How to perfect your Christmas pudding
Christmas in our house this year will be utterly pared back, simple and British. Perhaps it’s this dragged-out recession and the stories, from friends and the news, of job losses and uncertainty that makes me pull inward and look forward to a December that’s intimate, familiar and reassuring. There will be plum pudding (also known as Christmas pudding), doused with warmed brandy and set alight, with cream to melt into the prune black centre among the nuts and currants. And this is the perfect time of the year to make it.
The history of the plum pudding appears to stem back to a much earlier Christmas meal. In his book “The Country Housewife and Lady's Director” (1732) Richard Bradley describes the Cumberland Hackin, a haggis-like sausage served on Christmas day filled with suet, fruit, spices, and mixed with eggs and oats soaked overnight in milk. But Thomas Kibble Hervey in “The book of Christmas” (1836) says that for many the old plum pottage - a spiced gruel sweetened with dried fruit - was thought to be the forerunner of the pudding.
However, to the French it appears that plum pudding had all the allure of Marmite. The writer William Hone quotes an early (1823) newspaper, “A Frenchman will dress like an Englishman, swear like an Englishman, and get drunk like an Englishman; but…you would offend him for ever [if you] compel him to eat plum-pudding.” The report is lavish in its praise for one English businesswoman, Harriet Dunn, “The queen of cooks” in Paris, who would supply many of the English peers and rich English in France with their puddings, shipping them in wooden crates around the country during December. When I travelled through Eastern Europe for my book, The Handmade Loaf, one of the few phrases in English many cooks understood was “plum pudding”, even in a farmhouse in the Carpathian Mountains.
Making it is very simple, and the oldest recipes are very similar to the ones we use today. Mary Kettilby’s recipe from 1728 is very simple and curiously adds extra egg white: this would help the pudding hold more firmly and slice without crumbling. Charles Carter’s 1732 recipe for plum pudding is deliciously simple with little more than fresh beef suet, dried fruit, milk, eggs, flour and spices (stale bread was optional), and Carter even uses it as a stuffing for pig skin, shaped so that it looks like a whole roast pig after baking.
The essentials for the best puddings
- Use a mixture of flour and breadcrumbs, not just flour. Though in older times the choice was more to do with economy, breadcrumbs give the pudding a much lighter texture. And again, use just enough flour to hold the mixture gently together.
- Not too many eggs, and more egg yolk that white if you can. I find (contrary to Mary Kettilby) that too much egg white makes the puddings a little rubbery and tough.
- Use the fruit and flavours you prefer. I like a mixture of prunes and currants with generous spices, whole un-husked almonds, and a little orange extract. But if you don’t, just change to whatever you like but keep the same overall weight of fruit to other ingredients.
- Special diets should be easy to fit it. Gluten-free? No problem. Just use a gluten free flour, and use gluten-free bread for breadcrumbs. Suet can be replaced with melted butter, or a little walnut oil. For egg-free or vegan just use a little more flour, and increase the spices, and vary the consistency with a little orange juice. And of course, nuts are optional.
- Don’t overfill the boiling pot, and avoid the baking paper and foil covering your pudding from dipping into the water. During the boiling the paper can pull moisture from the water into the pudding, leaving you with a layer of water on top of your pudding, so scrunch the foil and paper up around the edge of the bowl out of the water.
- Once the pudding has boiled, leave the string tied around the covering intact - don’t peek at all, and store in a cool and dark cupboard once cool. This will ensure the pudding stays mould and bacteria-free until Christmas. Though a big pudding looks impressive, you can make smaller ones too. Individual dariole moulds, covered just like a big pudding and baked in a bain-marie in a low 130°C/110°C fan/260°F/Gas 1/2 oven for an hour (check the middle is piping hot), work very well.
My favourite recipes
Now for the recipes, though there are many to choose from:
- The ever reassuring Nigel Slater has a classic pudding
- The Caribbean chef (and former St. John alumni) Patrick Williams makes individual puddings
- My own recipe for Christmas pudding uses stout and spices
- James Beard’s recipe makes the largest pudding, and soaks the fruit overnight
- Or follow Rose Prince’s lead (and video) and make Heston Blumenthal’s Chocolate Orange pudding at home