Today we know only a
little of Christmas Pudding lore.
Perhaps we know the term
from a reading of Dickens or a handed-down recipe collection from someone’s
great-grandmother. But there is little sense of how to do the cooking, or
what it would taste like if we did.
The following recipes are worth trying, especially if you have a
well-preserved antique tin melon mold or tube mold with its original
tight-fitting lid. Lacking an antique, you can use a ceramic "pudding basin"
in the British way. These bowls have a thickened rim for tying on a covering
of cloth or aluminum foil, and their deep cavities will give your puddings a
nicely rounded shape reminiscent of the "cannonball" of the pudding bag
shape. For that matter, any nicely rounded bowl will do. The flambe
presentation alone is worth the effort, but its spicy, fruity richness, set
off by the customary pudding sauce, is an adventure in itself. Unlike
fruitcake, a not-too-distant cousin, its moistness is quite nice, and when
good quality dried fruits are available (especially the whole candied
citrons you can find in Italian specialty shops at this time of year) the
flavor is far more interesting than what has passed for Christmas Pudding in
commercial versions. Let me urge you to order kidney suet (the clear beef
fat with little membrane) to chop and add to the mix as directed, as its
contribution to flavor and texture is unbeatable. No Crisco, margarine or
oil, please. A fine butcher can get it for you with a little advance notice.
And incidentally, should
you opt for the pudding bag, set your bag into a large bowl so the top
drapes over the sides, pour in the batter, and then tie it up at the neck so
no water can get in. Allow extra string for hanging, secure it onto a wooden
spoon large enough to rest across the top of a large kettle. You may also
wish to use some flour and water "paste" to seal off the top so no water can
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Ceramic pudding bowl, possibly English.
Note the heavy rim used to tie on a cloth or paper over the top.
English Plum Pudding
The Buckeye Cookbook:
Traditional American Recipes, Minneapolis, 1883.
Beat six yolks and four whites of eggs very light, and add to them a tumbler
of sweet milk; stir in gradually one-fourth pound grated or chopped stale
bread, a pound flour, three-quarters pound sugar, and a pound each of
beef-suet chopped very fine, currants nicely washed and dried, and stoned
raisins, well floured; stir well, then add two nutmegs [grated], a
table-spoon mace, one of cinnamon or cloves, a wine-glass brandy, a
tea-spoon salt, and finally another tumbler of milk.
Boil in bowls or molds five hours, and serve with sauce made of drawn
butter, wine, sugar, and nutmeg. These will keep for months; when wanted,
boil one hour before using. A pound of citron or blanched sweet almonds adds
to the richness of the pudding, but may be omitted.
Note: some recipes suggest plumping the raisins and currants with brandy.
Others dredge the fruit and suet while chopping so it doesn’t stick together
and will not sink to the bottom while cooking. Occasionally someone suggests
using a plate at the bottom of the kettle so the pudding will not stick to
the bottom and burn.
Note also the frequent use of currants, which were sweeter than raisins, and
which provided most of the batter’s sweetening. And the famous figgy pudding
was nothing more than a plum pudding, with no figs.
A Plumb Pudding for
Martha Bradley, The
British Housewife, 1758
Cut a Pound
of Suet moderately fine, break eight Eggs, and take all the Yolks and half
the Whites, grate the Crumb of a Penny Loaf, then add it to a Tea Spoonful
of powdered Ginger, half a Nutmeg grated, a little Salt, and a Pound of
Flour. Set in Readiness a Pint of Milk, beat up the Eggs, and mix with them
half the Milk, then stir in the Flour and the Bread, then the Suet and
Sopice. The proper Quantity of Fruit for this Pudding is a Pound of Currants
and a Pound of Raisins, and the Raisins must be stoned. When the Bread,
Flour, Milk, Eggs, and
Spices are mixed together, put in the Fruit, and then add as much more Milk
as is needful to get them into good Batter, but it must be very thick.. This
requires five Hours boiling.
Christmas Plum Pudding
The Buckeye Cookbook:
Traditional American Recipes, Minneapolis, 1883.
One quart seeded raisins, pint currants, half pint citron cut up, quart of
apples peeled and chopped, a quart of fresh and nicely chopped beef-suet, a
quart of sweet milk, a heaping quart of stale bread-crumbs, eight eggs
beaten separately, pint sugar, grated nutmeg, tea-spoon salt; flour fruit
thoroughly from a quart of flour, then mix remainder as follows: In a large
bowl or tray put the eggs with sugar, nutmeg and milk, stir in the fruit,
bread-crumbs, and suet, one after the other until all are used, adding
enough flour to make the fruit stick together, which will take about all the
quart; dip pudding-cloth in boiling water, dredge on inside a thick coating
of flour, put in pudding and tie tightly, allowing room to swell, and boil
from two to three hours in a good sized pot with plenty of hot water,
replenishing as needed from tea-kettle. When done, turn in a large flat dish
and send to table with a sprig of holly, or any bit of evergreen with bright
berries, stuck to the top. Serve with any pudding-sauce. This recipe
furnishes enough for twenty people, but if the family is small, one-half the
quantity may be prepared, or it is equally good warmed over by steaming.
For sauce, cream a half pound sweet butter, stir in three-quarters pound
brown sugar, and the beaten yolk of an egg; simmer for a few moments over a
slow fire, stirring almost constantly; when near boiling add half pint
bottled grape-juice, and serve after grating a little nutmeg on the surface.
the great celebratory feast, a highlight of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mrs.
Cratchit’s Christmas Plum Pudding is described as only Dickens could do it:
"Hallo! A great deal of steam! the pudding was out of the copper
[boiler]. A smell like washing –day! That was the cloth [the pudding bag]. A
smell like an eating house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with
a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs.
Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding. like a
speckled cannon ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern
of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."
"Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded
it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage..."
The Dickens’ Christmas Pudding is a prototype for our modern visualization
of the dish. Mrs. Cratchit carries it, aflame with brandy, into the darkened
dining room. What a presentation this must have been in the days before
birthday cakes and candles.
The Christmas Pudding was indeed an icon of the Victorian holiday. Christmas
celebrations as we know them are, in fact, surprisingly recent, and in the
Victorian era were just developing the rituals and trappings we all take for
granted. Cookbooks give some evidence of the changes in the English culinary
Christmas as it evolved in the nineteenth century. Early in the period there
are no puddings to be found under the name "Christmas Pudding," neither in
England or in America, but rather a long succession of other puddings that
are similar, among them Suet Pudding, Plum Pudding, Bread Pudding, even
Apple Pudding. These were all derivatives of much earlier Medieval puddings,
which survived in British cookery as one of its signature foods along with
characteristic pies, ales and beers, particularly fine cheeses, and all the
exotic ingredients brought by far flung trade. What these puddings had in
common was their plums or dried fruits (commonly raisins), bread crumbs,
beef suet, spice, and often spirits. Their ingredients were expensive and
connoted wealth and festivity; their technology originally required simple
utensils but lengthy preparations.
Fluted tin pudding mold, ca. 1900.
This one has a decorated bottom
(which shapes the top of the
pudding, when un-molded),
and is weighted to keep it upright.
The Christmas variation was simply an earlier pudding with a name change.
Queen Victoria’s husband Albert greatly desired to bring the familiar German
Christmas observances of his youth to the British court. Albert was also
extremely partial to the rich pudding he was served in England, and
Victoria, as always, desired to please him. The resulting opulent table now
merged his cookie-cutter cookies, special gingerbreads, and goose with the
British boar’s head, mince pie, and wassail. The flamed pudding was given a
place of honor. Now, throughout England, families adapted the Christmas
Pudding to their means, and Dickens, sensitive to the ways in which court
fashions found their ways into ordinary homes, recorded its splendors.
For collectors of Christmas memorabilia, the first artifacts that held the
pudding are not to be found. At first they were organic—animal bladders or
casings, the farmes noted in seventeenth century recipes. The eighteenth
century pudding bag indicates progress in its day: made of woven linen or
strong cotton cloth, it was simply a square large enough to hold the pudding
securely in a boiling water bath. Martha Bradley, a mid-eighteenth-century
English cookbook author whose works were also used in the Colonies,
described the process:
"Let the Cloth be perfectly clean and free from any Taste of the Soop, for
that is full as bad as Dirt. Before the Pudding is put into it let it be
dipped in hot Water and floured. As to the tying, the Nature of the Pudding
makes a difference; if it be a Batter Pudding it must be tied close, but if
it be a Bread Pudding it is to be tied loose. See that the Water perfectly
boils before the Pudding is put into the Pot, and let it be stirred about
from Time to Time, to prevent its sticking to the Bottom."
The ingenuity of this method lay in getting the floured cloth quickly into
the boiling water so that the grainy particles absorbed the moisture
immediately and swelled to form an impenetrable barrier. The pudding itself
was formed into a globe shape, the "cannonball." It was a striking sight
aflame on a platter, garnished with holly leaves.
The English in America continued their beloved pudding traditions, and made
them here just as they had at home. New Englanders, driven by their desire
to reinstate religious fundamentals and to eschew what they considered to be
corrupt excesses, did not recognize Christmas as a holiday and reserved
their puddings for secular occasions. Even in the middle nineteenth century
farmers’ diaries recorded full days of work and no feasting, entertaining,
decorating or gift exchanges, and consequently no foods with the word
"Christmas" in their titles. But as the century moved along, and as American
industry created new holidays for the purpose of selling greeting cards,
candies, decorations and gifts, Christmas Pudding became part of the new
observance. The old magazines and cards show a
Cast iron cylindrical
steamer with tight lid, holding a rack and three melon molds. This was
probably used on a cookstove, probably late 1800s or early 1900s, and
under one’s eyes. Here, too, cookbooks recorded the change—the old pudding,
its new name, and perhaps Colonial Revivalist sentiment. Sometimes called
English Christmas Pudding or English Plum Pudding, it made a point of its
special place at the table and distinguished the occasion from the almost
identical Thanksgiving dinner (marked by pumpkin pie). The recipe appeared
in almost every cookbook of the late 1800s and early 1900s, from the large
trendy works to modest local fund-raising recipe books.
The pudding bag now became passé. Cookstoves had supplanted hearths, and
growing industries found new ways to make Christmas Pudding in simpler ways.
Tin stamping companies turned out beautifully shaped tin molds with tight
lids, in which a boiled pudding could now be steamed, and no longer needed
the demanding pudding bag process. For example, Dover Stamping Company,
1858, offered them in a number of sizes. The popularity of these tins shows
in the many kinds of catalogs in which they were offered and their regular
place in today’s antique shops. The deep kettle of boiling water was
replaced by a lidded steaming pot; and some were specially designed with
racks to hold a number of small molds at one time.
And it wasn’t too long before one could buy commercially-made miniature plum
puddings in a can, completely bereft of the odors Dickens described, but
typically tainted with that all-too-familiar tin taste.
Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is
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