On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love queried me: “Why are there no plums in plum pudding?”
You know what they say about truth in advertising.
When I was a child in sunny South Florida, I loved to read Christmas stories featuring children in old-fashioned clothing teasing kittens with ribbons or cuddling with their parents in the glow of brightly lit fires before gathering at tables where they ate roast goose and plum pudding—something I mentally pictured as a thick, chocolatey substance bursting with ripe purple fruit. Yes, I know that sounds like an odd combination, but (1) I was an American kid and (2) chocolate was my favorite pudding flavor.
As I grew older and put away childish things, I eventually learned that not only does plum pudding not contain a single plum (the traditional version, at least; a few modern recipes include the fruit), but it isn’t even a pudding—it’s a cake.
Fact is, in the 17th century the word “plum” referred to raisins and other fruits, and the present day dish probably evolved from the Elizabethan “plum pottage,” a concoction of preserved meat, bread, currants and prunes. Its association with Christmas is said to date to a medieval custom dictating that the “pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity” and prepared with 13 ingredients representing Christ and his apostles, with every family member stirring it in turn from east to west “to honor the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction,” but this may be just popular myth.
My take: Plum pudding may not be what I envisioned as a child, but any dessert you can set on fire is worth a place at the holiday table.
Recipe for Traditional Christmas Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce (from chef Michael Gilligan)
- 10 eggs
- 1 cup white flour
- 4 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 tsp. allspice
- 2 tsp. nutmeg
- 4 oz. chopped almond pieces
- 1 grated apple
- 1 lb. light brown sugar
- 1 medium carrot, grated (optional; probably dates to WWII when fruit was more scarce)
- Rind and juice of an orange and a lemon
- 3 lbs. raisins and currants
- 8 oz. candied or natural dried cherries
- 24 oz. bread crumbs
- 12 oz. candied peel (candied pineapple chunks, citron, mixed peel)
- 1 pint of Guinness
- 5 tbs. hard liquor
- 1 lb. butter or finely minced suet if preferred
Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Rub the raisins and other fruits with the flour and spices. The flour will adhere to the fruits’ stickiness and give the pudding a nice even texture.
Cut butter into fine pieces and mix well with the dry ingredients.
Mix liquid ingredients in a separate bowl, then combine them with dry ingredients. The batter should be a little thicker than a cake mix. If it’s dry like bread dough, add more Guinness.
Line a heat-proof bowl with parchment paper to within an inch of the top. Cover the batter with parchment paper and use a lid for steaming. (If the bowl has no lid, foil can be used.) Fill the pot in which you are steaming the pudding to just below the top of the pudding bowl and gently boil for at least 12 hours. (A slow cooker works very well for this.) Depending on the size of the bowl, you may get up to three puddings from this recipe.
When the pudding has cooled, remove it from the bowl and dribble brandy over the top, letting as much sink in as possible. Seal the pudding in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil (the foil should not touch the pudding). Let it sit for as long as possible before serving. Three or four months is not too long. Occasionally dribble the pudding with a shot of the spirit of your choice (brandy, whisky, bourbon, etc.).
Traditionally the pudding was steamed again for at least an hour before serving. There are two methods: remove the wrapping and return it to its original bowl for steaming, or unwrap it, place it on a serving platter and microwave it at 50% power for ten minutes.
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1/2 cup brandy or whisky
Soften butter, then beat with an electric mixer until fluffy. Slowly add an equal amount or more of confectioner’s sugar. After the mixture changes texture, slowly add the brandy and beat further until the mixture becomes light and fluffy. Spoon the brandy butter into serving dishes, finishing off the top by swirling it into a circular pattern with the bottom of the spoon for a decorative effect, and chill until firm.
To light the pudding, pour a generous cup of brandy on top. There will be a little puddle on the plate which should light easily, sending blue flames creeping up the sides. Douse the lights to bring in the pudding to the delight of everyone.
Note: If you’re in a hurry, plum puddings are available ready-made in some stores and from a number of online sources such as http://www.igourmet.com/christmas-pudding.asp.