There were many times we would push the buttons on the dash board, one of which would kick the car into neutral and it would slowly start rolling backwards (a serious flaw in this car if you ask me). I can recall several occasions where this happened and on each occasion, panic would set in and we would have to lunge for the brake with our hands, and then one of us would push the button to put the car back into park.  That’s when we would stop playing in the car and hope nobody noticed it had moved.

The porch was wide and looked out onto a very large front yard with two very mature trees which provided us with endless hours of amusement both as children and again as adults, long after we had moved away.  One of the trees we dubbed the “Bat Cave” because you could literally ride your tricycle through a split on the low hanging leaves on one side, circle around the trunk and exit through a different split on the other side.  The underside of that tree was bare and you could just stay in there if you wanted, hiding from the world, or at least your big brother.  The other tree was a very large pine with a trunk that was at least thirty inches in diameter.  This is the tree that gave us amusement as adults as it was the tree my mother would tether my younger brother to so he wouldn’t wander off as soon as her back was turned.  Most likely this is not a memory I would have under normal circumstances except that it seems to always be the topic of conversation at Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or any other holiday where the extended family comes together.  We discuss what the neighbors must have thought passing by our house and seeing a small child tied to a tree.  And although the rope started out long, it was only a matter of time that he would have circled the tree enough times to only allow for a few feet of movement.  My mother always insisted that this was a better alternative to having him run away.  We do have one picture, that I can see clearly in my mind now, where my brother had figured out the way to escape his bondage was to simply take off all of his clothes and make a run for it. He is pictured doing exactly that, running away as fast as he could, buck naked, on a clear summer day.  This photo proved my mother was not a particularly horrible person who irrationally tied her kids to trees; though CPS might not be swayed!

I cut my cake into 8 very generous pieces, so I wouldn't have to go back for a second piece.

I can picture the interior of the house clearly, a large living room which flowed into an equally large dining room where the stairs to the second floor were located.  At the back of the dining room to the left was the door to a small bedroom that was connected to the kitchen by a small bathroom.  Off the kitchen to the right was a small pantry that had access on one side to the back yard and the other to the Master bedroom, which in turn exited to a hallway with the second bathroom and another bedroom towards the front.  I loved this, basically circular, setup and I can remember running through the house starting in the living room then dashing into the dining room and through the door to my sisters bedroom; out the second door into the bathroom and on through to the kitchen, sliding into the pantry and making a sharp right turn, through the door to my parents room and out the other side into the hall way, and just before reaching the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, making another sharp right turn through the archway back into the living room.  Why this pleased me so I have no idea.  The second floor was broken into two separate areas, a finished bedroom, and an unfinished storage area with rickety planks that made a makeshift walkway across the rafters and a single bare bulb with a pull chain switch that dimly lit the area. At first, the upstairs seemed to be the most desirable spot in the house and my younger brother and I were jealous that my older brother got to claim that space for himself. However, we soon realized he had to share it with the monsters that lived on the other side of the wall in that little storage space.  I remember (more than I care too) when my brother would make us go in there for something and then shut the door and hold it closed while we screamed to be let out.  The upstairs quickly lost all appeal. On the side of the house, between the convent and us, was the peach tree I mentioned in my pecan and peach upside down cake post. I miss that tree. I think I liked this house mainly because it wasn't a typical tract home. It had character and it had charm. And I think that's exactly what today's recipe has as well, character and charm...

Step one: Plate a warm piece of cake.

This recipe for sticky toffee pudding is the second recipe I have pulled from Rose Levy Beranbaums’ fantastic cookbook: Rose’s Heavenly Cakes. Every time I flipped through the pages of that cookbook this recipe would catch my eye. One reason of course, is the picture in the book is wonderful. The second reason is the recipe looked pretty easy (I mean it’s just a cake with some toffee sauce on it, right?). Oddly enough I had never made it.  As I write this it is nearing the end of December and the New Year is looming right around the corner. So as this year draws to a close, I decided to finally bake it and to make this the final dessert in 2017; a warm date cake, with a warm toffee sauce to boot. If I close my eyes I can imagine sitting in front of a fire in a big cozy chair, at some ski lodge, high in the Swiss alps with this dessert and maybe a cup of warm cider, hot chocolate, or a hot buttered rum (if that’s your thing) talking with a French ski instructor named Guy.  I can also imagine sitting with friends and/or family around the table or just standing in the kitchen enjoying these special moments; truly one of the best things about food.

Step two: Pour on warm toffee sauce.

Since this was my first time making this dessert, I want to share with you just a few thoughts.  First off I was really worried about using Guinness Extra Stout. I didn’t think I would like the taste. It just seemed like it would be a heavy flavor and the aroma of the beer and dates as they sat on the counter cooling did nothing to assuage my fear. I was a little disappointed with the rise of the cake, too.  Rose says the cake should rise about 1¼ inches on the edges and about 1½ inches in the center, but mine didn’t get quite that high. Though the structure and the tenderness of the cake I felt were perfect.  I also think I would have liked the sauce to be just a bit thicker. I think this might have been my fault, as I didn’t actually get the sugar and butter to a boil before I pulled it off the heat and added the cream. In the end though I admit I found the whole thing absolutely delicious. The flavors of the cake, sauce and crème fraîche blended very well. The toasted pecans added a little crunch and as for the beer issue… If I had been asked to taste the cake while blindfolded I would never have guessed beer was an ingredient. I think this might just be a perfect dessert for a New Years Eve dinner or maybe a New Years Day dinner, or maybe even just a regular Tuesday when you have some friends over. I think this is also one of those desserts where if you have people at the house, gather them into the kitchen (that’s where they all are anyway, most likely) and divide up the tasks while you chat about your new year resolutions, or how you should really get together more often.

Step three: Top with Creme Fraiche or whipped cream or ice cream...

Beside the normal spoons, bowls, and spatulas there are only a few pieces of equipment you need, and if you have baked at all in the past, I’ll bet you have them. You’ll need a 9 x 13 inch cake pan, two baking sheets, a stand mixer with the whisk attachment (I suppose a standard electric mixer would work as well) and a food processor. You’ll also need some parchment paper, plastic wrap and some cooking spray to line the pans. I also like the way Rose writes her recipes because she indicates the weight measurements in addition to volume measurements, so if you have a scale, that will come in handy too. As Rose did, I will list the weight measurements as well as the volume measurements, and you can choose whichever method you like (I highly recommend using the weight measurements when they are indicated). 

So here is how I put this together,

Ingredients you’ll need

For the cake:

  • 1 -2 tablespoons (6 ounces) solid shortening (for greasing the pan)

  • 6 – 7 (6 ounces) large dates, pitted

  • 1 cup (8 ounces) stout beer (preferably Guinness extra stout)

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature (65°F - 75°F)

  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar

  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

  • 3 (5.3 ounces) large eggs, room temperature

  • 2 cups sifted into cup & leveled off (8 ounces) all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg

For the Toffee Sauce:

  • 1 cup, firmly packed (8. 5 ounces) dark brown sugar

  • 1 vanilla bean

  • 16 tablespoons (8 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature (65°F - 75°F)

  • ½ cup (4 ounces) heavy whipping cream

  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) Lemon Juice, freshly squeezed

  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Garnish – optional

  • 1¼ (4.5 ounces) Pecan halves, toasted and chopped coarsely *

  • ¾ cup (6 ounces) crème fraîche, lightly whipped

In lieu of crème fraîche, you can substitute lightly sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Step four: Toss on a few toasted pecans.

Putting it together, (said George…)

The first thing we need to do is prep the pans, so take your 9 x 13 baking pan and coat the bottom with the solid shortening, then line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper.

Take a baking sheet and stretch plastic wrap across the back side and then spray the wrap with non-stick cooking spray and set aside.  This is what we will flip the cake onto after it’s baked. Have a second baking sheet at the ready as well, as that is what we will re-flip the cake onto for cutting and serving and reheating if necessary.

Now you should preheat your oven to 350°F with the rack set in the lower third of the oven (if you’re using a pyrex dish or a dark pan Rose says you should bake at 300°F).

Now we can press on with the actual cake.

Place the dates in a medium sized bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, bring the beer just to a boil then remove from the heat.

Stir in the baking soda. It’s going to get really fizzy, but that’s ok.

Now, pour the beer mixture over the dates and let them cool to room temperature.

Once cooled, remove the dates from the beer and put them in a food processor with a little bit of the beer mixture.

Process the dates until a paste is formed, then gradually add the rest of the beer through the feed tube. You’ll get a very smooth, dark, and glossy mixture, which you can put in a bowl, keeping it covered until you need it.

In the bowl of the stand mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter, the sugar, and the vanilla on medium speed until it is light and fluffy, which takes about 4 minutes or so. Scrape down the bowl as needed.

In a small bowl, lightly whisk the eggs.

With the mixer still on medium speed add the eggs in three additions, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Don’t worry if the mixture looks broken (or curdled), as soon as you add some flour it will come together.

In a medium sized bowl whisk together the flour, the baking powder, the salt, the cinnamon, and the nutmeg, until it is well combined.

Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to the batter and mix on low speed about 10 to 15 seconds just until it is incorporated.

Add ½ of the remaining flour to the batter and again mix until just incorporated, on low speed, another 10 to 15 seconds.

Now add the date mixture to the batter and mix just until incorporated as before.

Finally, add the last part of the flour and mix the batter just until it is uniform in color and no streaks remain. Scrape down the side of the bowl as needed.

Now scrape all that batter into the prepared 9 x 13 inch baking pan and smooth the top. The pan will only be about ⅓ full.

Bake the cake for 15 minutes, rotate the pan halfway, then bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until a wire cake tester comes out clean when inserted in the center and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center.

While the cake is baking, make the toffee sauce:

Put the brown sugar in a small saucepan.

Split the vanilla been with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds into the pot with the sugar. Set the empty pod aside for now, we will use it later.

Work the seeds into the sugar a bit with your fingertips to disperse them a little.

Next, add the butter to the pot and stir it into the sugar with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon.

Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring it constantly.

Once it reaches a boil, remove from the heat and add the whipping cream, the lemon juice, the salt, and that empty vanilla pod.

The mix might seem a little grainy but it will get totally smooth after it stands for a bit.

You can reheat the sauce as necessary and remove the vanilla pod before serving.

When the cake is done:

Place the pan on a wire rack and allow it to cool for 10 minutes.

Loosen the cake from the sides of the pan by running a small metal knife between the sides of the pan and the cake.

First, invert the cake onto the plastic wrap lined baking sheet.

Next, re-invert the cake onto the second baking sheet.

Cut the cake into thirds the long way and into fourths the short way and place each serving on a plate.

Pour about 3 tablespoons of sauce on top allowing it to drip off the sides of the cake and pool on the plate.

Top each piece with a dollop of the crème fraîche (or whipped cream) and sprinkle with the toasted pecans, if using and serve immediately.

If you made the cake ahead, reheat the cake for about 5 minutes in a 350°F oven before cutting and serving and reheat the toffee sauce as needed.

 

* To toast pecans spread the pecan halves evenly on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350°F oven for about 7 minutes. Stir them once or twice to ensure even roasting and to avoid overbrowning. Cool them completely, then break or chop them coarsely for this recipe.

 

I hope you got this far and that you are really considering making this sometime very soon. It really is a simple dessert to make and it is surprisingly good. And surprises like that are some of the best things about food. Let me hear from you if you do try it.

 

Oh, and Happy New Year…

Step five: Enjoy under the withering side-eyed stare of your dog.