When my contributor, Jessica, brought this Christmas pudding (originally called plum pudding) to my house for Jonathan to photograph, I wasn’t sure what to think. Before it had its dusting of powdered sugar and before I could see the slice cut out, it looked like a brain – not particularly appetizing. When we cut into it – I’m not going to lie – I wished that half of the raisins were chocolate chips. Look how many raisins are in there!
I had to admire Jess for staying true to the original Christmas pudding recipe. That took willpower. She even used suet (rendered meat fat) and she’s a vegetarian!
Jess’s husband, my husband, and I all tasted the Christmas pudding for the first time together. It was like a thick, hearty, slightly sweet raisin bread. Unlike the mouthwatering syllabub recipe that she recently shared, the Christmas pudding was good but not worth the effort.
Jessica’s account of the history of Christmas pudding, however, is a holiday must-read. It’s an essay that I’ll remember every time I watch A Christmas Carol from now on.
Christmas Pudding by Jessica Touchette
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding…. like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, chapter 3)
Much as pumpkin pie is an almost obligatory part of American Thanksgiving, plum pudding – here described in all its theatrical, 19th-century splendor in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – is the traditional culmination of the Christmas feast. You might be familiar with this dense, fruit-filled Victorian pudding, garnished with holly, soaked in brandy sauce, and served ablaze, for it remains a fixture of British Christmas celebrations to this day. But did you know that the dessert evolved from a savory appetizer, or that it has historically been a point of religious contention?
Plum pudding began life as plum pottage in the 15th century. Originally a rich stew, it was made from chopped beef or mutton, onions, root vegetables, and a variety of dried fruits (including, from the 16th century on, the prunes that give “plum” pudding its name). It was thickened with bread crumbs, flavored with wine and spices, and served at the beginning of a meal. Over time, the meat and vegetables began to drop out of plum pottage, and, in the 16th century, it was among many common pottages to be adapted into baked or boiled puddings. Suet (beef or mutton fat) and sugar found their way into the pudding batter, which was then tied in a floured cloth and boiled for several hours to produce a spherical pudding – Dickens’ “speckled cannon-ball.”
Over time, the cultural significance of plum pudding changed along with its form. Pottages were everyday dishes, but plum pottage’s rich ingredients (meat, exotic dried fruits, and spices available only to the wealthy) made it a natural addition to menus for special occasions. Plum pottage and pudding have been associated with both Christmas and with Winter Solstice, and rituals of making and serving the pudding have been variously attributed to Christian and pagan traditions. Folding lucky charms into the batter and serving the pudding wreathed in flames (said to represent the sun’s rebirth) are practices linked to Winter Solstice, while the tradition of making the pudding on the Third Sunday of Advent, or “Stir-up Sunday” (so called because the day’s collect in The Book of Common Prayer reads, “Stir up, oh Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”) is a Christian addition.
Plum pudding’s ambiguous associations led it to be banned for a time as a pagan decadence in Oliver Cromwell’s England, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that “plum pudding” made the definitive shift to “Christmas pudding.” The Oxford English Dictionary credits Anthony Trollope with pioneering the term “Christmas pudding” in his 1858 novel Dr. Thorne, but it was actually poet and cook Eliza Acton who first used the term – a whole thirteen years before Trollope. Nestled in Acton’s 1845 cookbook Modern Cookery, in all its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice for the Use of Private Families is a distinctly plum-pudding-like dessert called “Cottage Christmas Pudding.” This recipe represents not only the first Christmas pudding to be identified as such, but also a revolution in cookbook publishing. Acton had the novel idea that published recipes would be more useful if they contained things like ingredients lists, measurements, and cook times (you think?), and, as a result, her cookbook reads much like a modern publication.
I’ve included a slightly updated version of Acton’s recipe below, but if you’d like to view the original in context, the second edition of Modern Cookery is freely available through Internet Archive. The original recipe contains suet (widely available through both local butchers and grocery store meat departments – just ask!), but if you prefer a vegetarian alternative, substitute in an equivalent weight of vegetable shortening. Just steer clear of butter – its lower melting point means that it is likely to melt before the pudding has fully set, resulting in a heavier, greasier dessert.
Eliza Acton’s Cottage Christmas Pudding (1845)
- 24 " square of unbleached muslin
- cooking twine
- 14 ounces rendered suet*
- 1 pound all-purpose flour
- 5 ounces granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 ounces mashed potato
- 20 ounces raisins
- 4 ounces currants
- 4 eggs
- 1/4 pint milk
First, make your muslin food-safe by soaking it overnight in cold water, then boiling it for 20 minutes. Rinse it in cold water and hang it in a clean room to dry.
Lightly flour the blades of a kitchen grater and grate the solid suet into a bowl.
Fill a large pot 3/4 of the way full of water, cover it, and set it on the stove to boil.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and salt.
Rub the grated suet into the dry ingredients until no pieces larger than a pea remain.
Add mashed potato and mix until thoroughly combined.
Add raisins and currants and mix until evenly distributed.
In another bowl, beat the eggs until smooth.
Stir the milk into the beaten eggs.
Add the milk and egg mixture to the batter and mix thoroughly.
Submerge your prepared muslin in the pot of boiling water. Wearing heavy rubber gloves, remove the cloth from the water and wring out the excess moisture.
Lay the cloth flat on a clean countertop and liberally sprinkle the center (where you will place the pudding) with flour. Rub the flour across the cloth, ensuring that a circle of at least 16 inches in diameter is coated with flour, and that the flour layer is slightly thicker at the center.
Place the pudding batter on the floured cloth. Gather the cloth up around the mixture and, using the cooking twine, tightly cinch the cloth as close to the mixture as possible. Knot the corners together for a more secure seal.
Lower the pudding into the boiling water and cover the pot. Boil the pudding for four hours, replenishing the water as necessary.
Lift the pudding out of the water and place it in a colander. Cut the string, open the cloth, and turn the pudding out onto a plate to cool. Let sit for at least 20 minutes before serving.
To store your pudding for later use, allow it to cool to room temperature, wrap it in plastic wrap, seal it in an airtight container, and store it in the refrigerator. Briefly steam the pudding again before serving.
*To render your own fat, begin with at least 18 ounces of raw suet. First, cut away any visible bits of meat. Then, cut or shred the suet into small pieces. Place them in a slow cooker with half a cup of water and allow to simmer on low, with the cover off, for several hours. The fat will liquefy and separate from the connective tissue, and any excess moisture will evaporate. Be patient; if the suet heats up too quickly, the connective tissue will fry, leeching the taste of cooked meat into what should, ideally, be a flavorless fat.
When the fat has liquefied, pour it through a sieve to separate out the connective tissue particles. These particles can then be discarded, and the liquid fat that remains can be poured into a container to cool. Store in the refrigerator.
Acton, Eliza. Modern Cookery, in all its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice for the Use of Private Families. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman’s, 1845.
“Cottage Christmas Pudding.
A pound and a quarter of flour, fourteen ounces of suet, a pound and a quarter of stoned raisins, four ounces of currants, five of sugar, a quarter-pound of potatoes smoothly mashed, half a nutmeg, a quarter-teaspoonful of ginger, the same of salt, and of cloves in powder: mix these ingredients thoroughly, add four well-beaten eggs with a quarter-pint of milk, tie the pudding in a well-floured cloth, and boil it for four hours
Flour, 1 lb.; suet, 14 ozs.; raisins stoned, 20 ozs.; currants, 4 ozs.; sugar, 5 ozs.; potatoes, 1 lb.; nutmeg; ginger, salt, cloves, 1 teaspoonful each; eggs, 4; milk, 1 pint: 4 hours” (381).