My first cooking memory was standing with my grandmother at her kitchen table as she made Clootie Dumpling. I was just little, perhaps four years old, and needed a box (maybe a chair?) to stand on to see and reach the mixing bowl. I remember the smell of the spices, the sweetness of the stray raisin which made it into my mouth, the stickiness of the treacle and how very difficult it was to stir the huge bowl with the whole thick, stiff mixture once the eggs and milk had been added. I have fond memories of Clootie Dumpling and can recommend it eaten hot with custard, cold with butter and fried with eggs for breakfast.
So what is it? It is a Scottish speciality, the first similar written recipe for it dating from 1747 (H. Glasse, The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, A Boiled Plum Pudding). But it is less rich than a plum pudding or Christmas pudding and I think that reflects its socio-economic source. It was a humble, domestic dumpling, made for special occasions and especially for Christmas, and the Celtic Winter Solstice Daft Days which fall between Christmas and Hogmanay. Hogmanay by the way is the Scottish name for new year celebrations. It is not known exactly where the word comes from, although it is believed to come from the French word ‘hoginane’ meaning ‘gala day’. It is thought to have first been used widely following Mary, Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland from France in 1561.
It was, essentially, a family dish that didn’t need recording – everyone had their own recipe. The standardised recipe had to wait for the 20th century and for boiled puddings to go out of fashion before it was written down for posterity.
But there is a rich tradition of regional and family recipes that do give different ingredient options. Lovefood tells us that:
Dumpling makers in Fife leave the breadcrumbs out and add treacle, creating a darker, heavier pudding. Maw Broon, the matriarch of the Sunday Post’s comic strip family, includes a grated apple in her clootie, while other ‘essential’ ingredients that have made it into the mix include orange and lemon zest, grated carrot, rum, milk stout, oatmeal, beaten eggs and butter
These special occasion dumplings also contained ‘surprises’. Charms were mixed in so that a piece of your future could be found in your portion: a ring means ‘marriage’, a wishbone means that you will have your heart’s desire, a button found by a man and a thimble by a woman signifies they will remain single and to find a coin implied wealth. I still remember the little silver sixpences and the twelve-sided threepences which I always wanted to be in my serving of dumpling, but made me careful when eating it.
The method of cooking puddings in a cloth is a very old one, which, having died out most other places, survives with only this dish in Scotland (unless you count the sheep or pig’s stomach bag used for Haggis). I’ve looked at many recipes for this blog and although one did mention that the ‘clootie’, or cloth, could be a pillow case not one of them suggested that a pillow case should, today, be used to cook the dumpling in. But I do remember that tradition. The cloth is a reminder that in the days before ovens were common pots on fires was the usual way to cook.
But it is the skin that develops on the outside, partly from the flour the cloth is dredged with for boiling and partly from the drying that takes place after the ‘boiling’ which is very special and can’t be replicated unless a cloth is used. Intitially this skin is white/grey and unappetiseing but as it dries it take on the deeper brown colour of the insides. It holds the dumpling together, it makes it possible to portion it thickly or slice it thinly. It makes it possible to fry and turn in the pan. It is, I think, why this special dumpling still exists – even if Gregg’s (a Scottish bakers chain) now sell it commercially as a breakfast staple.
So now it is time for the recipe. Enjoy!