“Now bring us some figgy pudding. And bring some right here.” The latter verses of “I wish you a Merry Christmas” are about all that remains of Christmas pudding here in the United States.
We’ve retained a lot of European Christmas customs. German Christmas trees with lights and glass ornaments are all over the place and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting that famous Dutch immigrant, Santa Claus, but the English pudding, not so much.
Whether you call it Christmas pudding, figgy pudding or plum pudding, they’re all basically the same thing, a steamed pudding filled with raisins, prunes and other dried fruits. Though figs and plums often figure prominently in the name of these puddings, they are conspicuously absent in the puddings themselves because in pre-Victorian England, raisins were called plums or figs. Just as well, raisin pudding doesn’t have the same festive ring to it.
Being a steamed pudding, Christmas pudding does not require an oven which made it possible back in a time when only the very wealthy had ovens. Also, the expensive spices necessary to make the pudding could be slowly acquired throughout the year. Over time, it became customary to cook the pudding with coins in it. The finders of the coins were assured of good fortune in the coming year. Suet — beef or mutton fat — was traditionally used as a binder but today eggs often perform that task.
Plum pudding’s association with Christmas is believed to go way back to medieval England. The pudding was supposed to be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity Sunday. It was supposed be made with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 disciples and every member of the family should stir it from east to west to honor the Magi and their journey in that direction. Since most, if not all recipes in existence today, originated after the 17th century, it’s hard to say if there’s any truth to the myth.
But the Sunday before Advent is called “Stir up Sunday,” a reference to the Anglican collect for that day, “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” When the vicar read those words to churchgoers, they knew it was time to go home and make the pudding as Christmas was not far off. Possibly the lack of Anglicans in this country explains the dearth of Christmas pudding. No one else gets the heads up.
That is not the case in other former English colonies. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all still hold firmly to the tradition of Christmas pudding, as Lois Draughn, a Mount Airy News reader in Lewisville, recently found out on a visit to her new husband’s family in Australia.
Draughn and her husband, Bob West, dined with his cousin, Judith Ferns, who broke out the Christmas pudding a couple of months early, in honor of her guests from America.
During the visit, Draughn snapped a few photos and even managed to snag the family recipe along with some family lore. She says, “traditionally, Bob’s mother would include several small silver coins for the children to find whilst eating their pudding. Of course, being very English, the pudding is served with vanilla custard which is sold in every grocery in Australia next to the milk in containers like we buy heavy cream. It is served over practically every dessert they eat.”
Draughn adds that when it’s time to serve the pudding, Ferns warms about a 1/4 cup of brandy, pours it over the pudding and sets it on fire at the table. The flaming pudding makes for quite a presentation, worthy of the most important dinner of the year.
Draughn graciously shared the pudding recipe with Mount Airy News readers but adds this disclaimer, “I accept no responsibility for any broken teeth for the person who fails to search out the coins.”
Following is Judith Ferns family recipe for Christmas pudding. As is customary for recipes in most countries outside the US, she uses weight measures instead of volume but does provide imperial equivalents to the metric measurements. Her recipe, though an old one, can easily be made gluten-free for modern diets. Another less authentic recipe is also provided with volume measurements for those without a kitchen scale.
Since vanilla custard is not found in American dairy cases, a recipe for Crème Anglais is provided as a substitute. There is also a recipe for Hard Sauce, another traditional topping for Christmas pudding. But even though Hard Sauce has spirits in it — that’s how it got its name — it’s not flammable enough to light, as some cooks have discovered on their first try at Christmas pudding. Use Ferns’ technique of warming brandy, pouring it over the pudding and lighting it. Take care, there are already enough YouTube videos of this step going awry. You don’t want to star in another one.
This pudding can be used for gluten-free.
½ lb. or 250 grams butter
5 oz. or 150 gm. sugar (optional)
½ lb. or 250 gm. raisins
1lb. or 500 gm. mixed fruit
2 oz. or 60 gm. prunes
1 grated apple and medium carrot
4 tbsp. Sherry or Brandy.
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. mixed spice
10 oz. or 300 gm. bread crumbs
Gluten-free alternative: 4 oz. or 120 gm. gluten-free breadcrumbs
and 6 oz. or 180 gm. gluten-free bread mix OR 10 oz. gluten-free bread crumbs
3 eggs, beaten
Rind and juice of 1 lemon
Mixed together in a bowl the sugar, fruit, apple and carrot, and pour 4 tablespoons of Sherry or Brandy over the fruit. Allow to stand overnight so the fruit can soak up the spirits. Grate the butter and add to the fruit. Add the lemon juice and lemon rind to fruit and mix. Add the salt, and mixed spice to fruit and mix. Add the flour, or bread crumbs OR Gluten free bread crumbs and gluten free bread, or the alternative all gluten free bread crumbs. Mix to fruit and mix well, coating all the fruit mixture. Mix the beaten egg in, and mix well. Place in well-greased heat proof bowls lining the bottom of the bowl with baking paper. This allows the pudding to be released without sticking when finally cooked. Cover with glad wrap
I use two cooking methods.
1. Place in a boiler with water half way up bowl and simmer for 3 hours. Make sure you keep the water up. If you need to add water, use hot water. Reheat for 1 hour before eating. Extra brandy can be poured onto the pudding before reheating. Make sure the pudding remains moist.
2. Microwave: medium heat for 20 mins. It can be stored at this point in the refrigerator for any length of time. I have had it in the fridge for up to 12 months. Before serving add extra brandy to moisten, cover and place back in microwave on medium for 12 minutes. I prefer to reheat in the boiler of simmering water for 2 hours.
A French recipe that translates as “English cream” and is, in fact, a vanilla custard, so it should substitute well for the vanilla custard found in Australian dairy cases.
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 tsp. cornstarch or potato starch
1 3/4 cup boiling milk
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. rum, cognac or brandy (optional)
Place the egg yolks and sugar into a mixing bowl and combine, beating for 2 to three minutes, until the mixture is pale yellow and forms a ribbon. Beat in the cornstarch. Keeping the mixer running, gradually add the boiling milk in a thin stream of droplets to allow the yolks to slowly warm. If you add the milk too quickly, the eggs will cook and you’ll be finished. Use a spoon and drip the milk into the yolk mixture, one spoon at a time. When all the milk has been added, pour the mixture into a heavy saucepan and set over moderate heat, stirring lowly and continuously with a wooden spoon and reaching all over the bottom and sides of the pan, until the sauce thickens just enough to coat the spoon. Do not let the custard come anywhere near a simmer or you’ll have a panful of very sweet scrambled eggs. (Max temperature would be 165°F. on a candy thermometer). Take the sauce off the heat and beat it for a minute or two to cool it. Beat in the vanilla and any optional flavoring you choose.
Plum pudding can be made anywhere from a few weeks to a year in advance and allowed to ripen in a cool place. It must be steamed 2 hours before serving. Leave it in hot water until ready to serve with hard sauce.
Serves 10 TO 15
1/2 lb. dried currants, plumped with 2 tbsp. cognac and enough hot water to cover
1/2 lb. dried raisins, finely cut
1/4 lb. candied kumquats, finely diced
1/4 lb. glazed orange peel, finely diced
1/4 lb. glazed lemon peel, finely diced
1/4 lb. citron, finely diced
1/2 lb. walnuts, finely chopped
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3/4 tsp. mace
1/2 lb. ground suet
3 slices thin-sliced bread, soaked in 1/2 cup apple juice
1 cup dark brown sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup black currant jam or preserves
1/4 cup brandy or cognac
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 cup cognac
8 ounces whipped unsalted butter, softened
Pinch of salt
2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 egg yolk
4 tbsp. heavy cream
4 tbsp. cognac
Put ingredients in a food processor and mix until smooth and creamy. Put sauce in tightly covered jar. Refrigerate. Remove from refrigerator at least 1 hour before serving.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.