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How to perfect your Christmas pudding

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 12:03 UK time, Monday, 21 November 2011

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.

Christmas pudding

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

making Christmas pudding

Now for the recipes, though there are many to choose from:

Ask your questions about Christmas baking and we’ll try to answer them - see also my fabulously festive mince pies and perfect Christmas cake

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This is so timely - my daughter has been making me feel guilty about not having made the Christmas cake yet and had set aside this coming weekend to do it. Now, after reading this - we can go for a double whammy of Christmas pudding and Cake making. I love lots of blanched almonds, natural glace cherries and brandy in my Chirstmas Cake and homemade candied orange peel - so fancy trying your Stout version to create some variety amongst all that fruit.

  • Comment number 2.

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  • Comment number 4.

    HELP! I steamed 3 christmas puddings yesterday in 3 separate saucepans half filled with boiling water. I had covered them in the usual way (layer of pleated baking parchment and foil and ties securely with string) and made sure whilst the pan was topped up I didn't overfill. This morning I took the foil and greaseproof off to change for dry covering and the puddings have not cooked or set! The mixture looks soggy/sticky and I can still see pieces of white suet in it?! I made them last year with no problems at all and they were dark and set when I changed the covers. The only thing I have done differently this year was that I put in extra nuts (brazil and almonds roughly chopped) and extra glace cherries and chopped peel. I use a Victorian family recipe and have never had a problem like this before. I steamed them for 8 hours yesterday, took them off the gas last night at 8.30pm then left them in a cool place until this morning. What can I do to remedy them? They look like bread pudding at the moment. Shall I put them on to steam for some more hours today? I would be so grateful of any help or advice. Thank you.

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi paisleypatch,

    Whatever caused it, don’t worry unduly, it’s easily rectifiable (though you will have to cook them again).

    Leave them to go cold, then dig under the surface to see whether the “bread pudding” look is just on the top or all the way through. If it’s just on the top, and they’re firm underneath, then it might just be moisture that has kept up into the basin via the baking paper. If it is softer on top then you need to add a little flour and breadcrumbs (say a good spoonful of each to begin with).

    But if it’s completely uncooked all the way through then seal them up again, return them to the pan and cook again for 4-5 hours, checking every hour that the water is still halfway up and still faintly simmering, no cooler. The water around the puddings must always be on the verge of boiling.

    Note: you’re going to have to be extra careful that the centre of the puddings are scalding hot this time at the end of boiling, and have been for at least 30 minutes, to kill off any bacteria that might have snuck in. If you’re unsure, have a peek under the foil when you think they’re ready.

    regards

    Dan

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Dan
    Thank you so much for your prompt reply. I do think that the problem has happened due to water getting into them as I must admit that when I uncovered them this morning the paper and foil did seem quite soggy. Despite my reservations (and having shed several tears of disappointment) I have dug into one of them and found that they are "sticky bread pudding" pretty much the whole way down apart from the last inch which seems slightly firmer to the the touch (but only just). Shall I scoop out all the sticky mix and add a spoonful each of breadcrumbs and flour to it in a mixing bowl before returning backed into greased basin?
    I will then seal them up and steam again.
    Thank you for your advice, very much appreciated. I made them for the first time last year and they were perfect. I am using a recipe passed down the family from my great great grandmother!
    Nicola

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