Is it really British or Canadian?
The origins of sticky toffee pudding, or STP for short, are a bit of a sticky topic. And variations of the dish are found throughout the Commonwealth.
The dish became hugely popular in the UK after Francis Coulson and Robert Lee first put it on the menu at the Sharrow Bay hotel in England’s lake district in the 1970s. They based their dessert on Patricia Martin’s sticky toffee pudding recipe that was first published in The Good Food Guide Dinner Party Book in 1971. Mrs. Martin was the chef at The Old Rectory, in Claughton, Lancashire.
It is believed that she developed her recipe with the help of two Canadian air force officers who lodged at her hotel during the Second World War. In an article in the Guardian, food writer Simon Hopkinson states:
I was contacted by the late Mrs. Martin’s son, Piers, who told me the recipe was given to his mother by a friend from Canada, which makes perfect sense.Simon Hopkinson
The recipe’s origin story ends with this obscure Canadian connection, in all the articles that I have read. But it leaves me feeling that there is more to the story. So, I thought I would dig a little deeper.
The Canadian Connection
While we don’t yet know the identity of those Royal Canadian Air Force officers stationed in Lancashire, there is a good chance that they are two of the 107 personnel cited for their service in the Battle of Britain. However, many RCAF personnel where later deployed to the UK and remained there until the end of the Second World War.
Considering the gender roles in those days, men were rarely seen in the kitchen baking pudding. My guess is that these officers asked their hostess if she could make a dessert from back home that they both loved. Likely, one of their moms sent a recipe for Queen Elizabeth cake by post from Canada to be shared with Mrs. Martin.
Queen Elizabeth cake, named in honour of the Queen Mom Elizabeth, was popular in Canada at the time. BC Food History includes accounts of ladies discussing getting the topping right using their wood stoves. The recipe was later included in the Coronation Cookbook in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
A quick comparison of the ingredients of QE cake and STP reveals that both are nearly the same recipe. The only variation is the topping. While both toppings are basically toffee or butterscotch, the QE cake includes coconut and sometimes walnuts.
My theory is that Mrs. Martin scaled back the topping when she baked this dessert for the airmen, as coconut and walnuts would have been scarce in war time Britain. With a little tweaking, a new recipe was developed. The Canadian cake became a British pudding and the reference to the monarch was dropped.
Pudding vs Cake
In North America the term pudding is normally limited to sweet and smooth milk-based desserts, such as chocolate pudding. Elsewhere in the commonwealth puddings can be sweet or savoury dishes, that are usually made with flour. In the UK, the term pudding has historically been used in general terms to mean the dessert course.
So, depending where you are, you’ll see variations of this recipe called Queen Elizabeth cake (Canada), sticky date pudding (Australia and New Zealand), STP or sticky toffee pudding (UK).
Sticky Toffee Pudding
- 8 oz dates about 12 dates, pits removed, chopped
- 1 cup boiling water
- 6 tbsp butter
- ¾ cups sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 ¾ cups flour
- 4 tbsp butter
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup heavy cream
- Preheat oven to 350° F
- Combine water and dates. Set aside.
- Cream the butter and sugar.
- Stir in the flour, egg and baking soda.
- Stir in the dates with the liquid and vanilla.
- Grease a 2 ½ quart oven proof baking dish or spray with non-stick stick cooking spray.
- Pour batter into baking dish and bake about 40 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake. If it comes out clean, it’s ready.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
- In a small saucepan, melt the butter at medium heat.
- Stir in the sugar and cream and stir until well blended.
- Bring to a boil, and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Pour the sauce over the pudding and distribute it evenly.