I have been obsessed with all things British since the Beatles first came to America, yet I did not attempt a Christmas pudding until after the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol made its TV debut. During the scene in which Mrs. Cratchit, to great anticipation, presents the pudding to her family, I became seized with the conviction that a Victorian Christmas menu was exactly what my own family needed that year.
After scouring a dozen or so antique cookbooks from the collection at the UW-Madison’s Steenbock Memorial Library, I managed a decent rum punch and a passable oyster stew. Properly roasting a goose, however, even with written instructions, required a level of skill I did not at that time possess. There may have been a small oven fire, though my memory is hazy, largely due to the excellence of the punch.
The pudding, however, was a success. Prepared using a recipe my mother had unearthed from a frayed and yellowed cookbook inherited from her grandmother — who herself had sworn it to be the recipe she recalled from her 19th-century childhood in Derry, Northern Ireland — the concoction was like a richer, darker fruitcake, aromatic with spices, the flavors of the fruits laced with brandy. Most of the sweetness came from a buttery-sweet whiskey hard sauce that melted into the warm slices of pudding.
Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding and figgy pudding, has been the closing course of the Christmas dinner in Britain and Ireland since roughly the 17th century (though it was banned for a few years while the Puritans were in power). Eggier than cake but more cake-like than the flavored custards most Americans think of as pudding, the Christmas pudding contains no plums at all.
Raisins, currants, often dried figs and occasionally a few prunes comprise the fruits, with the bittersweet addition of candied citrus peel. The batter is poured into a mold and steamed for anywhere from 3 to 12 hours before soaking it in brandy or good Irish whiskey for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before the holiday.
There are many traditions associated with Christmas pudding. Some families put a coin or two into the batter with the idea that the person who finds the coin will have luck for the next year. On the day of feasting itself, the pudding is placed back in the steamer for 1 to 3 hours to heat it through before serving. It should be garnished with a sprig of fresh holly (preferably with berries), a reminder for Christians of Jesus’ crown of thorns. Pagan associations with holly also include healing and fertility.
Before serving, it is customary to flame the pudding by heating ¼ cup of brandy or vodka in a small pan and lighting the alcohol before carefully pouring it over the warm, unmolded pudding. The flaming liquid should make a lovely spectacle when you carry it into the darkened dining room.
I didn’t have the courage to flame my first Christmas pudding. In fact, after the near-fiasco of my Victorian Christmas, I didn’t make one again until 12 years ago, when a good friend — a very homesick Englishman — joined our holiday party. Andy took over the flaming, and now each year, the arrival of the pudding is the climax of our holiday celebration.
There are scores of recipes for Christmas pudding. Many families, like my mother’s, have one that has been passed down for generations. To be fair, many modern Brits simply buy a pudding premade from Marks and Spencer and just warm it before serving. But where’s the fun in that?
I’ve experimented with several recipes over the last decade, with sometimes surprising variations in technique and even a few basic ingredients. Andy and I are in agreement that the two that stand out are my own great-great-grandmother’s and Nigella Lawson’s modern take on the tradition, her Ultimate Christmas Pudding. While it does take some effort to gather all the proper ingredients, actually putting together the pudding is an unfussy process.
Most recipes call for candied citron, orange peel or other citrus, or candied cherries. Groceries carry candied fruits for the holiday season and they’re fine to use, but I prefer to make my own by dissolving 3 cups of sugar and 3 cups water in a large saucepan. Take the peels of whatever citrus fruits you would like — oranges and lemons are widely available, citrons are wonderful if you can find them — scrape off all the white pulp and slice into small strips. Bring the sugar water to a boil, add the peels and reduce heat to simmer until the peels are very soft. Let the peels dry for a day or two on a piece of parchment before cooking with them.
All the authentic recipes call for beef suet. If you are appalled at the idea of suet (beef fat), an equal amount of butter can be substituted without spoiling anything. Suet, however, is traditional and imparts a subtle difference in flavor. The meat departments at Willy Street Co-op and Metcalfe’s Market keep suet on hand in the freezer, and you can ask for it at the meat counter. Other specialty food shops including Whole Foods, Underground Butcher and Conscious Carnivore will provide fresh suet on request. Call ahead a few days before you plan to pick it up. Ask the butcher to grind it, or you can chop it into small pieces before adding it to the batter.
You can buy a traditional pudding mold during the holiday season — they look like miniature garbage cans with a handle — from Orange Tree Imports and Sur La Table. The advantage of these molds is that they have a snap-on cover. It is not necessary, however, to buy one. Any heat-tempered bowl can be used, covered with aluminum foil during steaming (always being careful not to let the foil touch the pudding itself).
I steam my puddings on the stove in with a handled steamer basket. I recommend the sturdiness of a metal steamer basket rather than bamboo, though if your pudding is small, that might work as well. I have heard at least one cook say that he placed the mold in a large crock pot to steam. The pot should be filled with just enough water it should come no farther than halfway up the mold when placed inside. The water should be heated to a low boil — a rolling boil risks water getting into your pudding. Have another pot or a kettle of water ready to add as the water boils off in the course of the five or six hours your pudding needs to properly cook.
After the pudding has fully cooked, pour roughly ¼ cup of brandy or Irish whisky — as much as will sink in — over your pudding before you wrap it in cloth and then aluminum foil (again careful not to let the foil touch the pudding) and place in a cool dry place to mellow.
A pudding can be made ahead as much as three or four months (or a few weeks or even a few days). To serve, remove the wrappings and place the mold in the steaming bath for 1 to 3 hours before unmolding onto a large plate, flaming, and topping with healthy dollops of whisky or brandy hard sauce.
Yes, the traditional Christmas pudding is a boozy affair, which is undoubtedly why the Puritans tried to ban it. Still, the best puddings are so rich, you won’t be able to eat too much at one time. And there are always leftovers to be heated in the microwave and enjoyed the next day in a large pot.
Plum pudding — the family recipe
3/4 cup flour
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/3 teaspoon cloves
1/2 pound raisins
1/4 pound dried currants
1/4 pound dried figs
4 ounces candied citrus peel
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1 cup hot milk
1/4 cup sugar
4 eggs separated
1/2 pound fresh beef suet, ground
1/2 cup boiled cider
Mix and sift flour, salt and spices; stir in fruits so they are dredged in the flour. Soak crumbs in milk 10 minutes. Beat sugar into well-beaten egg yolks; and add suet, soaked crumbs; stir into flour-fruit mixture. Add cider and mix well; fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Turn into greased 1½-quart mold, cover and steam 3½ hours. Approximate yield: 12 portions.
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Ultimate Christmas Pudding
1/4 cup currants
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped prunes
3/4 cup sweet Spanish sherry (Lawson recommends Pedro Ximenez)
2/3 cup flour
2-1/3 cup bread crumbs
3/4 cup ground suet
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking powder
grated zest of one lemon
3 large eggs
1 medium Granny Smith apple (peeled and grated)
2 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup vodka to flame the pudding
Put the dried fruits into a bowl with the sherry to steep overnight or for up to a week. When the fruits have steeped to satisfaction, combine all the remaining ingredients (except vodka) in a large mixing bowl; add the steeped fruits including all the liquid and mix thoroughly. Scrape and press the mixture into a well-greased 1½-quart mold, place covered into a lidded steamer and steam for five hours, checking every now and then that the water hasn’t bubbled away. Remove from the steamer and put the pudding out of the way until the big day. To serve, steam again for three hours. To serve, turn the mold upside down on a large plate, remove the mold, garnish with the holly and heat the vodka in a small plan (don’t let it boil). Turn off the heat and light the pan of vodka before pouring it over the pudding and taking it to your guests.
Brandy butter (hard sauce)
1 cup butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup brandy (or Irish whisky)
Beat softened butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add confectioner’s sugar a bit at a time, blending well. Slowly add the brandy, beating until the mixture is light and fluffy. To serve, spoon onto warm pudding.