“Six tons of suet, chopped quiet fine / Cod liver oil and old port wine
Ten sacks of flour – enough for a meal / A hogshead of sugar and a ton of peel.”
If this verse is anything to go by, plum pudding – the traditional finale to Christmas dinner – was a prodigious affair. Not so rich and less popular today than in Victoria England, plum pudding nonetheless, is a tradition that has endured, reports Reva K. Singh. Christmas pudding – also known as plum pudding – is a great British tradition, and there are those who love it, those who loathe it and many others who like the idea but are not so keen on the reality.
On Christmas Day, family and friends gather around a well-laden table, groaning with food and all the traditional trimmings – the plumpest of all turkeys with sausage-meat and chestnut stuffing, chipolata sausages, roast or mashed potatoes, gravy, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. But the star of the meal is indisputably the pudding.
According to Englishwoman Sally Cochrane whether you like plum pudding or no is wholly irrelevant. “It is something you simply have to have at Christmas – a kind of gastronomic patriotism,” she says. The pudding began humbly enough as a kind of porridge. Originally a soft gruel, it was made at first with plums but later with raisins, currants and spices, especially ginger. These were stirred into a beef or mutton broth containing suet, and the mixture was thickened with brown breadcrumbs. The pudding was originally shaped like a large ball, a symbol of the good and fecund earth and was cooked, wrapped in a cloth.
It evolved into the fine pudding we know today in the 1600s during the time of King George I, who loved puddings, and was called Pudding George. On Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, Pudding George’s rich plum pudding became Christmas pudding, and was a great favourite with her husband, Prince Albert who is said to have remarked, “Christmas pudding deserves to eaten more than just once a year.”
The Victorians put the plum pudding on a pedestal, creating the enduring image of speckled cannon ball brought to the table aflame with spirit and bedecked in finest holly that is as symbolic of Christmas as Santa Claus. Charles Dickens in his novel, A Christmas Carol alludes to plum pudding in tones of pure rapture. “Oh! All that steam. The pudding had just been taken out of the cauldron. Oh! That smell…Oh! The marvellous pudding.”
Numerous traditions and rituals surround the making and eating of the plum pudding. The last Sunday of November known as stir-up Sunday is the day when the family gathered to begin preparations for the pudding. According to one tradition everyone took turns to mix the dozen or so ingredients, stirring them clockwise (as the earth moves on the axis) for good luck. Another popular custom is the placing of a lucky charm, a ring or silver coin into the pudding mixture.
According to the traditional method, the mixture of flour, sugar, eggs, dried fruit, candied peel, nuts and so on is put into a greased aluminium mould or pudding basin covered with greaseproof paper, and tied in a muslin cloth. It is then steamed gently at a very low temperature for about six hours. The slow, six-hour cooking is necessary so that all the fat melts before the flour particles burst. If it cooks too fast and the flour grains burst before the fat melts, the pudding will be close and hard. The pudding is recooked for a further two hours before being served, piping hot, accompanied by a rich, butter sauce. Christmas pudding improves with keeping and can be stored for up to a year beforehand.
Although the basic ingredients have remained the same, modernisation has caught up with plum pudding. Pudding cloths have given way to plastic bowls and easy to prepare microwave recipes area available. Suet-free vegetarian puddings are also gaining favour, as are puddings low in sugar and fat.
Today the plum pudding tradition has spread well beyond the shores of England. The pudding is exported to all parts of the world, the largest order going to America and Australia. Much loved in India, too, plum pudding is served in most of the old clubs and major hotels during the festive season. There is now a growing trend to buy the pudding even among the English with whom the custom originated. Fortnum and Mason in London make an excellent pudding as do Harrods. But if you are a die-hard traditionalist and would rather make your own pudding, here is a classic recipe adapted from a 17th century cookbook, first used in the time of George I.
The British Royal Family’s Christmas Pudding
Finely chopped beef suet – 10 ounces
1 ½ cup dark raisins
1 ½ cup golden raisins
1/3 cup minced glacéed citron
½ tsp allspice
¼ grated nutmeg
1 ¼ cups demerara sugar
4 cups fine fresh breadcrumbs
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
½ cup brandy plus 2 tbsp, for flaming the pudding
½ cup milk
In a large bowl combine well the suet, dark raisins, golden raisins, citron, all spice, nutmeg, sugar, breadcrumbs and flour. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs until they are frothy, whisk in half cup of brandy and the milk, and pour the mixture over the suet mixture.
Set a low rack in the bottom of a deep pan large enough to hold a two-quart steamed pudding mould and add enough water to the pan to reach three inches up the side of the mould. Bring the water to a boil and keep it at a brisk but not rolling boil, covered. Spoon the chilled batter into a greased pudding mould, and cover with a doubled sheet of foil secured with kitchen string.
Steam the pudding on the rack in the pan, covered adding more water if necessary, for eight hours. Remove from the pan and let the pudding age, covered and chilled, for at least three weeks and up to one year. Reheat the pudding by placing the covered mould in a pan of boiling water, steam for two hours. When done, run a thin knife around the edge of the pudding and invert onto a flameproof platter. Garnish the top with holly sprigs. Before serving, warm the remaining two tablespoons brandy in a large, metal ladle, ignite carefully, and pour over the pudding.