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In praise of Christmas Pudding

By Norma Olizon-Chikiamco, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 22, 2022 5:00 am

Charles Dickens mentioned it. So did the greatest of all mystery writers, Agatha Christie. It also appears in one stanza of a popular song.

“It” refers to the English Christmas pudding, a traditional treat that has been around since the Victorian era and is often served during the festive holiday season.

In his novel A Christmas Carol, Dickens described in detail the pudding that Mrs. Cratchit had so carefully steamed and prepared for her family. According to Dickens, the pudding “smelled like a washing day… a smell like an eating-house and a pastry cook’s next door to each other.” It was so magnificent that “Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage.”

Agatha Christie, on the other hand, made the pudding the centerpiece of one of her mystery stories that starred detective Hercule Poirot. Like Dickens, she described the pudding in great detail.

Christmas pudding is also referred to as “figgy pudding” in the carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas (“O give us some figgy pudding.”)

There are several customs associated with Christmas pudding. In many homes, it’s made on the last Sunday before Advent or a few weeks before Christmas to give the flavors time to develop before the pudding is served.

Another custom is for every member of the family to stir the batter a few times and to make a wish while doing so.

It’s also customary to insert a few objects such as a ring or a thimble inside the pudding before it’s cooked. The person who gets the ring when the pudding is sliced is said to be the next one to get married. On the other hand, the one who gets the thimble, according to tradition, is destined to be a spinster. 

All these have made me very curious about the Christmas pudding. How does one make it? And, I’ve often wondered, how does it taste? Considering all the fuss that has been made about it across two centuries, it must taste truly amazing.

Searching for answers, I looked for Christmas pudding recipes in various cookbooks, only to be dismayed at the list of ingredients and methods of cooking. For one thing, nearly all the recipes I found call for beef suet. Where on earth am I supposed to get that? Some recipes even require the use of a pudding cloth, which, they specify, is not the same as cheesecloth. 

Then there’s the cooking time—an agonizing four to six hours over steaming or boiling water. It’s enough to make any aspiring cook give up.

Fortunately, we now have the ever-useful internet and its various search engines. Turning to Google and then YouTube, I found more modernized methods of cooking the elusive Christmas pudding.

Among the numerous recipes I found, the easiest and most useful turned out to be from a YouTube channel called Food Wishes. As demonstrated by chef John, this pudding is a much easier version of the Victorian variety.

The beef suet is replaced by melted butter and instead of a washed and boiled pudding cloth, the mold used is an ordinary baking dish. The other ingredients are readily available: raisins, dried cranberries, orange, egg, cream, pecans, flour and bread crumbs. The buttermilk may be harder to find, but chef John says you can instead use regular milk plus the juice of half of a medium-size lemon (which I did).

The chef also omitted the rather dangerous practice of pouring brandy on the pudding then lighting it before it is served on the table. While this makes for a dramatic presentation, unless one is adept at handling this procedure, it could spell disaster.

I was naturally apprehensive about embarking on this kitchen adventure, as I’ve never done it before. But after gathering and buying all the ingredients, it turned out to be easier than I thought. The only thing was, it still took four hours for the pudding to be cooked. But when, after this long length of time, I flipped the mold and released the pudding into a cake platter and it turned out perfectly formed, I felt all my efforts had been worth it.

Here is the recipe for Christmas pudding, based on the recipe of Food Wishes’ chef John. Although he recommends letting the dough rest for eight hours or overnight in the refrigerator before steaming it, it is also all right to cook the dough immediately.

English Christmas Pudding
(Based on the recipe of chef John in Food Wishes)

  • Softened butter (for greasing the mold)
  • 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 15 medium Medjool dates, pitted and chopped (or use any dried dates)
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized or candied ginger
  • 3 tablespoons bourbon whiskey or brandy
  • Zest of one large orange
  • Juice of one large orange
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup heavy or whipping cream
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or 3/4 cup fresh milk + juice of 1/2 medium lemon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped pecans or almonds or walnuts
  • 1/2 cup dry, plain bread crumbs
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

To finish:

  • Maple syrup
  • Holly and leaves, as desired, for decoration

Grease very well a heatproof bowl (about seven to eight inches in diameter) with the softened butter. In a large mixing bowl, combine the apricots, dates, currants or raisins, golden raisins, cranberries, ginger, brandy, orange juice, and orange zest. Mix thoroughly until well combined.

Pour in the melted butter and stir well to coat all the ingredients. Add the egg, cream, buttermilk, salt, nuts, bread crumbs, and flour. Stir well until the mixture is thick and sticky. 

Scoop the batter into the prepared heatproof bowl. Press it down with a spatula to flatten and level the surface. Cut a circle of parchment paper the size of the bowl’s rim and press it down on the surface of the batter. Cover the top of the bowl completely with two layers of plastic wrap or cling wrap. Add another layer of plastic wrap to seal the bowl completely. Then cover with two layers of aluminum foil. Press the foil on the sides of the bowl then tie the sides of the bowl with a string tightly. This is to prevent any water from entering the bowl.

Place a heatproof trivet on the bottom of a Dutch oven or a large cooking pot. Arrange the bowl on top of the trivet. Pour hot water into the cooking pot until it reaches halfway up the bowl. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. When the water boils, lower the heat to medium. 

Let steam, covered, for about four hours. Check occasionally to make sure the water does not dry out. Otherwise, pour more boiling water into the pot. After four hours, insert a cake tester or a long barbecue stick through the foil and into the top of the pudding to check for doneness. If the cake tester comes out clean, the pudding is cooked.

Carefully lift the pudding out of the bowl and remove the foil and plastic wrap. Peel off the parchment paper. Flip the bowl over a cake platter and tap the bowl lightly to release the pudding into the platter. Brush the pudding with maple syrup and decorate with holly and leaves, as desired. Slice and serve. This can be served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.