My friend Kenny Ho is launching a fabulous new magazine called ARTICLE and I contributed my favourite food story to the sample issue. I’ve posted the piece below and I hope you love reading this as much as I did writing it, because it brought back such lovely memories of my beloved and very much missed father, John Lyster.
….It is a most underrated desert, the bread pudding. Not as retro fashionable as crème caramel or Spotted Dick and often left off the menu in favour of sticky toffee. Nonetheless, it is a favourite of mine if only for the valuable memories of watching my late father John attempt to make it.
Bread pudding is a forerunner of the taste not waste culture, dating from ancient times when cooks sought ways to use up stale bread. The Egyptians and Romans had versions, and with the invention of custard in the Middle Ages the dish developed to its modern day form.
In the UK the earliest bread and butter puddings were called whitepot and used either bone marrow or butter to soften the stale bread. John Nott, author of the The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, recorded one of the earliest recipes for a bread and butter pudding in 1723.
Then there was my father’s take on it. He was not a great cook, bacon sandwiches being his speciality. In his retirement years, living alone, his dining consisted of the traditional Irish meal of meat and two veg, one of which was always some form of potatoes.
Yet he was determined to make a decent bread pudding. I remember becoming aware of this stab at baking while at primary school. It must have been the late 1970s because he still had a comb-over. Oh yes, he was one of those men who enticed what was the last of his hair from one side of his head to the other. With the aide of a giant can of hairspray, he sought to cover the obvious bald patch.
I returned from school one day to find him flourishing a tray of shop-bought bread and custard with raisins. Into the oven it went following a generous sprinkling of sugar and we waited, watching Blue Peter, for the magic to happen.
Given that my father had rarely looked at the oven let alone used it, he was not too familiar with the idea of temperature and timing. The results were a fairly dried out, toast-like concoction which he gamely tasted. After throwing a huff when we would not eat more than a mouthful, he promptly consigned it to the bin.
I think the baking of bread pudding coincided with a period of unemployment and as the Internet had not yet arrived in Birmingham I suspect my father had taken his recipe from either a daytime television show or from a conversation with an old lady.
He was always attracting the attention of pensioners, possibly because he was happy to chat with them in Post Office queues or in supermarket aisles and for that brief moment they were given his full Dublin charm. Whoever did impart this particular pearl of pudding recipe neglected to tell him that even though it contains the word ‘bread’ in the title, what you should actually use for it to taste desert like is some form of sweet bread or even tea cake.
It was many years later, after a disappointing bakery purchase of what they had the cheek to call bread pudding but was actually a glutinous lump of batter with barely a sight of fruit in it, that we had another go at making our own. This time round we had the World Wide Web to guide us and armed with a recipe from the BBC Good Food site and a bag of ingredients, I assisted my father in the making of another bread pudding.
Conscious of dad’s diabetes, I insisted on eliminating sugar from the proceedings. He was rather sceptical of this and let me know with a look of “Don’t be such a fecking fool” but my mind was set and only the minimum dusting of sugar over the pudding was allowed. I cannot say the desert was that appetising.
In hindsight, you can’t really increase the currant content in the hope of supplementing sweetness. What you end up with is a cake tin packed with warm dried fruit held together by eggy brioche. Dad was not impressed with my intervention and later informed me that he had recreated the recipe with the required amount of sugar, but it had been even too sweet for him.
Sadly, when I did hit upon the perfect recipe for bread pudding my father was no longer with us. Diabetes had eventually worn him down and angina hardened his arteries. He suffered a massive heart attack and died aged 68.
Ten years later I was in Margate, staying at the home of friends and watching the BBC series Two Greedy Italians. In the episode they created a pudding with leftover panettone. The next afternoon was spent tweaking the recipe slightly, using Baileys rather than Vin Santo sweet wine, in preparation for that evening.
After a delicious dinner, I presented the table with my offering and for once, it was all one could hope for in a bread pudding. It’s just a shame that John never had the chance to taste it.