You’ll Need Four Hours and a Pillowcase to Make This Dumpling

The “clootie dumpling” is a fruit-filled Scottish dessert, traditionally wrapped in a pillowcase and steamed for hours. “It will always take anyone back to their family kitchen,” says Glasgow chef Jak O’Donnell.

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Dec 11 2015, 1:00pm

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Scotland has a fine culinary history: game, lobster, salmon, and—to wash it all down—some of the world's best whiskey.

But there's something we do better than anyone else, and that's stodge with a side of nostalgia. If it contains your entire daily calorie intake in one bite and transports you back to afternoons spent in Gran's kitchen, then that dish is probably Scottish.

The clootie dumpling is a prime example of such fare. Taking its name from the cloth or "cloot" used to wrap the mixture, the fruit-filled cake is traditionally served during winter, although it can be brought out at any time of the year.

"A rather stern London critic from The Times commented that it was a fairly wintery pudding to have on all year," Jak O'Donnell, chef and patron of The Sisters restaurant in Glasgow tells me. "Clearly this fella had never been in Glasgow much in the summer!"

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Jak O'Donnell, chef and patron of The Sisters restaurant in Glasgow boils a clootie dumpling. All photos by the author.

O'Donnell's interpretation of the clootie dumpling has been on The Sisters' menu for almost 20 years, though its staying power isn't restricted to the restaurant.

"I first got one for my fourth birthday," O'Donnell say. "Right about the time, I used to question how things were made and then it magically appeared as a gorgeous pudding on the table at tea."

Traditionally, the dumpling is made with suet and spends around three to four hours boiling. However, times and tastes are evolving.

"Time is what the modern family seem to be short on," says O'Donnell. "The thought of me—Mum—being in the kitchen for four hours just to top up the pot seems very unrealistic."

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The chef adapted her clootie recipe to remove the need for either, bringing in a pressure cooker to reduce cooking time to 45 minutes.

"We need to modernise how we do things or the dish will be lost," says O'Donnell.

Using her updated recipe, the dumpling's main ingredients—including bread crumbs, eggs, and raisins—are placed in a bowl. These days, the fruits are moist enough on their own but cooks of previous generations would have soaked them in tea. When sugar was at a premium, particularly during rationing, an alternative source of sweetness would also be found in grated carrot or apple. In her recipe, O'Donnell uses both.

The spices lending an unmistakable, wintery aroma to the dumpling come from a combination of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. I'm invited to take a sniff of the mixing bowl at this point and the smell is a comforting confirmation of the festive season. To enhance this sugar 'n' spice high and bind the mixture, a helping of gloopy treacle is free-poured into the bowl.

"A rather stern London critic from The Times commented that clootie dumpling was a fairly wintery pudding to have on all year. Clearly this fella had never been in Glasgow much in the summer!"

Orange and lemon zests are then added, providing a citrus burst to counteract the stodge—sort of.

"We make it a fresher tasting cake, with the orange juice and zest," says O'Donnell. "I'll never master making it a lighter alternative, mind you."

All the ingredients are mixed together until they form a soft consistency, neither too wet nor too dry.

Historically, a penny, porcelain doll, or even sewing needle would be added to the mix at this point. For the recipient, this signals good luck—or a trip to A&E.

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O'Donnell uses a napkin for her clootie, although pillowcases also work. The fabric is dipped into boiling water and laid on a floured surface. O'Donnell moulds the mixture into one rounded ball, wraps it in the boiling hot cloth, and ties it tightly with string.

From here, a plate is placed on the bottom of a pan of boiling water, with the bound pudding on top. The plate begins rattling against the metal of the pan as the water bubbles underneath, the warm spices rising into the air.

"The clootie dumpling is one that will always take anyone back to their family kitchen, between the sounds and the smells it affects all the senses," says O'Donnell.

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Clootie dumpling.

Once boiled sufficiently, the dumpling is placed back in its bowl, string untied, and turned onto a surface. The cloot allows a skin to form around the outside of the dumpling.

The pudding now needs to dry, which can be done under the kitchen lights or, back in Granny's kitchen, in front of a roaring fire.

O'Donnell serves the finished clootie dumpling with whiskey jelly cubes, orange custard, treacle meringues, and raisin crisps. It's an undeniably rich dessert but the lightness of the citrus does add a kind of balance.

But if you find yourself sitting down to a festive Scottish dinner, it might be wise to leave room for dessert.