The plum pudding is to the English Christmas as turkey is to the American Thanksgiving or red-dyed eggs are to the Greek Easter or the mooncake is to China’s harvest-home.
Nevertheless, the tradition of the festive pudding — a fruitcake batter boiled in a cloth (or steamed in a bowl) which arrives at table looking like a small cannonball topped with a sprig of holly and flamed with brandy — is by no means straightforward. Politically, the pudding is a declaration of national identity, except that the recipe is actually German, introduced to the nation’s Christmas festivities by George I, sometime Prince of Hanover known as Pudding George, crowned monarch of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714, who spoke very little English and never lost his fondness for the robust dishes of his homeland. Emotionally, however, the pudding is Anglo-Saxon, a cloth-dumpling whose origins can be traced back to the boiling-pots that swung over the fire in Saxon halls. But the surrounding ritual — evergreen and flames — makes it undeniably Celtic, a druidical throwback to the ancestral bone-fires of Beltane, sacrificial flames lit to mark the winter solstice and encourage the return of the sun. All of which makes the Christmas pudding a multicultural event, so it’s perfectly suited to the spirit of the festival.
While most of the ingredients can be bought in any supermarket, suet can be a problem. It’s used in boiled puddings rather than butter or any other fat (though butter is a decent substitute) because it’s firm enough to stand up to the long cooking-time, ensuring a rich juicy pudding. To prepare suet from scratch, ask your butcher for a pound of fresh beef kidney fat, grate it roughly, dust with flour to prevent sticking, rub gently with your fingertips to separate the little pearls of fat from the membrane, then weigh out what you need.
As for the recipe, Eliza Acton, Mrs. Beeton’s culinary mentor, delivers all you need to know. Miss Acton was a woman of independent spirit at a time — the middle years of the 19th century — when women were at last able to leave the home to work for wages. Elisa never married but earned her living and supported her widowed mother through journalism and poetry, both ill-paying and neither of which could be counted respectable careers. Encouraged by her publishers to write something more commercial, she delivered her masterwork, “Modern Cookery for Private Families,” for publication in 1847. Seven years in the simmering, the work has never been bettered for sound good sense and down-to-earth recipes, including a fine Christmas pudding to be served with a frothy (German) sabayon sauce.
Eliza Acton’s Traditional English Christmas Pudding
Miss Acton recommends this as a remarkably light, small, rich pudding to be boiled in a cloth in traditional style, though, she says, it can also be cooked in a bowl.
Miss Acton gives the following general directions for the care and control of cloth-boiled puddings: “Batter is much lighter when boiled in a cloth, and allowed full room to swell, than when confined in a mould [bowl]: it should be well beaten the instant before it is poured into it, and put into the water immediately after it is securely tied. The cloth should be moist and thickly floured, and the pudding should be sent to table as expeditiously as possible after it is done, as it will quickly become heavy.”
Her instructions thereafter are easy enough:
“Mix and beat all the ingredients together, tie them in a well-floured cloth (scald it first), push a wooden spoon through the loops of the cloth and suspend it in a full pan of boiling water. Bring the water back to the boil, turn down the heat a little, and lid. Boil the pudding for 3½ hours. Unwrap the pudding onto a warm plate and set in a medium oven for 10 minutes to form a rich dark skin.
“If you prefer to boil the pudding in a bowl, butter it first. Drop in the batter: It should fill it nearly to the top. Lid with a circle of buttered kitchen paper. Tie a clean cloth over it, with a fold so that the pudding can expand. Boil for 3½ hours in a pan of water that comes three-quarters of the way up the bowl. Keep it loosely lidded, and take care to keep the level topped up with boiling water. After 3½ hours, when it is ready, let the pudding stand in its bowl for five minutes before it is dished, to prevent its breaking. You can store this pudding under a clean cloth. It will need 2 hours to reheat and lighten again. To flame it, make sure that the brandy is warmed before you pour it over and set it alight.”
Delicious German Pudding Sauce
This sauce is a sabayon cream, a delicate fluff of wine and egg yolk. Great care must be taken, says Miss Acton, not to allow it to curdle. [Note: You can serve it with well-brandied custard or hard sauce, if you prefer.]
“Dissolve the sugar in the sherry or Madeira in a pan over a gentle heat, but do not allow it to boil; stir it hot to the well-beaten yolks in a bowl. Set the bowl over simmering water. Whisk the sauce over a gentle fire until it is well thickened and highly frothed.”
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Image: Christmas plum pudding watercolor. Credit: Elisabeth Luard