I became interested in cottage pudding largely because of its name. Why was it called a pudding, since it seemed to be a cake, and why a cottage pudding?
“Pudding” was once a general term for dessert (and still is in Great Britain), but there were plenty of recipes in old cookbooks for “cake,” so why wasn’t this one of them? The answer seems to be that although it was a cake, this dish was served with a sauce that was poured over the top, resulting in a slightly mushy, pudding-like dessert. The cake itself was also very moist.
As for the term “cottage,” it probably identified this dish as simple and affordable — suitable for farmers or laborers who lived in modest cottages. (It is similar in that sense to cottage pie, an early name for shepherd’s pie.)
Cottage pudding originated in North America. The earliest recipe I could find was published in 1863 or 1864 in Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular 19th-century women’s magazine. It was reprinted in Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a wonderful collection edited by Lily May Spaulding and John Spaulding. Here is that recipe:
Three cups flour, one cup sugar, one cup milk, two tablespoonfuls butter, two teaspoonfuls cream tartar, one egg; beat all together, then add one teaspoonful soda; flavor with lemon. Bake one-half hour; serve with sauce.
Sauce:—One cup butter, two cups powdered sugar beaten to a cream, two tablespoons wine, half spoonful vanilla beaten with it, half pint boiling water.
There are many similar recipes in cookbooks from the 1870s onward, although the ingredient proportions and sauces varied. I tried the Godey’s recipe. It was okay, but the cake seemed a little dense, and the sauce was very rich (so much butter!), though once it oozed into the cake it was edible. In other words, the cake and sauce really needed each other.
I then made a recipe from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. Standardized measurements had been introduced in the 1880s, but this book was the first to use level measurements (readers were instructed to slide a knife across the tops of cups and spoons). Fannie Farmer also provided information about nutrition, food composition, and culinary techniques, and she chose appealing recipes. Her book was an immediate bestseller. The photo below is of Farmer in her early 40s, when she was head of the Boston Cooking School.
Fannie Farmer’s cottage pudding recipe called for more butter than the Godey’s version, and less flour and sugar; it also replaced cream of tartar and baking soda with baking powder, which was widely available by this time. Farmer also gave more detailed instructions for putting the dish together:
Cream the butter, add sugar gradually, and egg well beaten; mix and sift flour, baking powder, and salt; add alternately with milk to first mixture; turn into buttered cake-pan; bake thirty-five minutes. Serve with Vanilla or Hard Sauce.
Farmer’s vanilla sauce contained cornstarch as a thickener, and I made it but didn’t like its gelatinous texture. So I looked through the 19 other pudding sauces in her book (pudding was huge in those days!) and opted for a simple lemon sauce. I glazed the cake with about half of this, and served some strawberry sauce alongside it, to make my ten year old happy. This is the wrong time of year to buy strawberries in New York — I tried, and crushing them was like trying to mash rubber. So instead I used thawed frozen strawberries preserved in a sugar syrup.
We all liked Fannie Farmer’s cottage pudding. It was sufficiently airy and soaked up the sauces beautifully. This was good comfort food, just right for a cold snowy day (which we’re having, again). I only wish I were baking it in a cottage instead of a high-rise.
The current edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, edited by Marion Cunningham, still has a recipe for cottage pudding, but it’s altered substantially from the 1896 edition, with twice as much butter, less flour, and half the amount of milk. It’s also now called “Cottage Pudding Cake.” But I’m sticking with the old version. Here is my adaptation — the ingredients are the same, but I’ve given a few more directions.
Adapted from The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
1 large egg
1 cup whole milk, room temperature
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter an 8 X 8-inch square baking pan. In a large bowl, cream the butter briefly, then gradually add the sugar and beat well. Beat the egg, then add it to the butter-sugar mixture and blend well.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt thoroughly to blend. Add this mixture to the butter-sugar mixture alternately with the milk, in three parts, blending well after each addition.
3. Pour batter into the prepared pan, and use a spatula to spread it evenly.
4. Bake cake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let rest for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with lemon sauce (see recipe below) and/or strawberry sauce.
Adapted from The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup water
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat, add butter and lemon juice, and stir well to blend. Prick the cake all over with a fork and pour sauce on top. (I used only half the recipe as I served strawberry sauce as well.)