“I rose politely in the club
And said, `I feel a little bored
Will someone take me to a pub?’”

— G.K. Chesterton, 1874-1936


There is something about a British pub that says cozy. It makes sense that a country that gets so many wet, chilly days came up with an institution that welcomes you, warms you, feeds you, and comforts you while you sit with a pint of beer or a glass of wine. Not all pubs serve food, but those that do tend to specialize in comfort food – exactly what we crave during the winter.

Each pub is different – some don’t serve food, some don’t allow children. For the past 20 years a more gourmet, restaurant-like version called a gastropub has become popular. Some pubs are brewery owned, and therefore only sell beers from that brand; you’ll see the brewery’s name over the top of the pub sign (for instance Fullers or Young’s). Others are called Free Houses and sell many different brands. Many Brits see their local pub as a home away from home, so much so that they’ll call it their “local.”

Pubs and American bars are not the same thing, and the rules are different. In a pub, you go up to the bar to order, even if you’re eating. You pay right away and carry your drinks back to your table (or stand with it if there isn’t a spot to sit). Your food, however, will normally be delivered to you. Tipping isn’t necessary; if you buy a few drinks and want to show your appreciation to the bartender offer to buy him a drink when you go up for a round.

In late November my family and I were lucky enough to spend a couple of days in London. The city was brightly decorated for Christmas, as the Winter Wonderland fair was just beginning in Hyde Park. But on day two our plans for spending the day wandering around Greenwich (a few miles down river from London) bit the dust when we woke to a cold, rainy and miserable day. After a quick scramble for another plan, we realized that we were only two tube stops away from the Natural History Museum. We spent a wonderful morning there and then it was off to look for a pub for lunch.

Our afternoon in London was wonderful, despite the weather. After finding a suitable pub, The Hereford Arms, I went up to the bar and ordered a couple of beers. We sat and dried off, enjoying our drinks, new books picked up at the museum, and the atmosphere. We noticed a chatty older gentleman who was obviously a regular. Like the best pubs, it was warmly lit, had low ceilings and soft leather seats. The menu had many of the usual pub offerings: fish and chips, bangers (sausage) and mash, various savory pies and Ploughman’s lunch. My daughter got chicken skewers and a large order of chips (french fries in American lingo), my husband a steak and ale pie, and for me it was chicken and mushroom pie. These were ordered and paid for at the bar. The food was brought to our table, and was deeply satisfying. As the rain pelted down outside and we had another round of beers, we were warm, dry and happy inside.

No pub meal is complete without one of my two favorite pub desserts, either Banoffee Pie (a toffee/banana mix) or Sticky Toffee Pudding. That particular afternoon we went with the Sticky Toffee Pudding to share. Heaven. I’m guessing that a lot of Americans haven’t had this dessert. It isn’t a pudding in the American sense – it is a cake. I had no idea it had dates until the first time I tried making one (with a different recipe – not a big hit) so if the idea of dates in a cake puts you off, don’t worry – they really aren’t at all obvious. This cake is lovely with a fairly large crumb, but what really makes it is the warm toffee sauce poured around and over it. (Adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream is an extremely decadent [and delicious] thing to do.)

This recipe isn’t in any way difficult, but it is a little time consuming. It is well worth every second.

Roxlet’s Sticky Toffee Pudding

For the cake

  • 1 cup chopped dates
  • 1 1/4 cups brewed tea
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 cup castor (superfine) sugar (regular sugar is OK to use instead)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cusp self-rising flour
  • 1 rounded teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon Espresso coffee or 2-3 teaspoons instant espresso

Hot toffee sauce

  • 1 stick butter
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup golden syrup (available at Southern Season)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Set the oven to 350 degrees. Soak the dates in hot tea for 15 minutes. Brush the inside of an 8-inch spring form cake pan (with removable base) with oil, then flour it and put oiled parchment on the base. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Soak the dates in the tea. Beat in the eggs one at a time, and then mix in the sifted flour. Add the baking soda, vanilla extract and coffee to the date tea and stir this into the flour mixture. Pour into prepared pan, and cook for 1-1½ hours or until a cake tester comes out clean.

To make the sauce, put the butter, sugars and golden syrup into a heavy bottomed saucepan and melt gently on a low heat. Simmer for about 5 minutes, remove from heat, and gradually stir in the cream and vanilla. Put back on the heat for 2-3 minutes until the sauce is absolutely smooth. To serve, pour some hot sauce around the cake and pour some additional sauce over the top. Put the remainder in a sauceboat, and serve with the pudding along with whipped cream.

You can follow Kari on Twitter @NoshSpiceNC.

A Special Thanks to Roxlet for the recipe!