Just Desserts & Sticky Toffee Pudding
What seems like a lifetime ago, my boyfriend – who became my husband and eventually my ex-husband – and I would go to The Tap Room in Saint Louis just to eat the Sticky Toffee Pudding. We introduced his family to it, and for the years that followed, a majority of our family celebrations took place over a steaming slice of Sticky Toffee pudding. His mother, with whom my relationship has always been strained, would often forgo “real” dinner and just order the Sticky Toffee Pudding.
Nearly 20 years later, now that Myles and I have been split up for years, his parents and sister came to Seattle for Christmas, at the request of our daughter. For a variety of reasons, Myles and I still share the house in which we raise our amazing daughter. We know it’s unconventional, but for the most part, it’s a point of pride for us. That we can all treat each other with kindness and compassion and support through good and bad. That we can be there for our daughter and each other. That’s unconditional love and mature relationship building.
The logistics of this is probably about to change, as I enter into a relationship that we expect to last a lifetime with someone else, but not the relationship per se. But for now, during the holidays, we welcomed his family into the home that we still share.
I made stockings for the whole clan – the ex-family and the future family. I (foolishly) believed that this event would mark the beginning of the next stage of our life, in which our family grew and bonded, past and future together. And with great excitement, I decided to make Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert, knowing that it was Myles’ mother’s favorite.
The moment she walked in the door, 3 days before Christmas, I knew this would not be the case. She would not look me in the eye. When my boyfriend introduced himself, she literally rolled her eyes and looked away, not so much as extending her hand to meet his, which he held out in greeting.
For days this went on. She answered my questions like a petulant child would, with as few words as possible and looking anywhere but at me. I could see the tension growing inside Myles. And so many patterns that I know and hate came bubbling up. The silence, the passive-aggressive, the blame, the simmering resentment that oozes out as sighs, insults, complaints and pervasive pessimism. But from her. This is the root, the river that etched patterns in everything it plowed through. I could see him fighting them, and see the years of struggle. Thank God she was staying in a hotel.
But I steeled myself. I was going to love this woman into kindness, goddamn it. I was making Sticky Toffee Pudding and that, in and of itself, would show her that I do care, and I do try, and she is welcome. (As if the stocking with her name on it that was hung by the mantle with care was not evidence enough of this.)
For the pudding
- 1 lb. dates, chopped in food processor
- 2 c. hot water
- 2 tsp. baking soda
- 5 oz. unsalted butter
- 1 lb. sugar
- 5 lg. eggs
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 lb. all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- Pinch salt
- A healthy pour of Molasses (optional, unless you’re me)
For the sauce
- 1 lb. dark-brown sugar
- 1 lb. butter
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 c. heavy cream
Christmas morning arrived, “the kids” (that would be us, and Celia) woke, drank coffee, made a fire and played with the silly toys we had gotten for each other. Myles, his sister, Celia and my new boyfriend all played with potato guns and lazed about. We made the occasional joke about his mother, and did our best to get on with it.
When the “parents” arrived, it was clear that nothing was going to go as I hoped. She sat in the living room complaining from the moment she arrived. “I’m bored,” she complained. I suggested they could go for a walk around the lake. “I need something to do” she complained. I told her I’d love help setting the table for 14, for the feast we were planning. “I don’t want to do anything like that.”
I can see Myles get more and more tense. She criticized everything. I did my best, from then on, to stay in the kitchen and make the feast I had planned. Salmon, halibut, mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, pasta…. Everyone else filtered in and out, it was nice in the kitchen. I made the Sticky Toffee pudding, and it just wasn’t right. I had followed the recipe exactly, and it was good, but it was not the Sticky Toffee Pudding that we were after.
Myles’ sister and I decide to re-do it. It had to be perfect. Not because “she” needed it to be, indeed, it was a surprise. But because we wanted it to be. So we searched the web again, for another recipe, and found one that sounded much closer to the one we remembered. We made it again, together, and had a blast.
Myles’ sister apologized to me. Not for her own behavior – which was, as always, funny and kind and entertaining – but for her mother’s. At length, she explained how bad she felt about it, how everyone saw it, and it had nothing to do with me. I assured her that I know that. I am old enough to know that we cannot make other people happy, we are not responsible for the behavior of others.
But I realize, for the first time – despite 20 years of association with this family – the extent to which Myles was steeped in this kind of aggression all his life. And it was like an amazing gift. I couldn’t wait for this all to be over so that we could talk, and I could tell him what I see. How there’s nothing “wrong” with him, that he “simply” had to unlearn all the patterns caused by growing up with this woman. (Simply? Right!)
The thicker the aggression got in the house, the more clearly I could see things. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think I did both.
My boyfriend’s family was delayed, which is what gave us enough time to make the second attempt. (And caused the woman to say, “Do we have to wait for those people? I’m hungry.” Food was prepared and brought to her in the living room. Not by me.)
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Grease a 9-by-13-inch pan with butter and coat lightly with flour; shake out excess flour.
Combine dates with hot water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add baking soda. Set aside to cool.
- In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar on high-speed for 3 minutes.
- With mixer on low-speed, add eggs one at a time until fully incorporated.
- Add vanilla extract, flour, baking powder, and salt.
- When fully mixed, add the dates and their liquid.
- When mixed, again, pour in a healthy pour of Molasses, for color, flavor and stickiness.
- Pour batter into greased pan and bake in preheated oven until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean (30-45 minutes).
- Cool on a baking rack before removing from the pan.
For The Sauce
- Stir together the brown sugar, butter, and vanilla extract on low heat until blended and brown sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat.
- Whisk heavy cream into the brown sugar-and-butter mixture.
- Spoon warm sauce over a serving of the pudding and top with a dollop of freshly whipped cream.
By the time the Sticky Toffee Pudding came out of the oven, it was clear that there was a war brewing. I didn’t know when my boyfriend’s family of 10 were arriving. I couldn’t wait for them to be here, but desperately did not want them to walk into the middle of this. It became a weird race to the finish, even I was getting tense, wondering what to do. We made a few jokes about how ‘funny’ it would be if there was a public explosion, as the woman was clearly about as able to behave herself as a tired toddler on an international flight.
And I knew that things were bad in the living room, where Myles and his mother were having a very heated discussion. As I straightened things on the mantle, I heard her insulting me, Myles, my boyfriend and his family (who she had never met.) I heard her belittling him, blaming me, you name it.
I went back to the kitchen and resolved that I was going to ask her to leave. I did not care who she was, how far she had come, or that it was Christmas, I do not want people behaving like this in my home.
I didn’t have to do that. She decided to leave, she could not stand to be here for another moment. She told her daughter to pack up, they were leaving. Her daughter stayed with us, as she should. The woman never said good-bye to me. Fitting, since she never really said hello or acknowledged my existence in the first place. In my home.
My boyfriend’s family arrived not 10 minutes after the woman left. The house was filled with children and grandparents and dancing and love and an absurd amount of food. We did tell them what had just happened, and were all folded into the kind of love that we have, it turns out, been waiting a lifetime to feel. I have never loved my ex-husband or my ex-sister-in-law more. I have never been more committed to love and kindness. I have never been more excited about my future, with an amazing new family, and the members of my “past” family that I will forever love and want with me.
I feel bad, for sure. It’s entirely possible that this woman lost her son and granddaughter on Christmas day. Perhaps forever. But Myles also realized what he deserves, and exactly what forces created the behavior patterns that, as an adult, he tries so hard to battle against. In many ways, he was given the gift of a clear escape path from a painful past, and as such, a route to the future he deserves and wants.
But damn, that was the BEST Sticky Toffee Pudding I’ve ever had.
And apparently, at the end of her arguments with her own children, someone told the woman that I had made Sticky Toffee Pudding for her. On her way out the door, the woman asked her daughter to bring her some the next morning. “No fucking way.”
That still makes me laugh. After how she behaved, she still wanted Sticky Toffee Pudding. I wish she had the balls to ask me for some, directly. I would have given it to her. From my viewpoint on the high-road, it would have been awesome to see her enjoy it like the greedy little child she is. Even if she would obviously choke on the kindness.