The Delicious History Christmas Pudding
Modern day festive celebrations are generally more commercial affairs when compared with Dickensian days. Today there is an increased emphasis placed on consumerism; with essential Christmas items spanning from expensive gifts to luxury laden merriment’s. Indeed it seems that Christmas trappings appear in the shops earlier each year, and I have been known to give the odd groan about commercialism and excess, but, whilst our spending and gift laden Christmas’ seem to grow with each decade that passes, when it comes to food ,the festive feasts of yesteryear put our modern Christmas fayre to shame.
In Dickens’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ the Ghost of Christmas Present appears sitting on a throne of Christmas plenty, the description is fittingly mouth-watering and a challenge for the most extravagant of modern day festive offerings:
Turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oyster, red hot chestnuts, cherry cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes and seething bowls of punch.
Even Scrooge’s downtrodden clerk on his minimal income managed to enjoy a feast worthy of praise; with a spread that included a goose with apple sauce and mashed potatoes, followed by a Christmas pudding ‘like a speckled cannon-ball …blazing in half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck in the top’. The festive scene is completed with the description of them roasting chestnuts in the fire and drinking ‘hot stuff from the jug’.
Reading these descriptions brings to mind thoughts of what I think of as a traditional Christmas with connotations of families, goodwill and open fires, although pre-Victorian Christmas celebrations were more about feasting, jollity and abundance, than children and gifts. Whilst Charles Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, his book ‘A Christmas Carol’ is credited with popularising and spreading the traditions of family, charity, goodwill, peace and happiness that are evident in the nostalgic Victorian festivities. Indeed by the time Queen Victoria’s reign ended in 1901, Christmas evoked images of candle-lit trees and gifts none of which were popular before her reign.
The flaming Christmas pudding once celebrated the fruits of the empire of Great Britain: sugar, spices, citrus fruits, nuts and brandy. Hidden charms added to the pudding mix provided an element of chance and excitement as well as evoking the Twelfth cake that was popular in the 1840’s and 50’s. Whilst the mixture of alcohol, fire and gambling harked back to the vestiges of ancient mid-winter feasts. The Victorians started their pudding preparations well in advance with it being customary for all the family to get involved in the stirring of the ingredients with everyone taking turns in mixing with a wooden spoon whilst making a wish as they stirred from east to west, replicating the journey of the three kings.
The dark and rich bomb shaped creation that we think of as Christmas pud is a Victorian creation, but our love of plum pudding spreads back centuries and our ‘traditional’ Christmas pudding originates from the 14th century frumenty that was made of beef ,mutton , dried fruits, wine and spices. This would often be more like a thin porridge or soup and was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas festivities. By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs and given more flavour with the addition of more alcohol and fruits and eventually gained popularity as a customary Christmas dessert around 1650.
Over the years, many superstitions have evolved around the Christmas Pudding. One superstition says that the pudding should be made with thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and His Disciples. Whilst the decorative sprig of holly on the top of the pudding is said to be a reminder of Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, however, others say that it is a remnant of the medieval origins of the pudding as in the Middle Ages; holly was thought to bring good luck and protection.
Even the Brandy that is poured over the pudding and lit is said by some to be symbolic: representing Jesus’ love and power, but whatever it represents a flaming Christmas pudding makes for a spectacular end to a meal.
Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that finds it. The coin traditionally used was a silver six pence representing fortune, but other charms added included an old maid’s thimble: if a single woman found it, they would remain a spinster for the following year, whereas finding a ring forecast love and marriage.
It’s all in the steaming. If you want to achieve a dark, mellow pudding then a long steam is key. Too short a cooking time will result in a pale and bland excuse for a pudding. Cook it long enough, and the sugars caramelise and darken, but cook it too long and the fruit bitters.
A traditional Pudding – from Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1845
This pudding is a revelation, it is very moist and not too dense, a real must for the pudding connoisseur! 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 if required.
3 ounces plain all-purpose flour
3 ounces finely grated bread crumbs
6 ounces grated suet
6 ounces raisins
6 ounces currants
2 ounces candied peel
4 ounces grated apple
5 ounces brown sugar
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon grated mace or cinnamon
Small glass brandy
3 medium eggs
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.
This recipe calls for fresh suet, so a little trip to a traditional butchers is required, it can be made with dried suet, but it doesn’t make for such a moist pudding. This recipe is ideal for those that like a lighter style pudding!
Seren’s Luxury Christmas Pudding (veggie-friendly)
75g blanched almonds, chopped
50g glacé cherries, halved
50g crystallised ginger, chopped finely
75g mixed peel
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
100ml orange juice
75g fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tsp mixed spice
100g molasses sugar
100ml toffee liqueur
Butter, for greasing
100g self-raising flour
1 large Bramley apple, grated
250g vegetable suet
Place all the dried fruit, nuts, ginger, cherries and peel into a large bowl. Add the zests, orange juice, breadcrumbs, spice, sugar, toffee liqueur and milk. Mix well, cover with cling film and leave in a cool room overnight.
The next day, mix in the remaining ingredients well. Grease two 1-litre pudding basins. Fill each basin with a good three-quarters full with the mixture. Cover with a double layer of buttered, pleated, greaseproof paper. Tie string around the rim and treat yourself to a festive tipple to celebrate your achievement.
Place an upturned saucer inside a large saucepan and sit 1 pudding on top. Repeat the process for the remaining pudding. Pour boiling water into each saucepan, to come halfway up the basins.
Cover and bring to the boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer.
Simmer for 5 hours, topping up the pans with boiling water if necessary. After five hours check if the puddings are cooked by seeing if a skewer comes out clean when inserted into their centres.
Once cooked, it is ready to turn out and serve with lashings of home-made custard or cream, alternatively cool the pudding and then wrap the cooled pudding (in its basin) in two layers of greaseproof paper and a good layer of foil, until needed.
Flaming the Pudding
No Pudding would be complete without a bit of flaming and as long as you’ve a steady hand and not indulged in too much wine it should all go according to plan.
Half-fill a metal ladle with brandy and carefully heat over a gas flame or lit candle. I always choose the lit candle technique because it feels more festive.
When the flame is hot enough, the brandy will light.
Pour the flaming brandy over the pudding. Make sure the lights are out when taking to the table for the most dramatic of entrances. Remember the flames don’t last for ever so you need to make a swift entrance and have everyone seated and waiting.
Once the flames have subsided, serve up your pudding and devour with glee.
An Alternative Pudding – Without Gluten, Without Soya, Without Wheat. Without Dairy (vegan)
75 g Currants
50g candied pineapple, chopped
50 g Mixed Peel
100 g Gluten Free Brown Bread Flour Blend
100 g Sugar
2 tsps. Mixed Spice
50 g Chopped Prunes
50 g Chopped Dates
1 Orange Rind Grated & Juice
50 g vegetable Oil
1 Lemon Rind Grated & Juice
Mix together the raisins, sultanas, currants, dates, pineapple, prunes, mixed peel, flour, sugar and mixed spice.
Stir in the oil, grated lemon and orange rinds & juices. Give it all a jolly good mix and then cover the bowl with cling film and leave to stand overnight.
Grease the sides of a 2 pint pudding basin then cut two circles of greaseproof paper the size of the top of the pudding basin and reserve these for use later in the recipe.
Uncover the mixture and stir it before pressing the mixture into the prepared pudding basin.
Cover the top of the pudding with the greaseproof paper circles.
Cover with tin foil over the top of the pudding and secure with string
Place an inverted saucer in the bottom of a saucepan and then pop the pudding basin in the saucepan then fill with water until it is half way up basin.
Put the lid on the saucepan and boil for 5 hours
Carefully remove the pudding and cool without removing the foil or greaseproof paper.
Store the pudding until required.
When required for eating renew the layers of greaseproof paper and foil and pop the pudd basin in a saucepan then fill with water until it is half way up basin and steam for 2 hours. Remove from the pan and tip out onto a serving plate and decorate as desired.
Many of our Christmas traditions have seen changes, but one thing that hasn’t changed during Christmas is our search for gluttonous treats and festal celebrations bringing a brief period of excess. Christmas dinner was the most important meal of the year as hearty treats that had been saved throughout the year were shared with family and friends and today special foods and treats are still a big focus of merriment. Festive cheer has always run fluidly and whether enjoying a traditional Christmas pudding or a modern take on it; the sharing and gifting of food is most definitely at the heart of good cheer.