Not many people probably know that plum pudding, an English Christmas tradition from the 17th century, was initially a method of preserving meat. Also called Christmas pudding, it is not to be confused with figgy (containing figs) or hasty (similar to polenta) puddings, or the somewhat-dreaded fruitcake. English-Americans continued their pudding-making customs, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that it became an icon of Christmas in New England.
My husband has memories of his mother’s pudding, but my family never made it while I was growing up. What I contemplate now are the imagined rituals of igniting the brandy-dosed pudding and bearing it into our dining room filled with beloved holiday guests, making a grand entrance amid delighted exclamations and enthusiastic applause—much like Mrs. Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ treasured story, A Christmas Carol. It is this image of glory and tradition that delights me, and so the search for the perfect recipe is on.
Recipes for plum pudding vary, but the dominant fruit is typically raisins or currants. Some have diced citron, and all have chopped apple. Oddly, plums are nowhere to be found in plum pudding. The word “plum” had a different meaning in the 17th century, and referred to raisins and other fruits.
Rumors abound regarding the ease of making plum pudding, from the ability to find “suet” (raw beef or mutton fat), to hours of slaving
away over a steamy hot stovetop. Thankfully, suet has disappeared from most recipes but can still be found in cookbooks focused on traditional recipes. One of suet’s main functions is to make tallow—a product historically used in candles, and today, used to make biofuel and flux—a soldering cleaning agent. For these reasons alone, my husband and I choose a recipe without suet, and one which calls for whiskey or rum. As non-drinkers, we’re not certain which to choose, so we buy a bottle of each, hoping to later let the best man—Captain Morgan or Jack Daniel—win.
Plum pudding was usually made four or five weeks before Christmas. There is conflicting information given about the ritual of stirring: either everyone held the spoon at the same time, or they held it individually, to give the batter a good stir. Either way, it’s certain a wish was made during the process.
Another tradition involved the baking of silver coins or small charms into the pudding. The discoverer of the object then got to keep it. Each treasure had a different meaning: a silver coin meant wealth in the coming year, a tiny wishbone ordained good luck, an anchor indicated safe harbor, and a silver thimble symbolized thrift. In England, you can still purchase these small trinkets to bake into your pudding.
It’s tough to find a local bakery that sells plum pudding. There are companies in Connecticut and Wisconsin that do, and baking companies in England sell it too, but making it seems the best option.
For various reasons, David and I decide to make our plum pudding for the New Year. So the week after Christmas, we get down a large soup pot and a metal mold originally intended as a Bundt cake pan. It has thick walls, a fancy design, and works beautifully. I make fresh fluffy bread crumbs in my food processor (decidedly not of Puritan design). We grate fresh cinnamon and nutmeg and melt two sticks of butter. We chop raisins and currants and decide to use the Jack Daniel’s, pouring in a mere one-half cup.
With the last of the ingredients added, the concoction is ready. We pour the batter into the buttered mold, cover it with wax paper and foil, and set it inside the pot on a trivet, partially filling the pot with water. We put on the lid, wait and watch, adding more water as needed. After about six hours of steaming, we test it and are delighted with the result; it looks walnut-brown, feels firm, and smells delicious. Thankfully, it looked beautiful after carefully getting it out of the mold.
We wait a day or two, since puddings taste better with age. We get out our best china and silver, and cut small slices, drizzling a zabaione sauce we have chosen to make—one in which Captain Morgan makes an appearance this time. We can’t believe the flavor—the richness nearly knocks our socks off—and make no mistake; you can clearly taste the alcohol. It’s outstanding, and we vow to make one every Christmas.
A fortunate characteristic of plum pudding is that it keeps well for a surprising six months. Ours lasted for three—into March, we were still enjoying it. Admittedly, it was a lot to polish off ourselves, and we got in the habit of offering a slice to anyone who stopped by. We made no mention of the fact that it had been around for three months. Without exception, all loved it.
It wasn’t until the pudding was gone that I realized we’d forgotten to ignite it after all.
Recipe Source: Chef Julia Child
The Way to Cook – 1996 (Alfred A. Knopf)
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 6 hours
3 c. (lightly packed down) crumbs from homemade type white bread – a 1/2 –lb loaf, crust on, will do it
1 c. each: black raisins, yellow raisins, and currants, chopped
1 1/3 c. sugar
½ tsp. each: cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg—more if needed
8 oz. (2 sticks) butter, melted
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
few drops of almond extract
½ c. bitter orange marmalade
½ c. rum or bourbon whiskey, heated before serving
sprigs of holly, optional
2 c. Zabaione Sauce
1 large egg
2 egg yolks
small pinch of salt
1/3 c. rum or bourbon whiskey (or Masala or sherry)
1/3 c. dry white French vermouth
½ c. sugar
Special equipment suggested:
A food processor is useful for making the bread crumbs and chopping the raisins; an 8-cup pudding container, such as a round bottomed metal mixing bowl; a cover for the bowl; a steamer basket or trivet; a roomy soup kettle with tight-fitting cover to hold bowl, cover, and basket.
Like a good fruitcake, a plum pudding develops its full flavor when made at least a week ahead. Count on 6 hours for the initial, almost unattended steaming, and 2 hours to reheat before serving.
The pudding mixture:
Toss the bread crumbs in a large mixing bowl with the raisins, sugar, cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg. Then toss with the melted butter, and finally with the eggs, almond extract, orange marmalade, and rum or bourbon. Taste carefully for seasoning, adding more spices if needed.
To microwave Plum Pudding:
Butter the dish you are cooking the pudding in, then cover the bottom of the dish with a buttered piece of wax paper. Pour in batter. Cover dish with plastic wrap and pierce the plastic with a knife in several places. Cook at “defrost” (low speed) for 30 minutes. If your microwave oven does not have a carousel which turns the dish during cooking, stop the process several times during the cooking and rotate the dish manually. Finally, cook at 5 minutes on “bake” (high speed). Let the pudding set for a few minutes before unmolding. The pudding is ready when it is firm to the touch. The microwaved plum pudding is somewhat paler than its steamed counterpart.
To steam a Plum Pudding:
Use a special pan made for this purpose. You must have a container with a very tight lid which will stay sealed throughout the cooking. Steaming — about 6 hours: Pack the pudding mixture into the container; cover with a round of wax paper and the lid. Set the container on the steaming contraption in the kettle, and add enough water to come a third of the way up the sides of the container. Cover the kettle tightly; bring to simmer, and let steam about 6 hours. Warning: check the kettle now and then to be sure the water hasn’t boiled off!
When is it done? When it is a dark walnut-brown color and fairly firm to the touch.
Curing and storing:
Let the pudding cool in its container. Store it in a cool wine cellar, or in the refrigerator. Ahead -of-time note: Pudding will keep nicely for several months.
A good 2 hours before you plan to serve, resteam the pudding — it must be quite warm indeed for successful flaming. Unmold onto a hot serving platter and decorate, if you wish, with sprigs of holly.
Flaming and serving:
Pour the hot rum or whiskey around the pudding. Either ignite it in the kitchen and rapidly bring it forth, or flame it at the table. Serve the following Zabaione Sauce separately.
Whisk all the ingredients together for 1 minute in a stainless saucepan. Then whisk over moderately low heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until the sauce becomes thick, foamy, and warm to your finger — do not bring it to the simmer and scramble the eggs, but you must heat it enough for it to thicken. Serve warm or cold.
The sauce will remain foamy for 20 to 30 minutes, and if it separates simply beat it briefly over heat. If you wish to reform the sauce, whisk in a stiffly beaten egg white. Makes about 2 cups.
Yield: 12 servings
You can also find this recipe at homecooking.about.com.
Robbin Lynn Crandall is a Food & Travel Web Copywriter, Certified Social Media Consultant, and Freelance Writer at Crandall Copywriting. She works with small- to mid-sized business owners to improve their marketing strategy and social media presence, along with a slew of marketing materials. A self-proclaimed foodie and lover of All Things Italian, she loves living in New England and snow, and never more than when someone else is shoveling it. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.