Dessert by another name

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Sticky toffee pudding isn't. It's not sticky. It harbors no toffee. And it shares none of the soft-bellied, spoon-friendly qualities of a pudding. It's a little cake, studded with dates and served with butterscotch sauce. It's also delicious.

The name is less alias than accent. The dish traces its heritage to England. There, pudding isn't merely the creamy custard we call pudding and they, derisively, call milk pudding. Pudding is dessert. When the bookish boarding-school set tucks into the pudding, it could be ice cream or brickle.

Pudding isn't content to rule an entire course. It also describes a whole category of dishes, sweet to savory, which share little save a soft texture. Deep in pre-Jell-O prehistory, jiggly boiled pudding descended from jiggly boiled sausage. The English countryside is dotted with regional puddings compiled from scrapmeat, breadcrumb and suet.

Consider Christmas pudding, once a mutton-onion-and-wine-heavy lump, now a raisin-cinnamon-and-rum-heavy lump, which sometimes retains a vestigial carrot. It also goes by plum pudding, though it generally lacks plum. Figgy pudding, favored by carolers, doesn't give a fig for fig. Its deep color comes from molasses, called treacle. Not to be confused with trifle, which is parfait, or truffle, a snack.

It's a tricky business, pinning down pudding. Perhaps sticky toffee pudding simply shrugs its brown shoulders and sighs. Or perhaps it's up to something sneaky. The delightful dessert might fail to attract so many admirers under the blunt, if accurate, title: date muffin.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor.

leahreskin@aol.com

Sticky toffee pudding

Prep: 20 minutes Cook: 25 minutes Makes: 12 servings

7 large soft Medjool dates, pitted, chopped

1 1/4 cups water

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter

1 cup light brown sugar

2 eggs

1 1/3 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon each: vanilla, espresso

Butterscotch sauce, see recipe

Soften: Scoop dates into a small heatproof bowl. Heat water and baking soda to a boil. Pour over dates. Set aside.

Fluff: Beat butter until soft, 2 minutes. Add sugar and beat fluffy, 2 minutes. Add eggs and beat fluffier, 2 minutes. Switch to low speed and mix in flour and baking powder. Stir in, by hand, vanilla, espresso and date mixture.

Bake: Spoon batter into 12 buttered muffin tins. Bake at 350 degrees until golden and springy, 25 minutes. Turn out and cool on a rack.

Serve: Set each pudding in a shallow bowl. Drown in warm butterscotch sauce. Dig in.

Butterscotch sauce: Melt 5 tablespoons butter in a heavy medium saucepan. Add 1 cup whipping cream and 1 cup light brown sugar. Simmer sticky, 5 minutes.

Provenance: Adapted from "Nancy Silverton's Pastries From the La Brea Bakery."
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