Malva pudding is a dessert lover’s dream: warm, moist and sweet. There’s just something about it that tastes like home.
Perhaps that is why the dessert has pride of place on restaurant menus across the country but what is it about malva pudding that has helped the dessert warm its heart into the likes of Oprah Winfrey?
Unlike most foods, the origins of this South African dessert aren’t as clear cut as one would believe.
Most readily available texts on the origins of malva pudding definitively describe the dessert as sweet, sticky pudding of Cape Dutch origin.
Four main theories are cited for how/why it came to be.
The most popular of these theories is the Oxford English Dictionary assertion that the name of the dessert comes from the Afrikaans term malvalekker (marshmallow). It is also believed to have ties to the Latin term malva, which refers to a mallow. Although no marshmallows are actually used in the making of the dessert, the link is believed to have been derived from the pudding’s texture and that of a marshmallow.
Another theory stems from the belief that rose-scented malva leaves were either baked into the batter or boiled to create a liquid that would then be added to the sponge once it had been baked. Malva is also Afrikaans for geranium, also referred to as the pink flowering pelargonium, a plant indigenous to South Africa.
In Oprah Winfrey’s circles, the standing belief is that the pudding was named after a woman called Malva. This is according to Colin Cowie, an African-born American lifestyle guru, television personality, author, interior designer and party planner.
Cowie told this story to Winfrey’s personal chef, Art Smith, after suggesting that Smith serve malva pudding at a Christmas dinner hosted by Winfrey in 2006. Pupils of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa were present at this dinner that was planned by Cowie.
The final theory about the origins of the dessert stem from the belief that the sauce which is poured over the baked sponge originally contained Malvasia (malmsey) wine or brandy and sherry as alternatives.
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Perhaps the most extensive deep dive into the elusive origins of this dessert was published in a July 2013 issue of Getaway magazine. The article was compiled by food journalist and author Nikki Werner.
After an exhaustive search, Werner was able to trace the earliest known documentation of the dessert to a 1924 book titled South African Cookery Made easy by Mrs PW De Klerk.
The only difference in this documentation, however, is the fact that the version in this book contained no apricot jam, brandy or rose geranium. Werner notes that it also predated the commercial production of marshmallow sweets.
After interviewing and working with a number of experts, she found no definitive evidence to support the other theories either.
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The editor and food stylist at online magazine Crush, Julie Velosa, stumbled upon Werner’s work during her own look into just what makes this dessert what we know it to be.
“My own recent research on the history of malva pudding led me to food journo, Nikki Werner’s blog. In 2018 Nikki did research into the history of this much loved dessert and her findings are by far the most in-depth. It would seem that the first mention of marvellous malva was way back in 1924 and beyond that the etymology of the name and the pud’s origin are not entirely clear,” said Velosa.
As a Durban native, Velosa admits that hot, steamy desserts weren’t as favoured as cool, fridge-set ones like pineapple pudding and peppermint crisp tart.
“It was only when I moved down to the Western Cape that I recall having malva and have always considered it to be the Afrikaans version of the more English Sticky Toffee or Date pudding.”
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As for the dessert’s popularity in restaurants, however, Velosa once again cites Werner’s work which revealed that food and wine writer, Michael Olivier, is single-handedly credited for the dessert’s introduction into the mainstream.
Olivier, in his original capacity as the PR manager of the Boschendal Estate back in the 70’s asked his friend Maggie Pepler to do a brief stint in the estate’s kitchen while the main chef took a much-needed holiday.
He also asked her to make the malva pudding her mother had taught her how to make for the estate’s guests and it was such a hit that it has reportedly been on the menu ever since.
“There are few desserts that could be more accurately described as a comforting hug-in-a-bowl and that is probably why it continues to be a firm fav with South Africans,” concluded Velosa and we couldn’t agree more.