Here in America, we’re familiar with the old English Christmas dessert, plum pudding, from stories and songs. Few of us, however, have ever even tasted it. One year I bought a boxed one, with a little tin of hard sauce, from the supermarket, but it was truly awful. Now I’m curious enough to do a little research on this elusive confection once held in such high esteem.
First, it’s necessary to understand that there are none of what we commonly think of as plums in plum pudding. Hmmm. The OED defines “plum” as follows:
A dried grape or raisin. This probably arose from the substitution of raisins for dried plums or prunes as an ingredient in plum-broth, porridge, etc., with the retention of the name “plum” for the substituted article.
Raisins. Got it. Now, what is pudding? That creamy custard like chocolate or vanilla dessert all kids like? Nope, the Christmas pudding’s different. Back to the OED:
A term describing several different desserts, usually cooked, including cakelike confections such as plum pudding; or a dish of suet crust containing fruits and sugar; or a spongy steamed dish; or a pastry crust filled with chopped meats, like kidney; or Yorkshire pudding, a crisp, breadlike side dish made from a flour-and-egg batter cooked in pan drippings.
Right. That means that plum pudding is steamed or boiled, and rich and heavy. It contains fresh or dried fruit, suet or other animal fat, and for holidays, is dowsed with a respectable amount of brandy or other alcohol. Christmas pudding takes a long time to age, or develop full flavor, and if you’re thinking of whipping one up for this Christmas, you’d better get started. Chef James Beard recommended making it a full year in advance! When you think of it, it’s actually a lot like fruit cake. But you can make it this week and it should be pretty good by the 25th. Traditionally, in English families, everyone would take a turn at stirring the batter with a wooden spoon, for good luck, or to make a wish. It is also a custom to add small charms, such as coins for wealth, a ring for marriage, or a silver thimble for thrift. If you have friends or relatives who are prone to lawsuits, I would skip this custom.
Serving plum pudding should be an event. Sometimes it is decorated with holly, but I like the sounds of dowsing it with brandy, flaming it, and delivering it to the table with style. Servings are typically topped with brandy butter, rum butter, hard sauce, or cream.
In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 1843, “In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half or half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”.
A little trivia:
The name Christmas pudding is first recorded in 1858 in a novel by Anthony Trollope.
During the Puritan reign in England, plum pudding was outlawed as “sinfully rich.”
Christmas puddings were boiled in a pudding cloth, and they are often represented as round, but at least since the 20th century,
they are usually been prepared in basins.
And here’s Julia Child’s own recipe for Glorious Plum Pudding. There are literally hundreds of other recipes out there. Find your favorite.