Old School

​In praise of a classic British dessert

By Leaf Arbuthnot

Published on December 6, 2013

When, at the age of 11, I was packed off from my London home to boarding school, I was apprehensive about a lot of things: being away from home, making new friends, and—given my prodigious appetite—eating. Boarding school food, after all, had a reputation for being bland and stodgy, something akin to the inedible slop served to children in Victorian novels. Yet as soon as I arrived at Wycombe Abbey, a school founded in 1896 in Buckinghamshire, England, I realized my fears had been unfounded. Break-fasts consisted of fluffy scrambled eggs and crispy bacon, accompanied by baked beans. Dinners were battered cod and tartar sauce, followed by a sherry trifle for dessert. But the best meals came in the middle of the day, when, at the sound of a bell, we would sprint to the dining hall where we were given a generous slab of savory pie—shepherd's, chicken, or steak and ale—followed by spotted dick, a cakelike currant-flecked pudding that you could hardly make out under its thick duvet of vanilla custard.

I had never tasted, or even heard of, spotted dick before attending Wycombe. In fact, when I first saw it on the menu, I thought it was some sort of student prank. As it turns out, I loved the stuff. Made with suet, or beef fat, and cooked in a special mold set in a pot of simmering water, it was moist and sweet, its dense constellation of currants providing an inspiring treat before the drudgery of my afternoon physics class. Thereafter I would help myself to plate after plate of it before even touching my main course.

I later learned that spotted dick evolved from suet puddings made during the Middle Ages, which were steamed in sausage skins and stomach linings. The invention of the pudding cloth in the 17th century, a muslin bag that encased the dough while it steamed, made the puddings easier to prepare, and recipes for both savory and sweet puddings soared. Metal molds, which helped puddings better hold their shape, replaced pudding cloths in the early 20th century. As far as its curious name goes, "dick" is an old British term for steamed puddings, and "spotted" points to its endearing polka-dot appearance.
My school days behind me, I now make spotted dick at home, forming the sweet dough before steaming it in a pudding mold. Even though I live in a small apartment in London, one bite and I'm back in Wycombe's soaring dining hall without a grown-up care in the world.

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