This pudding is a really rich, delicious and handsome beast. Probably best eaten when the only plan for the afternoon is to fall asleep with the paper over your head.
Trim the beef of any really thick fat or tough bits of gristle – although you want to retain a certain degree of fat in order to keep the meat moist and add plenty of flavour. Visit your local butcher for good beef and avoid lean braising steak, the latter will result in shrivelled pieces of meat like shoe leather. Cut the beef into roughly 4cm cubes and put in a large, strong plastic bag. Add the flour, a good pinch of crumbled sea salt and a few twists of black pepper. Tie the end in a knot and shake until the steak is well coated. Heat the oven to 160C/fan 140C/gas 3.
Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan and fry the steak over a high heat in 2-3 batches until well browned all over, adding another 1-2 tbsp oil if the pan appears dry. Transfer the beef to a casserole dish as you go. Return the pan to the heat, add a little more oil then add the onion. Cook over a low heat for 5 minutes or until softened, stirring often. Stir into the casserole dish with the beef.
Deglaze the frying pan with half of the ale, bringing to the boil while stirring to lift all the sediment from the bottom of the pan. Pour over the beef and onion. Strip the thyme leaves from the stalks and add to the casserole, then stir in the bay leaf, sugar, beef stock, tomato purée and the rest of the ale.
Bring to the boil, then cover and cook in the oven for 1 hour. Remove the lid and continue cooking for a further 30 minutes. After this time, the beef should be almost tender and the sauce thick (if it isn’t, take out the beef and reduce the sauce on the hob). Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
To make the suet pastry, put the flour in a large bowl and stir in the suet and salt. Gradually stir in enough water to make a very soft, spongy dough – you’ll probably need around 300ml water. Turn out onto a floured surface and bring the dough together to form a ball. Remove a quarter of the dough to make a lid for the pudding and roll the rest into a roughly 27cm round. Use to line a well buttered 19cm diameter 1.5 litre pudding basin with the pastry level resting at around 4cm from the top edge of the dish. This is important as you must allow for the pudding to rise. Trim neatly.
Stir the pickled onions into the beef mixture and spoon into the lined basin. Brush the top edge of the pastry with water. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle just large enough to sit snugly on top of the pastry edge and place over the filling. Press the edges well together to seal.
Cover the dish with a large circle of baking parchment, with a pleat in the middle to allow for expansion. Cover the parchment with a circle of foil, again with a pleat, and tie both tightly in place with a long piece of string. Create a carrying handle by tying the excess string across the top of the basin – this will help you lift the pudding once it’s hot.
Put on an upturned saucer or small trivet in a deep pan and add enough just-boiled water to come halfway up the sides of the basin. (Alternatively, cook in a hob-top steamer.) Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and put over a medium heat. Allow to steam in simmering water for 21/2 hours, adding more water if necessary. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully lift the basin from the water. Stand for 5 minutes. Cut off the string, foil and paper. Loosen the sides of the pudding with a blunt-ended knife and invert onto a warm serving plate. Serve in generous wedges.