“‘I don’t know, Tom,’ said his sister, blushing, ‘I am not quite confident, but I think I could make a beef-steak pudding, if I tried, Tom.’
‘In the whole catalogue of cookery, there is nothing I should like so much as a beef-steak pudding!’ cried Tom, slapping his leg to give the greater force to this reply.”– from Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens, 1844
Ruth Pinch, and her brother Tom, are portrayed in Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit as two essentially good and kind people who are sometimes exploited by less scrupulous characters. After both leaving their former jobs due to mistreatment by their employers, Ruth and Tom move in together. Although they don’t have much money, Ruth is happy to have left her miserable governess job, and delights in all the responsibilities and tasks of housekeeping for her brother – including, in one memorable scene, cooking him a beef-steak pudding.
Charles Dickens describes the making of the pudding in detail, including each of the ingredients Ruth Pinch uses:
“First, she tripped downstairs into the kitchen for the flour, then for the pie-board, then for the eggs, then for the butter, then for a jug of water, then for the rolling-pin, then for a pudding-basin, then for the pepper, then for the salt; making a separate journey for everything, and laughing every time she started off afresh.”
He even recounts her perfectly accurate explanation for why it’s important to butter the pudding basin:
“‘I am going to begin, Tom. Don’t you wonder why I butter the inside of the basin?’ said his busy little sister.
‘Not more than you do, I dare say,’ replied Tom, laughing. ‘For I believe you don’t know anything about it.’
‘What an infidel you are, Tom! How else do you think it would turn out easily when it was done! For a civil-engineer and land-surveyor not to know that! My goodness, Tom!’”
Since Ruth has little experience in cooking, she is understandably nervous that the pudding will be a failure – especially when her brother unexpectedly invites his friend John Westlock to join them for dinner. Luckily, all turns out well:
“The success of that initiative dish; that first experiment of hers in cookery; was so entire, so unalloyed and perfect, that John Westlock and Tom agreed she must have been studying the art in secret for a long time past; and urged her to make a full confession of the fact.”
By the end of the novel, John Westlock falls in love with and marries Ruth Pinch – perhaps due to the success of her pudding. The pudding scene was evidently also popular with readers, or at least with cooks, since author Eliza Acton included it in her cookbook published just a year later. Acton clearly paid attention to all the details in the scene; she changed her regular beef-steak pudding recipe to include butter and eggs, both ingredients mentioned by Dickens.
- 1 lb flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 6 oz butter
- 4 egg yolks or 3 whole eggs, beaten
- cold water
- 1 lb round steak, cut into bite-size pieces
- 1/2 oz salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- about 1/2 cup water
- Mix together 1/2 tsp salt and the flour.
- Rub the butter into the flour.
- Slowly pour in the beaten eggs and mix until the pastry comes together. If the pastry still needs liquid, add a little cold water.
- Take out 1/4 of the pastry to form the lid. Roll out the lid to fit a 1 1/2 pint pudding basin. Roll out the rest of the pastry slightly larger than the basin, so that it overhangs the edge by about 1 inch.
- Thoroughly butter the pudding basin and line it with the pastry.
- Cut the steak into roughly bite-size pieces and season with the salt and pepper. Put into the lined pudding basin.
- Pour in the 1/2 cup water.
- Place the pastry lid on top of the basin. Fold the edges of the pastry over the lid and seal with a little cold water.
- Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the top of the basin, butter it on both sides, and place it on top. Cover it with either a pudding cloth or with foil, making a pleat across the middle to give the pudding room to rise. Tie it tightly around the rim of the basin with string.
- Place a small plate upside-down on the bottom of a large pot of boiling water. Gently lower the pudding in so that it rests on the plate. The water should come about halfway up the basin.
- Boil for 3 1/2 hours, topping up the water level as necessary.
- When finished, let rest in the mold for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a plate.
- Cut in slices to serve. A lot of juice will run out when the pudding is sliced, which you can save and serve alongside the pudding as a sauce; so cut the pudding on a plate or cutting board with a rim, not on a flat surface like I did (most of the meat juices ran out and ended up on my floor – my cats were thrilled).
I can see why Ruth Pinch chose this as her first experiment in cookery. Although it does take a while to make, it is otherwise a very simple dish. For someone unused to cooking, it’s also an easy way to prepare meat without worrying too much about under- or over-cooking it; 3 1/2 hours is more than enough time to make sure the beef is fully cooked, but because it’s protected by the pastry it would be very difficult to burn it.
I was surprised by how flavorful the meat was, considering that it was a relatively lean cut and was seasoned with just salt and pepper. Although it would certainly be possible to add other seasonings, I don’t think it’s necessary. The crust was also tasty, although it was a bit too thick where the lid and the lining pastry connected. I am very eager to try suet pastry next, which Eliza Acton calls “much lighter and more wholesome” than butter pastry.
Was my beef-steak pudding a success as “entire,” “unalloyed,” and “perfect” as Ruth Pinch’s? I’d say pretty close, at least!
Acton, E. (1845). Modern cookery, in all its branches. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. https://archive.org/details/moderncookeryin00actogoog/page/n400/mode/2up
Dickens, C. (1844). The life and adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. London: Chapman & Hall. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/968/968-h/968-h.htm