This comes up naturally, since I'm in the US at the moment, and the first 'new' AmE/BrE difference we taught my linguistically insightful five-year-old niece on this visit was "dessert is called pudding in England". Her immediate question was the same as reader Cathy's:
If any dessert can be called pudding, what is [AmE] pudding called [in BrE]?But before I get to that, let's start with a fine-tuning of the general American understanding of the meaning of pudding in BrE. Yes, it can be used to refer to the sweet course of a meal, served after the main course. But in addition to referring to a course, it can also refer to a particular kind of dish, as it does in AmE. But there's still a translational problem, in that it doesn't refer to the same type of dish in the two dialects. In BrE, the dish-sense of pudding is:
A baked or steamed sponge or suet dish, usually sweet and served as a dessert, but also savoury suet puddings (e.g. steak and kidney). Also milk puddings, made by baking rice, semolina, or sago in milk. (Bender & Bender, A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition, Oxford UP, 1995)Here's a photo of a Christmas pudding, from Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency. It's kind of like a fruit cake, but it's cooked by steaming. I know Anglophiles who buy and eat Christmas puddings in the US, but other such puddings are very rare in the US. My personal favo(u)rite is Sticky Toffee Pudding, and I consider it my duty to sample as wide a variety of STPs as possible in order to try to identify the best. Nominations on a postcard, please! (AmE speakers should usually mentally translate toffee in BrE contexts to caramel.)
In AmE, pudding nowadays refers particularly to creamy, custard-like desserts. Wikipedia treats this better than other dictionaries I've consulted (BrE translations in brackets are mine):
The second and newer type of pudding consists of sugar, milk and a thickening agent such as cornstarch [=BrE corn flour], gelatin, eggs, rice or tapioca to create a sweet, creamy dessert. These puddings are made either by simmering on top of the stove [=BrE on the hob; AmE stove = BrE cooker] in a saucepan or double boiler or by baking in an oven, often in a bain-marie. They are typically served chilled, but a few types, such as zabaglione and rice pudding, may be served warm.As the Wikipedia bit indicates, the steamed, cake-ish kind of pudding is older than the 'milk pudding' sense, but it's not the oldest. Originally pudding referred to more sausage-like things. Hence black pudding, a blood sausage that is far more common in Britain (especially in the north of England--at breakfast time, for godsakes) than in the US.
On the grammatical angle, note that the BrE dish-sense of pudding is often a count noun (e.g. I made enough sticky toffee puddings to feed an army) because the puddings are items with well-defined boundaries, whereas in AmE it's usually a mass noun (e.g. I made enough pudding [not puddings] for everyone) since it refers to a substance. (Throughout English, we have the ability to make count nouns out of mass nouns and vice versa, so in this case I'm talking about the natural state of these words when referring to the food as it is prepared, rather than the senses "a portion of X" or "a smear of X", etc.)
So, what do BrE speakers call the creamy stuff that Americans call pudding? I think the best answer is that they don't call it anything in particular. There is no such thing as Jell-o pudding (the form in which most Americans encounter this substance) in the UK. The closest thing to that, although it's more 'mousse-like' is probably Angel Delight. A baked custard is a kind of pudding-y thing that is found in both countries (though not very popular in either place now, I think, except in the more exotic Spanish/Mexican incarnation, flan--which Kevin in the comments reminds us is usually called crème caramel in BrE. See the comments for more on what flan means). But in the UK custard usually refers to pouring custard, which Americans might occasionally come across under its French name crème anglaise. (This was discussed before, back here.) Both countries have rice pudding and the less creamy bread pudding.
(Incidentally, Better Half and I were grocery-shopping here the other day, and we happened down the Jell-o [US trade name, used generically to mean 'flavo(u)red gelatin', i.e. BrE jelly] aisle. BH was flabbergasted by the range of little boxes to be found there, which included two brands (Jell-o and Royal) and both gelatin/jelly and (AmE) pudding mixes. The Kraft Foods website lists 20 flavo(u)rs of regular Jell-o, 12 of sugar-free Jell-o, 17 of instant regular Jell-o pudding, 9 of instant diet Jell-o pudding, and 9 of the regular and diet cook-and-serve pudding mixes. So that's 67 products before we even start counting the ones that Royal makes. I've lived abroad long enough that instead of celebrating such a range of products, I am exhausted by the thought of it and look forward to getting back to a more sensible shopping experience. But only after I've loaded up my suitcase with A1 sauce, low-calorie microwave popcorn and New York State maple syrup.)
Returning to the course-sense of pudding, the term dessert is heard in BrE. The first sense below from the OED has been around in BrE since the 17th century at least, while the second, more general sense is noted as more American, but increasingly found in BrE:
1. a. A course of fruit, sweetmeats, etc. served after a dinner or supper; ‘the last course at an entertainment’ (J.).Other BrE terms for this course are the more colloquial afters and sweet, which is often found in lists of 'non-U' terms. Pudding is the least socially marked of these terms.
b. ‘In the United States often used to include pies, puddings, and other sweet dishes’ (Cent. Dict.). Now also in British usage.
I believe that the pudding/dessert course is the one that diverges most, food-wise, in the two countries. That is to say, there are lots and lots of British puddings that aren't found in the US and American desserts that aren't found in the UK. And, of course, some of these are sources of amusement--particularly the name of the British dish spotted dick.
Finally (and not entirely unrelatedly), pudding is sometimes clipped to pud (rhymes with wood), which disturbs me when I see it in writing since I first learned pud as a slang term for a woman's genitals that rhymes with bud and is derived from pudendum. But BrE also has a genital-slang pud, which means 'penis'. This one rhymes with wood, since it is derived from pudding. (The OED notes that this is chiefly used in the masturbatory phrase pull the/one's pud.)