Am horrified to see that supper, awaiting her on the table, consists of cheese, pickles, and slice of jam roly-poly, grouped on a single plate – (Would not this suggest to the artistic mind a Still-life Study in Modern Art?) – flanked by a colossal jug of water.
Diary of a Provincial Lady, E. M. Delafield
Bake Off (the first seven series – the BBC ones) is up on Netflix. While I’ve been trialing recipes for my next book, it’s been playing in the background; I’ve watched a whirlwind of cake, tears, tantrums, and puns in the past couple of weeks. I’ve watched a procession of completely mad bakes – homemade fondant fancies and teacakes, filo stretched over oiled forearms, lacy pancakes squeezed into frying pans, foot-high biscuit constructions. But there are also so many things that made me want to abandon my strict list of recipes to test: frangipane tarts with buttery shortcrust, black pudding sausage rolls, kouign-amann. I’ve also been lusting after suet puddings – the kind of baking I didn’t grow up with, and had only read about before moving to England.
I thought I’d missed the boat last week, when the glorious sunshine meant I couldn’t imagine anything less welcome than a steamed pudding. This is an English April though – as I write, the rain is drumming against my window and it’s a brisk twelve degrees outside. So there’s no reason not to make a jam roly-poly. If you’ve never had one, it’s a suet pastry spread with jam and rolled up like a Swiss roll, before being steamed. The recipe is almost laughably simple – Mrs Beeton’s nineteenth century version calls for just jam, flour, suet, and water. I’ve added butter and milk in the version below, like most twentieth century recipes, which give the roly-poly a richer, sweeter taste.
I read The Diary of a Provincial Lady last year, and the roly-poly on this bizarre plate of food stayed with me. Not only did a steamed pudding sound like an odd choice for July, I felt, like the titular Provincial Lady, horrified at the thought of it alongside cheese and pickles. The book itself is a wonderfully dry, witty work – a fictional diary (with undeniably autobiographical elements) that documents the daily minutiae in the life of a Devon wife and mother in 1930. Originally published in serial form in Time and Tide, the book is filled with the character’s constant battles with her cook (negotiating over cold beef and beetroot, while hoping for roast chicken and bread sauce), collection of ridiculous neighbors, her perpetually bored and unimpressed husband Robert, and her wish to "maintain the detached attitude of a modern mother" when dealing with her children Vicky and Robin. It’s self-deprecating and self-aware, genuinely hilarious, and an enormous amount of fun; a perfect book for spring.
225g self-raising flour (plus more for dusting)
40g salted butter
170ml whole milk
150g raspberry jam
1. Place an oven tray at the base of the oven, and fill it with water. Make sure there’s an oven tray or rack in the centre of the oven. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Tip the flour into the bowl and rub the butter in with your fingertips. Mix the suet through the flour. Pour in the milk, then use the knife to cut it through. Bring the pastry together with your hands.
3. Dust your work surface with flour and then roll out the pastry with a floured rolling pin. Aim for a square about 25cm wide. Spread jam over all the dough, save for an inch along one edge. Roll it up towards the non-jam edge, pinching the dough closed down the length and at both ends.
4. Spread out a sheet of tin foil, and place a sheet of greaseproof paper on top. Place the roly-poly, seam side down, on the paper. Roll it up loosely in the paper (it will expand while baking), and then scrunch the foil around it too.
5. Place it in the roasting dish. Transfer to the oven for 70 minutes. Leave to cool for a little and then serve warm. If you cut into it straight out of the oven, it might crumble when you cut it, and you’ll lose the swirl a little (like I did), so be patient. It’s great with custard, but not so good with cheese and pickles.