This is the third time this summer I had to get the cherry pitter from the back of my bottom drawer, which means it's been one cherrilicious summer. This time I spotted them at Russo's, right next to wild blueberries and black currants. This trio had "summer pudding" written all over it. Summer pudding is something you need to taste at least once in your life. It doesn't look very appetizing, and it sounds even worse -- soft sandwich bread layered with cooked berries and given time to absorb their juices (in other words, it's soggy bread) -- but it tastes so unbelievably good that it's impossible not to fall in love with this strange concoction after your first bite.
If only I could send a piece of this pudding to my Mom. She is the one who introduced me to it, but I don't think she ever had it with sour cherries.
Summer pudding is a cook's dessert. It relies more on your ability to taste and adjust than measure and follow the recipe. Here are some pointers for success.
- You need a high quality white sandwich bread. For some strange reason, it's hard to find. In French, it's called "pain de mie". Good pain de mie has a closed crumb (no large holes), is neutral tasting, and is soft, but not mushy. I found an excellent loaf at Russo's that they call "peasant bread." Don't use the mushy Wonder Bread, or some other mediocre supermarket variety. Don't use anything rustic with a crisp crust and open crumb (in other words holes are no good here). Don't use anything sour-dough.
- When choosing your berries, try to get some variety (at least 2 types). Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, sour cherries, black and red currants are all excellent. Avoid strawberries -- they are not the right texture for this dish. In my opinion, sour cherries make the best summer pudding because they are not as seedy as raspberries and blackberries and have the most fabulous flavor. Black and red currants are great in small amounts, but don't get carried away with them or your pudding will be too seedy. The pudding in the picture had 4 cups sour cherries, 2 cups wild blueberries, and 1 cup black currants. It was probably the most wonderful summer pudding I've ever tasted.
- Adjust sugar to taste. There is no way for this recipe to tell you exactly how much sugar to use. It all depends on how sweet or sour your berries are. You want the juices to taste intensely sweet and sour, but they shouldn't be so sweet that they thicken into something the consistency of maple syrup. If you are missing acidity, add some lemon juice until the flavors really pop.
- Use a mold with straight sides that is at least 3 inches deep. This way you can comfortably fit 3 layers of bread and two very thick layers of berries.>
- If you forget to line the mold with plastic, don't panic. I forgot last time I made it, and nothing terrible happened. In this case, don't invert the pudding. Slice and serve it right out of the mold.
For a 1.5 - 2 quart mold
7-8 cups berries (see the tips above for selecting them)
2/3 - 1 cup sugar
a squirt of lemon to taste (if most of the berries have low acidity)
1 lb white sandwich bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick, crusts removed
Heavy cream for serving
In a non-reactive (not aluminum) saucepan, cook berries with sugar on med-low heat stirring occasionally until berries break down and release their juices. This will take 20-30 minutes. Taste and adjust sugar and acidity. Take off heat. Let cool 30-45 minutes. The berries should be warm, but not hot.
Line a 1.5-2 quart soufflé dish (or any other round dish that is 7-8" in diameter and 3" deep) with plastic wrap.
Line the sides and bottom with bread. You'll have to trim the bread slices to fit as snuggly as possible. Pour half of the berries into the bread-lined dish. Spread them over the bottom layer of bread. Make another layer of bread slices over the berries, trimming the bread as necessary to fit snuggly. Add the remaining berries and cover with a final layer of bread.
Place a sheet of plastic wrap on top. Cover with a plate with a slightly smaller diameter than the dish, and place a heavy object (a large can of tomatoes or olive oil) on the plate to weigh the pudding down. Refrigerate overnight.
To serve, remove the plastic wrap, and invert pudding onto a plate. Remove the rest of the plastic wrap. Slice and serve with cream (straight or lightly whipped).