A CLASSIC UPDATED
Throwback Thursday: Dark Malva Pudding
Today, the whole world knows about our classic and comforting South African dessert, malva pudding. Many celebrity chefs and notable food bloggers from elsewhere in the world have had a go at it, and it features on the menus of some very fine restaurants, even in Manhattan. But until the second half of the 20th century it was very much an afterthought, with little of the massive reach the dish has now.
Creamy, jammy, spongy, buttery; there isn’t a button that malva pudding doesn’t press for those of us with an overly sweet tooth. In fact, I got so inspired while researching for this column that I had a wild rush of blood to the head and decided to switch the standard recipe for it up a notch. Okay, two notches. I’m calling it Dark Malva Pudding, and my recipe for it is below.
Even Wikipedia has a surprisingly long entry on malva pudding, perhaps impressed by the fact that it became popular on the West Coast of the USA “when Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, Art Smith, served it for Christmas dinner in 2006 to pupils of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls”. Smith, however, told the Food52 website in 2016: “I am not a South African, I just made it on TV once.”
Food52 also cites Henry Kissinger as having called it “one of the finest desserts I’ve ever eaten”. This may not be an entirely accurate quote. South African connoisseur, restaurateur and food writer par excellence Michael Olivier was there, and he vouches for Kissinger having eaten it. However: “He preferred the brandy snaps,” Michael told me this week of the day in 1985, a decade after he had been in office, when the former US Secretary of State came to lunch at Boschendal in the Winelands during a visit of elders. “I made him taste the malva, but he went back for brandy snaps and said to me, ‘You keep Nancy busy while I go back for more’. Maddy and I had him and Nancy for lunch. He was utterly charming.”
Nelson Mandela was known to have loved malva pudding too, and Dean Jankelowitz, the American food celebrity and restaurateur, celebrated the pudding at his two Jack’s Wife Freda restaurants in Soho and Greenwich Village, NYC. Jankelowitz said of Malva pudding, says Food52: “Sugar and butter. Imagine eating a handful of sugar and butter.”
But the Wikipedia entry, for all its several hundred words, doesn’t really say much, nor is it emphatic about the few mild assertions it does make. Malva pudding is of South African origin, many sources attest, but then again, it may actually have originated in the Netherlands to be brought to the Cape colony in 1652 and served to poncy colonial types by their minions. There is no great swath of evidence for this however. There is also no mention of malva pudding in Leipoldt’s Food & Wine, and there’s little to nothing in the realm of historic Cape dishes that he did not touch on. If you can find me a recipe from the 17th or 18th or even 19th centuries for malva pudding which is anything like our modern recipes for it, please send it to me at [email protected] but until such a recipe surfaces I think we will collectively push that theory off the edge of the cliff.
As for its popularity today, however, we have our own beloved Michael Olivier to thank.
“Maggie Pepler [a food and cooking icon of the day] came to Boschendal to fill in when the chef was on holiday. I asked her to show us how to make her bobotie, her steamed fruit pudding and her malva. It was on the dessert buffet for almost 30 years. From there it spread…”
Says a story published in The Citizen in 2020: “In his original capacity as the PR manager of the Boschendal Estate back in the 70s (Michael Olivier) asked his friend Maggie Pepler to do a brief stint in the estate’s kitchen while the main chef took a much-needed holiday. He also asked her to make the malva pudding her mother had taught her how to make for the estate’s guests and it was such a hit that it has reportedly been on the menu ever since.”
Malva had been a popular pudding when Pepler was growing up. This week Michael cited a story that the venerable Peter Veldsman used to tell about the dessert having been given the name when David Rawdon garnished the pudding with geraniums at Lanzerac in the veteran hotelier’s Stellenbosch days before he took over the Lord Milner at Matjiesfontein village. Malva is the Afrikaans word for geranium, so that could make sense, although Michael doesn’t recall Rawdon ever having made malva pudding in the seven years he was based there.
In 2013 Getaway magazine published a feature by Nikki Werner claiming its earliest documentation in a 1924 book, South African Cookery, by one Mrs PW de Klerk. But the recipe did not contain either apricot jam, rose geranium (a sometimes cited ingredient) or brandy.
Another theory is that it got its name from the malvalekker, which may arise from a resemblance between the pudding’s texture and that of a marshmallow, say Wikipedia and other sources. Well. I’ve eaten hundreds of malva puddings and I’ve yet to conflate it with a marshmallow, so I’ll pass on that one. If you’re served malva pudding that looks or tastes anything like a marshmallow, you need to send it back. In any event, The Citizen article observed that Nikki Werner had noted that the 1924 book predated the introduction of marshmallows. So that theory goes over the cliff edge too. Another theory has it that it derives from malvasia wine, also known as malmsey. If you believe the marshmallow theory, you’ll believe that.
The weakest theory seems to be that it was named after a woman called Malva, but there is no clear evidence for this, which surely there would be, had she existed. If you’ve had any sightings of Malva, feel free to pass it along.
There is sometimes brandy or sherry in malva pudding, however, and there is in mine. The other element that is different in my recipe is simply the choice of sugar. I used muscovado sugar, richly flavourful, redolent of toffee and molasses, and of a deep, dark hue that adds a bit of Black Magic to a malva pudding. It’s pretty saucy. We adored it; hope you do too.
Dark Malva Pudding
For the sauce:
375 ml cream
125 g butter, cubed
200 ml muscovado sugar
1 Tbsp apricot jam
2 Tbsp brandy
A pinch of salt
For the batter:
2 Tbsp butter
100 ml muscovado sugar
3 Tbsp apricot jam
1 large egg
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ cup (125 ml) full cream milk
1 cup/ 250 ml cake flour, sifted
A pinch of salt
2 dessertspoonfuls brown vinegar
In a heavy saucepan, gently heat the butter, sugar, cream, apricot jam and a pinch of salt until it reaches boiling point. Lower the heat to a very gentle simmer and cook for 3 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it cool a little. Be careful to watch it so that it does not boil over. Stir in the brandy.
In a baking bowl, cream the butter and muscovado sugar until fully incorporated and soft, then whisk in the apricot jam and fold in a beaten egg, using a wooden spoon.
Stir the bicarbonate of soda into ½ cup cold milk until dissolved.
Add the sifted flour and salt to the batter a little at a time, alternating with a little of the milk until it is all used up. Whisk or stir in the brown vinegar.
Grease an ovenproof dish with butter and pour the batter in.
Bake in a preheated 180°C oven for 40 to 45 minutes.
Remove to a wire rack and allow it to settle for 5 minutes, then slowly pour the sauce over to be absorbed while the pudding is still hot. Don’t try to cut a portion out of it just yet; it needs to cool for the pudding to firm up a little and be more manageable when serving. Traditionally it is served with whipped cream or custard, but this recipe is so full of its own sauce that I’m not convinced it needs anything else. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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