From 'pudmobile' to The Pudding Stop – read our review of Johnny Shepherd's pudding empire in St Albans. Just how gooey is the sticky toffee pudding? And is it true that Johnny makes the best donuts ever?
St Albans jumped for joy when Johnny Shepherd, an original Great British Bake Off contestant, decided to sell homemade puddings from a little van – the ‘pudmobile’ – outside the city station every weekday evening. It’s still there five years later, serving donuts, brownies, cheesecakes, treacle tarts and more to sugar-starved punters. As Johnny himself says, he does it to ‘reward the hard-working commuters arriving home from London’.
But Albanians wanted more, and so Johnny opened the static version of his pudding business in 2013 – The Pudding Stop, a classy glass-fronted shop on Verulam Road. Half café, half bakery, it’s designed to give people something to do in the evenings that doesn’t necessarily involve alcohol. It’s open until 11pm Friday-Saturday (and 10pm, earliest, during the week) and Sunday nights are film nights, when a popular blockbuster is projected onto the back wall.
It’s a clever idea, because The Pudding Stop suits so many occasions: grab a naughty breakfast on the way to work; pop in for elevensies and a cup of tea; skip dessert at the restaurant and eat it here instead; or send a loved one out for donuts when you’re all curled up on the sofa. You can even eat a whole dinner at The Pudding Stop: cheese for main (baked with chutney and toasts; or as a cheeseboard with oatcakes) and pudding for, well, pudding.
The most popular dish from the eat-in menu has to be the sticky toffee pudding, a fat square of dark, treacly sponge drowned in a gooey sauce that tastes of muscovado. A scoop of banana ice cream (a nice match for such a rich pudding, because the flavour doesn’t overwhelm) balances on top.
Fudgy banana loaf with warm butterscotch sauce came with mounds of milk ice cream; and a fried bramley apple pie (only served at weekends and from 8pm on weeknights) was crisp and warm, with proper chunks of sweet apple inside and cinnamon sugar sprinkled on top. We also loved the look of the waffle sandwich – soft ice cream, salted caramel chocolate sauce and pecan praline messily wedged between two warm waffles – or, for something lighter, half a dozen cinnamon madeleines. Despite his gutsy puds, Johnny can still bake with the daintiest of touches – his madeleines are elegant and airy.
You don’t have to eat in – the best cakes from the counter include teeth-tingling treacle tart; squidgy salted caramel peanut butter brownies that might just be the most indulgent thing we’ve eaten this year; dark ‘n’ spicy stem ginger loaf with dreamy butterscotch sauce; and the best donuts we’ve ever tasted (a big claim, but true). To explain, Johnny’s donuts are pillowy soft inside and so crisp, so sugary outside, with generous splodges of vanilla-spiked homemade custard within. Some even come with a cherry on top.
We like tea with our cake (£3 for a bottomless pot), but there are also craft beers, wine and shakes – made with milk or sorbet – on offer. It’s a comforting place to sit of an evening, the air rich with sweetness and cinnamon, the room noisy with sugar-fuelled chatter. Plus we don’t think we’ve ever seen a sad person eating here – pudding makes everyone happy, after all.