There is not a lot to be found on the history of Queen of Puddings. Some say it dates back to the late 1600s and is related to (perhaps the same as) a Manchester Pudding. The name itself didn’t seem to catch on until the turn of the 20thcentury, linking it to Queen Victoria. No one seems to know why, except for a rumor that she may have commented favorably on such a pudding while eating one (most likely in Manchester).
For such a noble name, the queen of puddings is a rather humble combination of custard fortified with breadcrumbs, topped with a layer of jam and crowned with peaks of meringue (another theory on the origins of its name).
This thing the British have about adding breadcrumbs to puddings (You may recall that the treacle tart I made for this blog post also had breadcrumbs in it.) is a bit perplexing to me, but then again, that’s probably where our bread puddings come from. Not wanting to waste otherwise good bread that had gone stale, frugal cooks dating back to ancient times learned that soaking it in milk, adding fruit or some other sweetener and baking it again could turn it into something delicious. Almost every culture has some version of this basic recipe, including Egypt, India and Mexico.
So this technical challenge from Mary Berry’s repertoire starts with a layer of breadcrumbs (white, no crusts) in a buttered casserole. For the custard, you must heat milk with butter, lemon zest and sugar until the butter is all melted and you can just barely put your finger in (something I learned from Mary when I made her Crème Caramel.) Whisk the egg yolks in another bowl, and continue whisking while slowly pouring in the warm milk. When that is well combined, pour the egg/milk mixture over the breadcrumbs and let them sit for about 15 minutes to soak up the liquid. Bake that in a bain-marie for about half an hour, till it’s set but still has a bit of a wobble.
While the custard bakes, you can make the jam simply by cooking sugar and fresh or frozen fruit on the stove until it’s thickened. If using frozen fruit (which I did), it will take longer, so bring it to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves, and then let it bubble lightly for about 20 minutes. I found this helpful article on making jam without pectin, and it gives a simple test that uses a cold spoon to tell if the jam is done.
While the custard and jam are cooling, whip up your egg whites until stiff peaks form, then begin adding sugar a teaspoon at a time while beating at the highest speed on your mixer. The egg whites should be smooth and shiny, and stiff enough not to fall out of the bowl when you turn it upside down over your head.
Carefully spread about half a cup of jam over the custard, being careful not to get custard mixed in with the jam. (Mary’s recipe says to use 4-5 tablespoons of jam, but I wanted a thicker layer. It probably depends on the size of the dish you’re making the pudding in.) Then you can pipe the meringue on top, creating lots of peaks to give it a crown effect. In her Masterclass demonstration of this recipe on Netflix, Mary doesn’t pipe it, she just piles it on by spoonfuls “in sort of blobs,” as she calls them, and then she uses her spoon to create the peaks. So you can do it whichever way you like.
The meringue is then baked at a lower temperature (without the bain-marie this time) for another 25-30 minutes until it’s crisp on the outside and just beginning to turn a golden color. I finished mine off with a culinary torch to get a bit more brown on the peaks.
Mary was looking for three distinct layers in this pudding, a custard that was set but not curdled, and a meringue that was crunchy on top and marshmallowy in the middle. I think I pulled it off. At least my co-workers seemed to think so!
Here’s a link to Mary’s recipe, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
NOTE: Mary’s original recipe says to serve the pudding with pouring cream. Most sources I found said that pouring cream has a fat content of 35%, which is about the same as American whipping cream. Heavy cream, which is also sometimes used to make whipped cream here in the States, has a fat content of about 45%. While I didn’t serve my Queen of Puddings with cream, if you wish to, check the labels of the creams in the store so you know what you’re getting.
Mary Berry’s Queen of Puddings
Adapted for American bakers
For the custard base:
For the jam:
- ½ lb. fresh summer fruits, or 1 lb. frozen
- 1 c. superfine sugar
For the meringue:
- 3 egg whites
- ¾ c. + 2 T. superfine sugar
- To make the breadcrumbs, lay the bread out on a cooling rack for about an hour until it just starts to dry out. Then break each slice into quarters and pulse them in a food processor or blender to create fine crumbs. Grease a shallow, 5-cup ovenproof dish (one that will fit inside a roasting pan) with butter, and sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly in the bottom.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Warm the milk in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the butter, lemon zest and ¼ c. sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar and melt the butter. When you can just dip your finger in for a moment, take the pan off the heat.
- Lightly whisk the egg yolks in a heatproof bowl. Continue whisking while slowly pouring the milk mixture into the yolks. Pour that mixture over the breadcrumbs and let stand for about 15 minutes so the crumbs can absorb the liquid.
- Transfer the baking dish to a roasting pan, and fill the pan halfway with hot water. Place the roasting pan in the preheated oven, being careful not to splash the water into the custard, and bake for about 25-30 minutes until custard is set but still has a slight wobble in the center. Remove from oven, and take the custard dish out of the roasting pan to cool.
- While custard is baking, put the fruit in a pan over medium heat and cook until it is soft and has released its juices. Add the 1 c. of sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. When it comes to a boil, regulate the heat so it remains at a soft boil until thickened to a jam-like consistency. This may take 20 minutes or longer if using frozen fruit. Remove from heat to cool slightly.*
- Whisk the egg whites with an electric mixer on full speed until stiff peaks form when the beater is lifted. Add the ¾ c. + 2 T. sugar, a teaspoon at a time, while whisking at maximum speed, until the meringue is smooth and shiny and stiff. Transfer to a piping bag, if desired.
- Spread ¼-½ cup of jam over the custard, being careful not to get custard mixed in with the jam. Then pipe or pile on the meringue, covering the entire surface and creating crown-like peaks of meringue.
- Lower the oven temperature to 300°F and return the pudding to the oven (not in a bain-marie this time) for another 25-30 minutes until the meringue is a pale golden color all over and crisp. Serve hot or at room temperature.
*You will not use all the jam, but it will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, or in the freezer for up to three months. It’s great on toast, pancakes or even ice cream!