Christmas Pudding is an integral part of British Christmas celebrations. You may have seen illustrations in the classic novel, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, depicting a flaming pudding being carried proudly to the table. Similar imagery is still used in advertisements today over here, where Christmas pudding is still a seriously big deal.
What is Christmas Pudding?
Traditional Christmas Pudding is more like a heavy cake than what you might think of as a pudding. It is made with raisins and other dried fruit and flavoured with brandy or stout (a very dark beer). Sometimes it contains nuts as well. My husband’s family recipe does not contain nuts – and woe betide anyone who tries to add them. Believe me, I know!
At the end of Christmas lunch or dinner, the pudding is garnished with holly and doused in brandy which is then lit. Not only does this create a spectacle, it also flavours the pudding.
After the flames go out, the pudding is sliced in small slices (a little goes a long way as it is very rich). It is then served with brandy custard, brandy butter or cream. (Please note, holly is poisonous, and should be removed before cutting or serving. Even better, use some artificial holly instead!)
In recent years, the traditional Christmas pud has been given a bit of a makeover with newer, lighter versions appearing in recipe books and grocery stores. One of my favourites is an Apple Cinnamon Christmas pudding, and some newer puddings even contain chocolate. Traditionalists may frown, but I really love the variety we are seeing – and tasting. This is not least of all because although I like traditional Christmas pudding, I do find it very heavy.
The pudding is made a few weeks before Christmas, often on Stir Up Sunday, and stored in a cool place for the flavours to develop. It needs at least two or three weeks to do this. Many families will have a recipe they use year on year, and our family is no different. The recipe we use comes from my husband’s late step-Grandmother, Dorothy Harris, whom we called Nana. It’s about as authentically Victorian as you can get. Let me tell you why.
Authentic Victorian Christmas Pudding
Before she married my husband’s Grandpa Joe, Nana was head cook in a stately home. Joe had been widowed when my husband’s father was just 3. Nana brought a steadying presence to the then motherless household, along with all her recipes from her days as head cook. Although this would have been in the 1930’s, we know Nana inherited the recipe from the previous (long-serving) head cook – so it must be a pretty close approximation of the pudding Charles Dickens describes in ‘A Christmas Carol’.
The original recipe makes 4 one pint – or 2 two pint – puddings, and called for a pound of most of the ingredients. When I make it, I halve the recipe for ease, and this is the recipe I’ve shared below. A one pint pudding will easily serve 6 to 8 people, perhaps more if they have eaten a lot of Christmas dinner. If there are only a few of you I suggest you choose the option of two smaller one pint puddings as they do taste better if they are only re-steamed once.
When Nana and my Mother-in-Law were alive, every year there was a Christmas Pudding Contest, initiated by my late Father-in-Law. Nana and my Mother-in-Law would both make the same recipe – the one I’m sharing with you today – and we were all given some of each in a blind taste test. Then we had to say which we thought tasted best. I found it incredibly stressful, particularly as Nana grew frail. My Mother-in-Law would try desperately to surreptitiously signal us as to which pudding Nana had made so we would say it was best. She had to do this without my Father-in-Law seeing, as he took the competition very seriously!
Tips for Making Old-Fashioned Christmas Pudding
There are some ingredients in Christmas Pudding which may be unfamiliar. Suet is shredded animal fat but there are also vegetarian versions available. Suet isn’t widely available outside the UK, but I have heard that you can use grated frozen butter or shortening instead. I haven’t tried this but cannot see why it wouldn’t work.
Mixed spice is a combination of fragrant spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and coriander. If you can’t buy it locally, you can make it yourself.
It’s important to wrap the pudding properly for steaming and storage. The method is described in the recipe below, but here’s a helpful video to make it even more clear.
Our Family Christmas Pudding Recipe
This recipe is anything but quick and it can be challenging. The fruit needs to be soaked over night, and someone has to keep an eye on the pudding for the whole eight hours it steams. It’s fun to make on a rainy day, and a great history and cooking project for kids. I like to wrap the presents or do some decorating on the day I make the pudding so I’m close by but doing something productive.
It is, however, incredibly satisfying to make. I had such a proud moment when I carried the first Christmas pudding I made to the table. If you really want to experience what Christmas in England is like, there just has to be Christmas pudding.
- half a lemon, rind and juice
- 8 ounces currants
- 8 ounces raisins
- 8 ounces sultanas
- 3 ounces brandy
- half an orange, juiced
- 8 ounces suet
- 8 ounces moist brown sugar
- 8 ounces cooking apples, peeled and grated (at the last minute or they will go brown)
- 4 ounces mixed peel (also known as candied peel, this is widely available in the UK and Europe and available in the baking aisles of some North American grocery stores)
- 4 ounces flour
- 4 eggs
- 4 ounces fresh white breadcrumbs
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon mixed spice
- Soak the currants, raisins and sultanas in the brandy, lemon and orange juice overnight.
- In the morning, in a seriously large bowl, mix the suet, flour, sugar, salt, spices, mixed peel, breadcrumbs, apples and eggs with the soaked fruit and any juice/liquor remaining in the bowl.
- All the ingredients should be included at this point. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon until completely combined.
- Grease one 2 pint pudding basin or 2 one pint pudding basins.
- Fill to about three quarters full with this mixture.
- To wrap the pudding for steaming you need to lay a sheet of aluminium foil over a sheet of greaseproof or waxed paper.
- Pick up both and make a pleat down the centre. Put this on top of your pudding bowl and wrap round firmly.
- Then use a long piece of string to tie the paper and foil tightly round the bowl, leaving a couple of nice long ends of string.
- Bring the extra string back up over top of the bowl and tie it under the string on the other side to make a handle so you can get the pudding out of the steamer easily.
- Trim round the edges of the paper and foil with scissors to ensure that none of it drips into the water you will put round for steaming or it will seep into the pudding and ruin it.
- You need a large steamer or saucepan for each pudding bowl – it needs to be much larger than the bowl itself. Place a small heatproof saucer upside down on the bottom of each saucepan, and place your prepared pudding bowl on top of the saucer.
- Carefully fill the edges of the saucepan with water about half way up the pudding bowl. Put the lid on the saucepan.
- Bring the water to a slow boil so the pudding can steam gradually. You will need to top up the water very regularly (sometimes as often as every forty-five minutes or so) so that the pudding does not boil dry. If it does, the saucer and pudding bowl will break and all will be lost.
- After eight hours of steaming, remove the saucepan from the heat and let it cool down a bit before carefully removing the pudding from the saucepan using the string handle.
- It’s good to have a tea towel close by as the pudding bowl will be wet.
- Dry the bowl off, remove the paper, foil and string and sit the pudding in its bowl on a heat proof surface to cool down.
- When the pudding and bowl are completely cool, remove the greaseproof paper and foil and then tie a fresh piece of greaseproof paper and foil over them just as before.
- The pudding improves with age, so store in a cool place away from draughts until Christmas. (The top of a cupboard works well.)
- Four hours before your Christmas dinner, repeat the steaming process. To serve the pudding, carefully remove it from the pudding basin (it will be very hot) by inverting on to a serving plate.
- Traditionally the pudding is flamed, but this step is optional. If you want to flame your Christmas pudding, just pour a small amount (a couple tablespoons) of brandy or vodka over the pudding and light it with a match (be careful and make sure kids stay well out of the way!)
- When the flames go out, serve the pudding in small slices with brandy butter, cream or custard.