Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Foodie in the Emerald Isle
What’s cooking? Sticky Toffee Pudding

You can never tell what you’ll learn when you’re not looking. Take Ireland, for instance. My Prince and I took a trip there in August, and I must confess that my mood at the outset was a bit dark. Ireland wasn’t in my top 10 of where-do-you-want-to-go-this-year, but we’d signed up for the gig because our long-time travel friends wanted to go, and they’d done all the research, and we always have fun on trips with them. Then at the last minute, they had to cancel because of a health crisis. So there we were, locked into a two-week trip I didn’t want to take with a bunch of people I didn’t know. On a bus. Call me spoiled, but there it was.

Well, the tour turned out to be a Tauck Tour, and if you haven’t done one, put it on your list. To anywhere. They run like clockwork, stay in the most amazing places you can imagine, and offer incredible service from start to finish. Suitcases move as if by magic from the bus to your room and back to the bus, local guides offer knowledgeable and entertaining insights to the culture, and even the bus is astonishingly comfortable. Moreover, our fellow travelers turned out to be delightful. I won’t claim to have made friends with them all, but the group got along remarkably well, and quite a few of them were really fun.

The Place

Yes, it turns out that Ireland is stunningly beautiful. Rolling green hills of farmland, rugged coastlines, charming country towns, vistas that take your breath away (from one spot, we could see Scotland!), and a splendid assortment of ruins from as far back as the 12th century. Oh, and sheep. Lots of sheep. And one shepherd.

Did I mention the falcons? Yes, sirree. At Ashford Castle, where we stayed two nights.

Here's a small sample of other sights, including the Giant’s Causeway, a 60 million year-old geologic wonder shaped by the cooling and shrinking of volcanic lava flows.

Dunluce Castle, where local legend has it that at one point (probably early 18th century), part of the kitchen next to the cliff face collapsed into the sea, after which the owner’s wife refused to live in the castle any longer. (Who can blame her? Certainly not the Kitchen Goddess.)

And the view at Aghadoe Heights, where we spent another two nights, overlooking Loch Leane near Killarney.

The Food

The most eye-opening part of the trip was the food. Yes, I know, Ireland and good food aren’t a combo in anyone’s mind. But according to one of our delightful guides, Ireland has discovered tourism, and nothing these days brings tourists like good food. So we feasted on every kind of fish and shellfish – it’s an island, you know – as well as lamb and pork and game and... oh, my. By the time we climbed on the plane to fly home, the Kitchen Goddess was having a hard time fastening her jeans.

And then there were the breads and desserts. Oh, please. I’d been told by a foodie friend to try the Sticky Toffee Pudding, and it turned out to be a specialty of several places where we dined. One in particular, The Bushmills Inn in County Antrim, in Northern Ireland, was generous enough to give us their recipe. At least, they said it was their recipe. The Kitchen Goddess has made that recipe and has her doubts. But the Kitchen Goddess is also persistent, and has found a more than acceptable alternative, which you will find below.

The Dessert

Friends, this is not a dish for dieters. It’s rich and completely scrumptious, so also very hard to resist. The Kitchen Goddess had to give most of hers away to neighbors, just to get them out of the house. But it’s a great dessert for the holiday season – the dates and molasses really resonate as fall flavors.

A couple of other thoughts about this recipe. First, it’s not really an Irish dish. The origins – according to Wikipedia – are more English, and ultimately Canadian. But it’s now made extensively in England and Ireland, so go figure. Second, it’s nothing like what we think of in the States as a “pudding.” The texture is much more like a muffin, with slightly sticky sides and top, as much of the sweetness comes from the use of dates in the batter. The cake you’ll get from the recipe here – which I adapted from the very talented pastry chef at The French Laundry – is simultaneously light and very moist, probably because I whip the butter and sugar together until they scream. And it really comes into its own with the toffee sauce. Most recipes also suggest serving it with whipped cream or ice cream, which helps cut the sweetness.

Finally, I’ve now seen a number of variations on the basic recipe, including ones with orange peel and quite a few with vanilla (ugh). Bushmills Inn included whiskey (Bushmills, no doubt) in the version they served us, but not in the recipe they handed out. Martha Stewart makes hers with coffee instead of water; if you try it that way, please let me know how it goes. I was attempting to recreate my Irish experience, so I went with the most straightforward ingredients. I added the tablespoon of molasses to Chef Clark’s recipe, to enhance that fall flavor and to make it, well, a bit stickier.

From amazon.com, naturally
This is a really easy recipe, and takes very little time. (The second batch I made took less than 30 minutes to mix.)  I used nonstick dariole moulds, which are like deep individual muffin tins but also work for puddings, bread pudding, or panna cotta. You could also use an oblong cake pan, a bundt pan, or a popover pan. The batter expands a great deal, so whatever you use, be careful not to fill it more than halfway.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Adapted from Indulge (Whitecap Books, 2007), by Claire Clark

Makes 8-9 individual cakes.

For the pudding cakes:
6 ounces Medjool dates, pitted and chopped well
10 ounces water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1¾ ounces (3½ tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
6 ounces caster sugar*
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon dark molasses
6 ounces (1½ cups) self-rising flour*, sifted

*Kitchen Goddess note on the ingredients: (1) Caster sugar is just superfine sugar. Very useful in mixed drinks and preferred by cake bakers because it dissolves faster. You can make your own by putting granulated sugar in your food processor and giving it a few pulses. (2) Self-rising flour, which is flour with baking powder and salt added, is traditionally milled from softer, lower protein wheat, so it produces softer, more tender baked goods than all-purpose flours, which is why bakers like it. To make your own for this recipe, use a food processor (5-6 pulses) to combine 1½ cups of all-purpose flour (spooned, not scooped) with 2¼ teaspoons of baking powder and ¾ teaspoon of table salt.

For the toffee sauce:
8 ounces (1¼ cups, packed) dark brown sugar
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
4 ounces heavy cream

Make the pudding cakes:
Preheat the oven to 350º. The Kitchen Goddess used nonstick pans; if yours are not nonstick, you’ll need to lightly butter the sides and bottoms.

Chop the dates well and add them with the water to a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stir well, and let it simmer 4-5 minutes, until the dates look almost puréed. Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the baking soda. Set aside the mixture to cool. [KG note: The baking soda will cause the mixture to bubble furiously and take on an unattractive brownish-green color. That’s ok.]

Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar and continue to whip until they are light and fluffy (1-2 minutes). Add the eggs a little at a time, to get them well incorporated into the batter. Stir in the molasses and the date mixture and mix well.

Add the flour – about one-third at a time – and mix well. As you add ingredients, be sure to pause occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The batter should be relatively smooth when all ingredients are combined.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pans – filling no more than halfway up the sides – and bake about 25 minutes for individual cakes, at least 30 for a single cake. When done, the cakes should be puffed and spring back in the center when gently pressed with a finger. I found the baking to be most successful when I rotated the pan halfway through the time.

While the cakes are baking, make the toffee sauce:
In a saucepan, melt the butter and stir in the brown sugar until it dissolves. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently. Add the cream and return the mixture to a low boil for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve the cakes warm with sauce spooned over them. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. You can make the cakes a day ahead and let them stand – covered, in their pans – at room temperature. You can make the sauce several hours ahead and reheat, either on the stove or in the microwave.


  1. Such a breezy, delightful read. Your blog is just a breath of fresh air in the morning.

  2. Ah, thanks, Steve. Always good to hear someone is enjoying it.