What Is Spotted Dick And How Did It Get Its Name?

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Spotted dick is a popular British dish despite its giggle-inducing name. While it has been a traditional dessert across the pond for generations, the name for this English pudding has come up more recently in other parts of the world thanks to the fact it has been featured on "The Great British Bake-Off." As it turns out, spotted dick isn't something that requires an ointment, and pudding isn't always something that's wobbly and eaten with a spoon — not overseas, anyway.

Viewers outside the UK are not only confused by the name spotted dick but also the use of the term pudding as an almost all-encompassing word for desserts. Ultimately, spotted dick is a type of steamed pudding — yes, a moist, dense cake. It is frequently served with a creamy sauce (in essence, a runny custard aka crème anglaise) spooned on top. The spotted name reflects the scattering of dried fruit in the dessert, and dick is nothing more than an old-fashioned term for pudding. It's comforting to know this is a dessert you can talk about around grandma without blushing.

Spotted dick is a British steamed pudding

When Americans hear the word pudding, we automatically think of a creamy lunch box snack in a cup, or a custard-style treat that is enjoyed with a spoon (or the ubiquitous spork given out in many a cafeteria). But what's up with English "pudding?" In Great Britain, the word pudding can refer to all sorts of desserts and savories. Yorkshire pudding is like a popover, sticky toffee pudding is a sponge cake with saucy toffee, and spotted dick is steamed pudding.

Think of a steamed pudding as a perfectly moist cake. It is made with a sweet batter just like a traditional cake, but instead, it is cooked in a special mold with a tight-fitting lid. Then it is steamed in a large pot with boiling water. A few hours later, the lid is opened to reveal a delicious cake.

Spotted dick is a citrus-flavored steamed pudding that is prepared with suet and dried currants. The color difference between the light cake and the dark dried fruit that speckles the surface of the cake makes it appear spotted — thus the name. Traditionally, the cake is served with a warm British custard (this is always a runny sauce, not like thick American custard), and sometimes with a scoop or two of decadent vanilla ice cream. The rich sauce is a perfect pairing with the dense cake, and the sweet dairy gives a bit of punch, a touch of lusciousness, to the dish.

Why is it called spotted dick?

If spotted dick is simply a pudding or dessert, where does the 'dick' part of the name come from? For that answer, we need to go way back to the 19th century when the terms 'dick' and 'dog' came from an English dialect term for a pudding. Therefore, you might see the dessert also referred to as 'spotted dog.'

The words 'dick' and 'dog' were once synonymous with the word 'dough.' At that time, you might hear someone say 'puddick' or 'puddog' to refer to a British pudding dessert. Over time the name simply became shortened. However, in Scotland, the dessert is still sometimes referred to as a "spotted dog pudding." To be extra confusing, Ireland has a similar (but not identical!) dish that is sometimes called 'spotted dog' and sometimes 'railway cake.' It is, in fact, not a cake at all, but it's a type of soda bread, speckled with currants. 

It's interesting to note that nowadays, some restaurants have taken the dessert name one step further and renamed it 'Spotted Richard.' Of course, this air of formality is simply a play on words and a way to save face in public, for those who might not know the true history of the dish — or may who otherwise be embarrassed to utter the word dick in a formal environment, such as Parliament.

Where to get spotted dick

The best way to try an authentic spotted dick recipe is to make it yourself at home. It takes a couple of hours to steam, but it doesn't have an overwhelmingly long list of ingredients. Though you might find it in a grocery store in the international or British section, or online, it often comes in a can. This gives the pudding a very different texture to when freshly steamed, and it also tends to be much sweeter than homemade.

Alternatively, you could try the ready-steamed versions, such as Aunty's, which come in individual-sized tubs and simply need to be heated through in the microwave. Again, they can't really compare to homemade in terms of texture or flavor, but they are at least slightly more authentic-tasting.

In terms of finding spotted dick when dining out, you'd be most likely to find it in traditional British-style restaurants or pubs — though it's worth noting that it's not even especially common to find it in many restaurants in the UK anymore. But with desserts such as sticky toffee pudding crossing the pond to appear on more and more restaurant menus in cities such as New York, perhaps it's only a matter of time before the spotted dick becomes spotted more often.

What does spotted dick taste like?

Spotted dick is lightly fruity, freshly zesty, and probably not as sweet as you'd imagine. The dried currants add a subtle hint of sugar while orange and lemon zest bring brightness and fragrance. Traditionally made with suet (animal fat such as beef, which is readily available in packets in the UK), it would historically have had a richer flavor. These days, many recipes substitute vegetable suet or butter for a slightly lighter finish.

Since it is slowly steamed rather than baked, this gives the fruity dessert a soft, moist texture throughout rather than a crispy exterior crust. But that doesn't mean it's by any means delicate; this is the sort of dish that some Brits might describe as rib-sticking thanks to its comforting stodginess. Combined with a creamy hot runny custard, which also gives it a welcome layer of sweetness, it's the epitome of cold-weather food.

Other British steamed puddings that are cooked in a similar way include flavors such as treacle or syrup, or sticky toffee pudding, which is made with dates for a molasses-like sweetness. Spotted dick lacks this intensely sweet note, and it is also not as rich or dense as a traditional Christmas pudding, which is packed with different dried fruits rehydrated in whiskey or brandy before being steamed. Rather, the taste and moist texture of spotted dick is perhaps more similar to a bran or dried fruit muffin.