An inspired pudding

Black cap: a rice and caramel pudding, cooked forever in milk and cream, and topped with tea-steeped prunes and spirits.

Black cap: a rice and caramel pudding, cooked forever in milk and cream, and topped with tea-steeped prunes and spirits.

“I think it is vital to get prunes with their stones in, which gives them structure to swell with joy but maintain their prune dignity.”
Fergus Henderson

Every Christmas season, I haul out James Joyce’s Dubliners and all its lovely ghosts, no tale more haunted than the last, “The Dead.” Centered around a dinner party held on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), it pulls on the holiday heart strings like only Joyce can, with its drunken sons and unwed daughters, snow-softened carriage rides, allusion to great tenors renowned and forgotten, pomp and circumstance, love and death—heart strings that, in Joyce’s hands, become the emotional tinsel of all our Christmases.

The meal culminates with a great pudding that has been resting on the sideboard alongside “squads of bottles” of ale and stout. Like the mysteries of this story (arguably the Irish author’s best, and argued by many more learned than I)—with all its layers and fathoms and surprises—dessert pudding has always called out to me, if in a whisper versus a roar. To date, I’d not made one. But this year’s reading of “The Dead” did the trick.

I resorted to another book off my shelf, Beyond Nose to Tail, Fergus Henderson’s nod to his then-pastry chef at St. John, Justin Piers Gellatly. More Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook, proclaims the subtitle, but by Henderson’s own admission, the book reaches beyond the meat-heavy first book to include more bread, pastries, ice creams and, not leastly, puddings.

Of the nine “Steadying Puddings” listed in the index, I gravitated toward the first, “black cap,” if only for the name. In fact, it’s where I settled since the missus and I have been off bread for some time now and, as any good student of pudding knows, bread—either bread itself, or flour that ends us as dough—is rather a hallmark of the stuff, be it “sticky date,” “prune and suet,” “mincemeat and apple” or any other of the strangely off-putting puddings.

Black cap is, indeed, a rice pudding (the one in Beyond is, anyway), baked and topped with Earl Grey tea-steeped prunes and a couple tablespoons Armagnac. The “black cap” refers to the dark coloring—from the soaked prunes, in this instance—of the otherwise blonde pudding. This black cap is actually two recipes: the rice pudding from the dish “Rice pudding with marc and raisin custard,” and the cap of stewed prunes (my own grandfather would be so proud) and spirits (Armagnac subbing for the marc; I added a sub of my own, opting for Courvoisier cognac, with no Armagnac in the cupboard).

This pudding begins with a caramel—butter and sugar left to boil slowly brown in a skillet—to which you add the rice (Arborio, did I) and more milk and cream than you think will ever absorb in a 320-oven for 2 hours. My pudding came out a very rich brown on top (some of that brownish stuff leaking from beneath the pruny cap in the photo is overcooked caramel) and aromatic enough to tempt a taste. But the recipe called for it to be served cold, in slices, so I packed the rest into a bowl and stuck it in the fridge.

I won’t include the recipe, knowing you’re as unlikely to make a pudding as I was. But I love the black cap, as I love Beyond Nose to Tail, with all its measurements in metrics and its guidance geared toward the nose and eyes versus more meticulous math. And I must say I like making pudding. Perhaps it’ll be, like the Joyce, a new Christmas tradition. Another ghost in the pantry, you know?

I tell another tale of tea and Joyce in the latest print edition of Argentfork. A strange recurring theme, I must admit. You can find it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble ( and in T-Town at edit, in Center 1.

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