Throwback Thursday: Bread and butter pudding with a touch of the Karoo

Throwback Thursday: Bread and butter pudding with a touch of the Karoo
A classic, updated: Tony Jackman’s traditional bread and butter pudding with a touch of the Karoo in the form of green fig preserves and their syrup. May 2024. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

One of the oldest British dessert staples has been a part of South African cuisine since colonial days. Let’s make it our own with the inclusion of the Karoo’s beloved signature fruit preserve, green figs. A traditional pudding for our own time, made in our own way.

The traditional bread and butter pudding did have fruit in it: raisins, sometimes currants too. These are two of the chief fruity ingredients of recipes even more British than this famous pudding: the traditional fruit cake, and the even more Christmassy “plum pudding”, also known as “Christmas pudding”. But let’s throw the raisins and currants out altogether and give the pudding something all our own: green fig preserves, the very heart of sweet South African flavour.

A recipe for bread and butter pudding appeared in Mrs Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion (note: not to be confused with Eliza Acton, her more famous successor, who hadn’t yet been born when Smith was writing her earlier cookbooks), first published in London in 1727. Interestingly, the book also marked the first appearance of what we now think of as American ketchup, having been reprinted in America in 1742.

Smith’s recipe is typical of the idiosyncratic English vernacular of the day. These old recipes always show how much daily English usage has changed over the centuries. Here is how the recipe was written in 1727, one of the earliest known versions in print:

“Take a two penny loaf, and a pound of fresh butter; spread it in very thin slices, as to eat; cut them off as you spread them, and stone half a pound of raisins, and wash a pound of currants; then put puff-paste at the bottom of a dish, and lay a row of your bread and butter, and strew a handful of currants, a few raisins, and some little bits of butter, and so do till your dish is full; then boil three pints of cream and thicken it when cold with the yolks of ten eggs, a grated nutmeg, a little salt, near half a pound of sugar, and some orange flower-water; pour this in just as the pudding is going into the oven.” (Wikipedia)

It’s interesting to break this down for our time.

Half a pound is nearly 250 grams (a measured pound is just short of 500 grams, so a brick of butter is about a pound). Smith uses three pints of milk, which adds up to about 1.7 litres, a massive quantity. In my version I use only 250 ml of cream. However, I also use 250 ml of milk, so together they would amount to about 1.13 litres.

A tuppenny loaf, which is how two penny would have been pronounced, is the logical equivalent of what in my youth we would call a government loaf, the staple of the local supermarket. Interesting is the use of puff pastry as a base; I have never encountered this in my lifetime, so that aspect of its recipe has changed completely.

And how about those eggs: the yolks of as many as 10! I used three whole extra large eggs plus one extra yolk. Many recipes use fewer, some only one. She has a little salt and “a grated nutmeg”. Could she actually have meant a whole nutmeg? We cannot know. But if so, that is a mighty amount of this unsubtle spice. The orange water is interesting, but we would be more likely to add some orange zest. (I did not.) As for the “half a pound of sugar”, I used only 3 Tbsp of caster sugar, as I did not want it to be overly sweet, the green fig preserve and its syrup being sweet enough. And I used 2 Tbsp of the syrup from the jar of green fig preserves in the custard just before baking the pudding.

Some early versions, called “whitepot” according to Wikipedia and other sources, used bone marrow instead of butter. And “whitepot” also sometimes referred to a rice pudding, rather than bread and butter, so the two puddings share some ancestry.

But there is some small ancestry for the idea of a preserve in a bread and butter pudding too: “Some recipes call for a simple meringue to be made from the discarded egg whites and sugar which is spread over a layer of jam or preserves on the top of the pudding after it has come from the oven,” says Wikipedia. “The meringue is cooked until it is slightly browned on top. This dessert changes name to ‘The Queen’s Pudding’.”

Much later, in 1845, Eliza Acton (not Smith), who was born in 1799, suggested adding lemon rind and bitter almonds, or cinnamon, and used milk as well as cream and sugar, thickened with whole beaten eggs. Her recipe also calls for a glass of brandy to be added to the mixture.

In my version, I have used a cinnamon stick and cardamom pods, so in a small way I seem to have inadvertently incorporated a touch of the Eliza Acton recipe.

Tony’s bread and butter pudding with green fig preserve

(Serves 4-6)


Butter for greasing the oven dish

Plenty of butter for buttering the bread

6-8 slices of a small loaf of plain store-bought, pre-sliced white bread (day-old), cut into halves

Most or all of the figs from a standard jar of South African green fig preserve, sliced

For the custard:

250 ml milk

250 ml cream

1 cinnamon stick

6 cardamom pods

3 Tbsp caster sugar

3 large eggs and 1 extra yolk

2 Tbsp of the syrup from the jar of green fig preserve


Grease a suitable oven dish. Cut the bread slices in half, butter one side of each slice, and place the little triangles of bread point-side-up in rows from one end of the dish to the other.

Push slivers of green fig preserve between the slices of bread, in such a way that they will be partly visible at the top of the dish when it comes out of the oven. This is a part of the beauty of this recipe; it just looks so lovely.

For the custard:

Beat the caster sugar, eggs and extra egg yolk together in a jug or bowl until smooth and creamy.

Pour the cream and milk into a saucepan, add the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods, and bring to just before boiling point; it must not boil. Remove cinnamon and cardamom (I scooped them out with a tea strainer).

Stir the dairy mixture into the eggs/sugar, beating continuously with a whisk or wooden spoon. When thickened, stir in 2 Tbsp of the preserved figs syrup.

Pour this mixture evenly all over the contents of the oven dish.

Bake in a preheated 180 to 190℃ oven (as I did in my silly old gas oven) for 30 to 40 minutes or until the bread has turned golden and beautiful on top. If it’s not turning golden, you can push the heat up to 200℃ for a few minutes.

There’s no need for extra sauce or custard, but if there’s any syrup left in the jar it wouldn’t harm at all to drizzle some over when serving. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

This dish is photographed on a plate by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Patson says:

    Difference, I think, was that “fresh butter” in those days was most likely unsalted.
    Very difficult to find unsalted butter in most of SA, although it is the usual butter in France, where it is made from fermented cream, not fresh.

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