Tom Kitchin: ‘Comforting rich, heavy desserts’

Tom Kitchin. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tom Kitchin. Picture: Neil Hanna
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WE SCOTS have, in the past, been renowned for a sweet tooth, thanks to traditional treats like Highland toffee, Scottish tablet, clootie dumplings and Dundee cake.

The fondness for certain puddings and sweets probably comes from the great memories people hold of enjoying these kind of treats when they were young – perhaps on holidays, with grandparents or at family celebrations, the thrilling recollection of eating something you know you really shouldn’t but that you can’t resist.

Our ‘sweet tooth’ reputation may hark back as far as 1680, when sugar was first shipped in bulk from the West Indies. Since then, sugar refining has been an important industry for the west of Scotland – so much so that town of Greenock, on the Clyde, has even been referred to as Sugarapolis, not necessarily a reputation to be overly proud of when it comes to local cuisine. But there are some sweet treats born in Scotland that are almost iconic and recipes that are fantastic if they’re enjoyed as just that – a treat – and consumed in moderation.

Clootie dumplings are a very traditional Scottish dessert, enjoyed by many nowadays to celebrate Burns Night. A clootie dumpling is a suet pudding rich in fruit and spices. The name comes from the method of cooking, where the pudding dough is wrapped in a cloth – known as a cloot or clout. The tradition comes from the days before people had ovens and so cooked much of their food by boiling ingredients in huge pots.

For me, the joy of this pudding is not just in the eating but in the wonderful, warming, fruity and richly spiced smells you get as the clootie is cooking. For many, the aroma of boiling the pudding will bring back memories of cold winter nights warmed up by a hearty meal and a celebratory family feast.

Recipes for clootie dumplings vary hugely. The reason for the great variety is that, traditionally, the recipes would have been handed down through generations, from one family member to the next, so they were never really documented or published. It’s said that the 1929 edition of F Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes features one of the earliest printed recipes. Despite changes to the recipe, the method of cooking in the cloth remains, even when different ingredients are added or left out.

Another tradition, or old wives’ tale, is to give the pudding a good skelp. The idea is that by giving it a good smack, you ensure you create a nice, round shape. Other traditions also see charms or pennies added to the mix to represent future fortune.

Personally, though it might seem hard to believe, I don’t really have a particularly sweet tooth. I’ve always struggled with relishing our famed sweet Scottish tablet, as it is really a bit too cloying for my palate. I tend to enjoy more natural sweet, sour and fruity flavours in my desserts – such as lemon, rhubarb and delicious seasonal fruits, which give me just enough sweetness.

As much as I don’t crave those sweet treats, however, there’s something quite special about traditional Scottish puddings. I can’t deny a well-made clootie dumpling, treacle tart or sticky toffee pudding isn’t a temptation, and they can be delicious when eaten fresh, warm from the oven and home-cooked.

In small amounts, there is nothing more comforting than indulging in these rich, heavy desserts too. But one thing I have learned is that these sweet treats are far better when enjoyed in moderation. You have one and there’s this real temptation to have another, but I always find if I do give in, I will regret it, as they really are just so rich. My best advice is to stop after one and then you’ll truly appreciate it and properly relish the taste of just a few bites.

Clootie Dumpling

12oz plain flour

12oz sultanas

12oz suet

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ginger

1 tsp mixed spice

5oz brown sugar

¾ tsp baking power

1 egg

4 tbsp treacle

180ml milk

1 apple, grated

splash olive oil

You will also need a clean tea towel and a sheet of greaseproof paper.


Mix together the flour, sultanas, suet, cinnamon, ginger and mixed spice with the brown sugar and baking powder. Then add the egg, treacle, milk and grated apple and mix well until you have created a soft ball.

Wet a tea towel and lay it flat on top of a table or work surface. Then place a piece of greaseproof paper over the top of the tea towel. Add a splash of olive oil and smooth over the greaseproof paper. Dust with flour then place your dough in the centre of the paper.

Pull each corner of towel and paper together in the middle and then tie with string. Remember, before you put it into the pot to boil, you need 
to give it a good skelp.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Let it simmer and poach the clootie for three and a half hours.

Once cooked, remove the pudding from the cloth and place it in a low oven at 100˚C-125˚C (around gas mark ¼) for 20 minutes to dry it out.

Scottish Tablet
This recipe is slightly more fudge-like in consistency than some tablet you will find, but it’s really delicious.

For step one

750g sugar

250g glucose

305g double cream

For step two

60g cream

60g butter

360g white chocolate, chopped

pinch salt

60ml whisky

Method: step one

Mix the sugar, glucose and double cream together. In a large pot, heat the ingredients to 127.5˚C.

Then carefully place the ingredients in a mixer. This step can be dangerous, so make sure you take care to avoid splashing yourself with the hot mixture. Take the molten tablet from the mixer and paddle the mix, which will cool it slightly – but not completely.

Method: step two

Add the cream to the mixture and fold it in, then add the butter and follow that with the white chocolate.

Because of the heat, all of these ingredients should incorporate well.

Then, once all of the ingredients are combined, you can add 60ml whisky (or enough to appeal to your preferred taste) and mix through. Make sure you don’t add too much, though, or the tablet won’t set properly.

Add a pinch of salt, and then pour the mixture into the mould to the thickness you want and leave it to cool overnight.

Once cool, you can cut into pieces of any size you wish but I like to keep them small so you can enjoy just a little at a time.

Twitter: @TomKitchin