Jam roly-poly: The pudding that time forgot
When did you last bake a suet pudding? Despite the recent revival of interest in traditional British food, the iconic Jam roly-poly has not really caught on. There are those – Mrs Beeton is one of them – who would argue that this is a truly seasonal pudding as it makes good use of summer fruit jam ‘when fresh fruit is not obtainable’. Being hot, filling and sweet it is perfect comfort food for the cold, wet evenings that lie ahead of us. If you’re currently developing an austerity menu – this certainly fits the bill.
Jam roly-poly features strongly in memories of my 1970’s childhood. Every Saturday evening my grandmother would lay out a steaming pudding surrounded by jugs of custard, 1940’s Susie Cooper ‘Dresden’ bowls, and old fashioned cutlery. A Roly Poly would always elicit appreciative noises from my father, along with remonstrations aimed at my non-suet pudding making mother and her modern ways in the kitchen. These fluffy pastry and jam concoctions, known delightfully as Dead-Man’s Arm, were a hit in the mid-nineteenth century and a regular on the nation’s dinner tables into the 1960s, and then they disappeared.
Soft, but not sticky, roly-poly dough.
The technique for making these puddings does seem off-puttingly unfamiliar, involving cotton cloths, kitchen string, large steamers, and the key ingredient suet is hardly a regular on our shopping lists. I realised that it had been an incredible twenty years since I last made this – in a school friend’s kitchen using a tea towel, hairbands, and guesswork in place of a recipe – remembering how we devoured it, I couldn’t wait to revisit this pudding from the past.
I scoured old cookbooks and experimented with a few versions before settling on a simple, modern approach that is a little lighter and less calorific than the Victorian version. The main source of ready shredded suet today is Atora, they’ve been selling it since 1893 and still sell an astonishing 2,300 tons of it each year. Where once only beef suet was available, they now offer 'Light' vegetable suet.
I tried the traditional steaming method, where you roll your poly up in greaseproof paper or a cloth (messy but makes for a better texture) and cook it in a steamer. But I found the oven method easier and I preferred the look of the end result: lightly browned with an appealing cracked surface, gently oozing dark red jam.
As for the filling, I first tried with the usual raspberry jam, and then with a quick home-made plum jam (8 stoned, chopped plums, 4-5 tbsp sugar, and 25 minutes simmering). The strength of flavour and the intense colour complimented the pastry brilliantly.
Roll out the dough to about 1cm/½in thickness, and spread liberally with jam.
My children adored this new addition to the household pudding repertoire. I’ve never seen anything disappear so fast. We had discussions about sweetness and the texture of the pastry: they like it soft and steamed; I preferred it a little crisp on top and baked. It’s important that the pastry roll is cooked immediately to keep it light and fluffy. We all agreed that adding sugar to the pastry made it all too sweet and that individual mini versions were great fun. I'm left wondering about a savoury version. What's your jam roly-poly top tip?
Plum Jam Roly Poly
150g/5½oz self-raising flour, sifted
75g/3oz vegetable suet
100ml/3½fl oz cold water
5 tbsp plum jam (or raspberry, damson)
- Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
- Mix the sifted flour, suet, and salt together in a large bowl. Add enough water to make a soft dough, but not sticky.
- Knead lightly on a lightly floured board for a few minutes before rolling out to a 1cm/½in thickness and a rough 20cm/8in square shape.
- Spread a thick layer of jam over one side of the dough, leaving 1cm/½in border, which you dampen with a little water.
- Roll up loosely, pinching the ends together as you go to stop the jam escaping. Place the roll on a large lightly buttered piece of silicon baking parchment, sealed edge down.
- Join the ends of the paper and make a pleated join along the top to allow for the pudding to expand, then twist the ends like a sweet wrapper.
- Put the pudding into a large loaf tin or a brownie tin. Fill a roasting tin with boiling water and place on the base of the oven. Then put your roly poly on the top rack for 35-40 minutes.
- Serve a single thick slice, with homemade custard.