Sticky Toffee Pudding

By the time you read this post, I'll have been in London for a couple of days already -- that's right, I've automatically programmed this post for when I'm away! -- watching our friend, the lovely Rachel Willis-SΓΈrensen, star in the Royal Opera's production of Der Rosenkavalier (go Rachel!!) Opera aside, I imagine I'll also have been eating lots of fish and chips, English-style breakfasts, and banoffee pie, and I'll be catching up with my friends who live there, people I met during my time in both Bologna and Rome, a trip to Madrid, and even my high school days. I won't lie -- it's going to be a pretty great trip -- and its times like these that I'm ever-grateful to be living in Europe, where cheap tickets via Ryanair allow you to easily travel all over the continent, even for just a weekend.

I'm sorry! I know what you're probably thinking. A vacation to London?! So soon after Christmas break?! Can't we all do that?! Forgive me! I'd be jealous of me too! Since you couldn't join me, I'll give you some consolation in the form of Sticky Toffee Pudding, a British dessert -- to recreate a little London in your own kitchens! -- which is so very, very good it will make you forget you're not in England, too. 

I first heard about Sticky Toffee Pudding while reading the Harry Potter books -- it was offered at the Leaky Cauldron, if any of you other nerds remember -- and I figured if it was good enough for Harry, it would be good enough for me. From what I gathered, it was not pudding at all as we Americans know it -- i.e, a pudding, that you eat with a spoon -- but rather a cake served with a toffee sauce ("pudding" is the British word for "dessert," you see). My first Sticky Toffee Pudding experience, however, was lacking -- the pub in London where I'd ordered it served up a square of kind of dry cake, with a sauce that was overly sweet. I chalked it up to British cuisine (maybe my taste buds had become spoiled after living in Italy?!) and didn't think much about Sticky Toffee Pudding. Fast forward a few years, or rather, to when I realized that Deb Perelman (of the much beloved Smitten Kitchen) had also had misgivings about this dessert, later finding a recipe good enough to sway her. If Sticky Toffee Pudding had won the approval of not only Harry Potter but also Deb Perelman, then it was worth another shot. I used the same recipe that had converted Deb, which she had taken and slightly adapted from the Sunday Suppers Cookbook. 

I won't mince words here: This is probably one of my favorite desserts I've ever baked. I loved this. I couldn't wait to serve this. I was sad when it was all gone. And here's why: the resulting Sticky Toffee Pudding consists of a cake that is soft and fluffy and just barely sweet, tinged with a caramel-y date flavor, and, while good on its own, reaches its full potential when it meets is soulmate, or rather, an intensely buttery and brown sugary, served-warm-off-the-stove toffee sauce, that is so good, I could've eaten the whole pot of it with a spoon. And hey, if you're going heavy on the addictive-ly good toffee sauce, you might as well add a dollop of freshly whipped cream while you're at it, no? To quote Deb: this step is optional, but don't skip it! The cold whipped cream contrasts nicely with the warm toffee sauce and cake and cuts the sweetness in just the right way. This is just the sort of cozy dessert you want on a cold Winter day where temperatures are too low to leave the house and you spend most of the day padding around your apartment in fluffy socks and cat slippers (just me?!)

A couple of notes: You can easily halve this recipe to serve a smaller crowd -- just bake the cake in an 8x8 pan. You can use light brown sugar in the sauce, if you'd like -- that's how the original recipe has it -- but I like dark brown sugar much better here, as it results in a deeper, more caramel-y flavor. 


Ingredients for the cake:
3/4 pound (12 ounces, 340 grams or about 2 1/4 cups) dried dates
2 1/4 cups (530 ml) boiling water
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick, 4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (25 grams) light or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
1 2/3 cups (210 grams) flour

Ingredients for the sauce:
8 tablespoons (1 stick, 4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (235 ml) heavy or whipping cream
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (215 grams) dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Unsweetened whipped cream, for serving

Pit and roughly chop dates and place them in a heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over them and stir in the baking soda. Cover the bowl and set it aside for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter a 9×13-inch baking pan. As an extra precaution, if you’re nervous about sticking (although this cake should not), you can line the bottom with a fitted rectangle of parchment paper.

Blend date-water mixture in a blender or food processor until smooth. In a large bowl, combine the melted butter and sugars. Whisk in eggs, then salt. Stir in the flour, then date puree. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 

While the cake is baking, make the sauce. Combine butter, cream, sugar and vanilla in a larger saucepan than you think you’ll need (I vote for 2 1/2 to 3 quarts) over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Whisk for about 10 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly. 

Cut the cake into squares (still warm is just fine). Drizzle each slice with toffee sauce and top with a dollop of whipped cream, if desired. Serves 10-12.

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