Steak & kidney puddings have caused us (or me) a bit of bother since they appeared on the menu at the pub. Sometimes they seem a little too dry; sometimes they contain too much sauce and leak everywhere. Sometimes, during the steaming process, the pastry will rise above the top of the bowl, creating an inconvenient domed shape to what, when you turn them out onto a plate, is actually the base. Also, on several occasions when I’ve made them, the suet pastry had turned out quite tough.
The toughness, as I was reading last night, is probably due to the pastry being overworked. Usually I would roll the pastry out, cut as many circles as possible for lining the pudding basins, then gather the scraps, reroll, and go again. A better idea, providing you know how many puddings you can make out of one batch of pastry, would be to make the dough and divide it into pieces first, then roll these out into rough circles and discard any scraps. And be generous with the pastry; allow an overhang over the edge of the bowl, or you may end up trying to stretch it to fit and overworking it that way.
What about the domed shape and the problem of too much/too little sauce? I think that these issues are related although, reading online, I can’t find anyone else who makes the link. On my first attempt to make puddings at the pub, I was given the meat already braised in a thick, soupy sauce and I just ladled the whole lot into the pastry-lined basins. The puddings domed in the oven, and when somebody tried one (no one important – just the owner of the pub) it was half empty. It was like the liquid had evaporated, the steam pushing up the pastry at the top, and leaving just a little pile of meat at the bottom.
When I started draining off the sauce, my puddings no longer domed, but then of course you have dry puddings. It’s the goldilocks thing again – not too much sauce, not too little, but just enough. It’s probably worth noting though, a number of recipes suggest that, before serving, you should make a hole in the pastry and pour in some extra gravy. Constance Spry recommends taking a jug of hot water to the table and adding a little to the pudding after the first slice is cut. So problems with the sauce are obviously not uncommon.
One more thing about the sauce. When I was stripping the sauce off the meat before making the puddings, I got a perfect pale crust.
It was beautiful (to me anyway!) but when I tried adding gravy to my puddings, the crust was darker where the sauce had soaked through, and it looked more authentic. It was slightly patchy though, where I had tried to be sparing with the gravy. Presumably you’re more likely to get an even soaking if you actually do the braising and steaming in one – i.e. put the meat into the puddings raw, and fill them up with water, then steam for 4-6 hours (see Delia Smith’s recipe). At any rate, if you’re serving them in a restaurant, you can pour over the gravy once the puddings are plated. I imagine it makes little difference to the experience of eating them whether they’re soaked from the inside or the outside.
Another issue at the pub is the manner in which we steam them. I make them in the way I was shown at college – I cover each pudding with pleated foil and paper, tie it round with string, then put it in the oven in a roasting tray, half full of water, and cover the entire tray with a foil ‘tent’. Some of the other chefs use cloths in place of foil though; some omit the foil tent.
I can’t find anything which suggests that it makes a difference whether you use foil, or whether you use cloth – and I can’t see much difference in the results we get at the pub – so I’m not going to worry to much about this factor. I assume its analogous to using disposable or reusable nappies(!) The only point where it would make a difference (with regard to the puddings) I think, is if you got the cloths wet. As this article points out, the idea of covering the pudding basin is to protect it from the steam; if the cloth gets wet, the pudding will be soggy too.
I am rather confused about the whole bain marie/foil tent business. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is some fudging of the language in this area. Constance Spry boils her beefsteak & kidney puddings – in an uncovered saucepan – but she says you can steam them also. In doing this, she recommends something like a modern steamer, where the puddings are put in a covered pan with a perforated base, above a pan of water – so they don’t actually touch the water at all. By contrast, most modern recipes suggest putting the puddings in a large pan, on a trivet of some kind, pouring in water to come halfway up the sides of the bowl, then clapping on a tight-fitting lid. This is effectively what we do at the pub, but it isn’t steaming in the same sense as referred to by Spry – it’s more like a combination method, wherein half the pudding is cooked in a bain marie, and the other half by steaming. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference – after all, both are supposed to be particularly gentle cooking methods where the heat is only applied indirectly.
At any rate, if the foil tent is left off, I would have assumed that you don’t have that collection of steam around the top of the bowls, so they are baked rather than steamed, but I tested this at home and actually, while the puddings came out a different colour (the one cooked under a foil tent was browner), there didn’t seem to be much difference between them – certainly they were both good to eat.
I suppose if you have a pan of water and the oven is hot enough, there will be some steam – it just won’t be as intense as it would be under a foil tent.
What I don’t understand is why, in the test above, the pudding steamed under a foil tent had browner pastry. It suggests that the steam becomes hotter when contained with some sort of lid(?) I thought initially that browning was undesirable in a steamed pudding – but there are references online to a browned crust being sought after.
Nonetheless, there have been occasions at the pub where the pastry has definitely seemed over-brown. In the article linked to above, there is a short paragraph at the end about ‘oven steaming’, where it recommends heating the oven to 140C. That’s the temperature I use at the pub, but I’d usually reduce the heat a bit when following published recipes, to account for the more powerful oven, so maybe that’s the answer. Maybe I need to reduce the oven temperature a little. I will report back!