My father liked to round off our main meal of the day with ‘something sweet’, a desire my mother was often hard-pressed to satisfy. Not only was she a reluctant cook, but we lived far from town and our local grocery store stocked only basic items – the ‘essential for survival’ ones. This meant that the default pudding was jelly – easy to store and both quick and easy to make.
Mom would ring the changes by producing a jelly of a different flavour or colour; beat up the jelly mixture with ice cubes to produce a ‘frothy’ look; add tinned milk (Ideal milk) to the jelly; and would occasionally make a jug of custard to serve with the jelly – then my brothers and I would all clamour to get the ‘skin’ of the custard! More rarely, she would add fresh mulberries to a dark purple jelly, or a small tin of sliced peaches to a peach jelly. Jelly was mostly a summer treat though. I still enjoy jelly: the wobbliness of jelly; the way it splits or tears open if you have a large blob of it; and the lovely cool feeling of jelly making its way down your throat. I never tire of jelly, even though I have seldom made it since our children left home.
How can I forget the instant puddings? Fresh milk was in short supply, unless my parents brought milk from the farm after spending weekends there. The powdered pudding simply requires the addition of milk to create wonderful flavours such as caramel, strawberry or even chocolate (which we quickly dubbed ‘mud pudding’ and which was a firm favourite).
During winter, such as it is in the Lowveld, my favourite dessert was bread-and-butter pudding. Of course this was an excellent way of using up stale bread. What I liked were the plump raisins or sultanas as well as the sweet crispiness of the crust. As my father had a very sweet tooth, we were always allowed to pour a spoon of golden syrup over our serving. Although I seldom make it anymore, I still enjoy bread-and-butter pudding sans the additional sweetness.
Mom’s Christmas puddings (like her fruit cakes) were legendary, packed as they were with fruit and, in the days before decimalisation, a few tickeys and a sixpence or two! This was usually served with brandy butter or cream – if it was available.
Fresh fruit wasn’t always readily available: my father would order a box of apples every year; we picked oranges and mangoes from the farm; gorged on mulberries in season; and occasionally had bananas, lychees or fresh peaches. We had pawpaw trees growing in our garden and during the fruiting season we would either get half a pawpaw to eat (Dad always sprinkled sugar over ‘for the crunch’) or use them as the basis for a fruit salad. I made a very early vow to always have fruit available when I was ‘grown up’.
Reluctant cook or not, with four children to feed, Mom used to bake biscuits once or twice a week in sufficient quantities to fill the tins stored in the pantry off the kitchen. Favourites were ginger biscuits, fruit squares, vanilla biscuits and rock cakes (which my father, whose Afrikaans vocabulary was very limited, called Klip cookies). I took over the family baking when I was a teenager, poring over recipes and narrowing my choices according to the ingredients available. Bought biscuits were very rare in our home – I imagine they were expensive too – and we were strictly limited to having two only with our tea.
I don’t bake very often anymore and seldom make a dessert either – unless our children or grandchildren come to visit, we have invited guests, or we have something special to celebrate.