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Old-Fashioned Plum Pudding

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Plum pudding on a red plate with a sprig of holly in the top and a slice of plum pudding on a plate beside it and pine needles and red berries scattered around.

Made famous by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, old-fashioned plum pudding is one of those quintessential holiday desserts that will forever be associated with the Christmas season. For many of us, though, plum pudding is one of those holiday traditions that we see in holiday movies or read about in books, but have never actually tasted ourselves.

“Plumless” Plum Pudding

And just like old-fashioned fruitcake, plum pudding is often misunderstood. (I most people make fun of fruitcake, but if you try old recipes for it, it’s really quite delicious!) Up until fairly recently, I had always thought that plum pudding was made out of actual plums. It wasn’t until I started collecting 19th century cookbooks and found recipes for traditional plum pudding that I realized that there weren’t actually any plums in plum pudding at all!

In earlier centuries, the word “plum” referred to raisins or other fruits such as currants, and a plum pudding was simply a suet pudding made with a hefty amount of raisins and currants. In flavor, plum pudding is quite similar to traditional fruitcake with a blend of sweetness and spices and the slight tang of citrus flavors. The flavor is so similar to fruitcake that if you want an easier, more fail-proof version of a traditional holiday dessert, I recommend giving 19th century fruitcake a try.  

The boiling part of the plum pudding can be a bit challenging, and it does take several hours of boiling. So, if you have the time and you want a more authentic Dicken’s-era plum pudding experience, then read on for the recipe, and if you want to try something that tastes very similar but is simpler and takes less time then the fruitcake recipe I linked to above is a good option. 

This is the original recipe for English Plum Pudding that I adapted:

“One pound raisins, one pound currants, one pound suet, one pound flour, half pound citron, one nutmeg, one tablespoonful allspice, six eggs, one pound brown sugar, one wine-glass brandy; boil six hours.” Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Receipt Book for 1879 ~ Pg. 10

And this is my modern adaptation of the recipe. I cut the recipe in half because I didn’t need a pudding that large.

(Note: this recipe was updated Sept 2019 to reflect my more current understanding of how suet is used in old-fashioned baking. For those interested in learning more about baking with suet, these resources have some good information: How to Replace Suet in Christmas Pudding and Suet Part 2: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and What to Look For.)

(Update December 2021: I just made this recipe again, and this time I used actual suet in the recipe for the first time. Thanks to the recommendation of Victoria from Old Sturbridge Village, I found kidney fat suet at Big Bunny Market in Southbridge, MA for anyone looking for suet who might live nearby. I also tried using a cloth to boil my pudding for the first time, too, so this was probably my closest to authentic plum pudding yet.)

Old-Fashioned Plum Pudding Recipe

(If you like using recipe cards, you can scroll down to the bottom for the printable recipe card version, but I recommend reading the information below about the different methods of boiling to help with deciding how you want to cook your pudding.)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour -baker’s choice of type (I prefer organic, unbleached all-purpose flour or spelt flour for this recipe)
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar (I use whole cane sugar)
  • 1 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (or ground nutmeg)
  • 1/2 Tbs allspice
  • 1 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1 1/4 cup currants (or additional raisins)
  • 1 1/2 cups of grated or chopped suet (or 1 cup tallow) (or 2 sticks butter, cold and cut into small pieces) (or 1 cup refined coconut oil) (or 1 cup vegetable shortening) *
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup candied citron **
  • 1/8 cup lemon juice ***
  • Pinch of salt (Optional- this wasn’t in the original recipe, but I think it adds to the flavor if you are using a fat other than salted butter.)

Notes About Ingredients:

* Though the original recipe calls for suet, suet can sometimes be very hard to find if you live in the United States. The only suet I’ve ever seen near where I live is suet cakes mixed with birdseed, and I definitely don’t want birdseed in my Christmas pudding! I substituted butter when I made this recipe because I don’t have access to a source of good-quality suet right now, but unfortunately butter does change the texture of the pudding somewhat. Because the butter melts faster than suet does the finished pudding can be denser and heavier than it was originally intended to be back when suet was easily available. (It still tastes good, though, if you don’t mind a denser texture.)

I’ve also read that coconut oil can substitute for suet, although I haven’t tried it myself. If you try coconut oil, I would suggest using a refined coconut oil because if you use virgin coconut oil the flavor will change (it might not be a bad change, but it just won’t taste as authentic).

I’ve also read that tallow can sometimes be a substitute for suet depending on what type of tallow you have. Tallow rendered from muscle fat won’t work as well, but if you can find tallow rendered from kidney fat then it might be a close enough substitute. This kind of tallow is supposed to be rendered from kidney fat. I’ve also read that vegetable shortening can be a substitute for tallow, but I don’t personally consider vegetable shortening to be something that falls into the “real food” category, so I’ve never tried it. 

So, if you have suet available to you, it would make for the most authentic plum pudding, and in order to use the suet, I recommend following the steps in this video about how to prepare suet. If you don’t have suet available, you could try butter, coconut oil, or tallow depending on what is the most accessible to you.

** You can usually find candied citron at the grocery store during the holiday season, but I prefer to make my own to avoid the extra preservatives and artificial colorings in most store-bought citron. To make my candied citron, I followed the directions outlined here.

*** I substituted lemon juice for the brandy, but if you decide to use brandy, simply mix it in with the rest of the ingredients.

Directions for Preparing the Ingredients:

  1. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs lightly until they are foamy, and then add the sugar and whichever fat you are using.
  2. Add the lemon juice or brandy, the nutmeg, and the allspice and stir until combined.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix raisins, currents, citron and flour together, making sure the fruit is coated in the flour.
  4. Fold in the fruit and flour mixture until well incorporated with the other ingredients.

Directions for Boiling the Plum Pudding:

Puddings can be a tad bit tricky (hence Mrs. Cratchet’s trepidation that the pudding might not turn out), and they require a time when you will be home for several hours and able to come into the kitchen to check on the water level every so often, but when they turn out right, they are well worth the effort because you can try a truly old-fashioned holiday dessert!

Traditionally, puddings were either wrapped in an oiled cloth and submerged into a pot of boiling water, or they were put into special pudding molds. I’ve tried this recipe using both a cloth and also a bowl to substitute for a pudding mold.

One problem that I’ve run into is the fact that the pot I was using to boil my pudding in wasn’t tall enough for the pudding to be fully submerged in the boiling water at all times. That left me with a pudding that was fully cooked on the bottom where it was fully under the water and underdone/borderline raw on the top part that wasn’t fully submerged. So it’s really important to make sure you have a large enough pot that your pudding can be fully submerged in the water whatever method you use to boil it.

Since I didn’t have a taller pot, I decided to just use what I had anyway and then just cut off the part that wasn’t done. Since you turn the pudding out of either the mold or cloth after it is done, the part of the pudding that is near the top of the pot of water (which in my case was the underdone part) actually ends up being the bottom of the pudding when you turn it over and put it on a plate. So it still looked fine even after I cut part of it off.

Boiling Your Pudding In a Cloth

If you decide to try using a cloth to boil your pudding, the method outlined in this video about flour pudding on the Old Sturbridge Village YouTube channel is the method that I used to prepare my cloth and to boil my pudding. (The instructions for the cloth start about 7 minutes into the video.)

For my cloth, I used this kind of pastry cloth to boil my pudding in. It’s not specifically meant for use as a pudding cloth, but it seemed to work pretty well because it was large enough, and it has a nice tight weave to help to keep the water out.

One additional step I did that wasn’t mentioned in the Sturbridge Village video above is that I submerged my cloth in boiling water for a little while before using it since it was the first time I had used the cloth, and I had heard mention of boiling a cloth to help prepare it. I let it boil while I was mixing up the pudding ingredients, and then I let it cool for a few minutes and liberally coated it in butter and sprinkled a bit of flour over it, too, for good measure before adding in my pudding batter.

Then I gathered up all of the corners and tied it up tightly with string, leaving a bit of room for the pudding to expand, but making sure that I tied it well so that there was no change of it coming undone and water getting in. It’s also important to make sure your water is at a good boil when you put it in so that the outside cooks quickly.

Steps 2-6 that I outlined below are nearly identical whether you are boiling your pudding in a cloth or not, so you can scroll down to see the rest of the directions there.

Boiling Your Pudding in a Mold or Bowl

Another method for boiling your pudding follows the same basic idea as the old-fashioned versions, but it’s a little bit simpler if you don’t have a pudding cloth. You can use a specific pudding mold if you have one, but you can also make a DIY mold by using a bowl.

The four things you will need for this method are:

  1. A bowl that can be submerged in boiling water for several hours. (I used a ceramic bowl for my pudding.) It’s also helpful to have a large enough bowl that there is a few inches between the level of the pudding batter in the bowl and the top edge of the bowl. This will allow the pudding to cook better.
  2. Parchment paper (I like this unbleached kind)
  3. Aluminum foil (It won’t actually touch the pudding)
  4. 2 long pieces of string

I used the process shown in this video to steam my pudding in a bowl rather than a cloth or a mold.

Step 1)

Grease a bowl large enough to put your pudding in, making sure it is well coated so that the pudding won’t stick to it when you are ready to un-mold it later on. Then wrap the bowl in the aluminum foil and secure it with the string as shown in the video.

The key is to tie the string as tightly as possible and to make sure the foil is folded so that you have a water-tight seal, because if any water gets inside the bowl, you’ll end up with a very soggy pudding!

Step 2)

Heat a large kettle or pot of water until it reaches the boiling point. You want it to be a steady boil, but you don’t want it to be a really strong rolling boil that could splash around enough to soak into your pudding. You want the water to be more than half-way up the side of the bowl that your pudding is in, but you don’t want it to be so high that it is all the way at the top or so that the pudding is submerged.

Important note: This is the step with the biggest difference between using a bowl or using a cloth. If you are using a cloth, then you want the water to be at a rolling boil so that the outside of the pudding cooks quickly and forms a crust to help to prevent a soggy pudding. You also want the pudding in the cloth to be fully submerged in the water. When you are using a bowl wrapped in foil, you don’t want it fully submerged because then the water might soak into the bowl. (In this case, it helps to have a large enough bowl so that the pudding batter itself is under the level of the water while the top of the bowl is above the water.)

Step 3)

Keep a second smaller pot of water simmering on another burner so that when the water level in the pot with your pudding gets too low you can refill the pot without lowering the temperature so much that it stops boiling (which could affect the success of the pudding cooking.)

Step 4)

Every half hour or so (or anytime you happen to be walking through the kitchen), check the water level to make sure that it hasn’t gotten too low, and add more hot water if necessary. The first time I made a pudding, I made the mistake of letting the water level get too low for too long, and my pudding ended up fully cooked on the bottom and not done yet on the top.

Step 5)

Since this recipe is cut in half from the original recipe, it won’t take the full 6 hours to bake. After about 4 and a half to five hours, the pudding should be done and ready to take out of the water. (The timing is a little bit more flexible with puddings than with something like baking a cake or cookies, so if you end up letting it go a little bit longer, it should be fine.) Using the string handle, carefully lift the pudding from the water and set it aside to cool.

Now comes the trickiest part – removing the pudding from the bowl and keeping it all in one piece! Remove all of the aluminum foil and parchment paper, and very, very carefully turn the pudding out onto a plate. And if any of the pudding does happen to stick to the bowl, you can always sift on a dusting of powdered sugar or add a decorative sprig of holly to hide any imperfections.

Step 6)

Serve the pudding with sauce, if desired and enjoy a taste of traditional Christmas cheer!

Traditionally, plum pudding was often served with some type of pudding sauce (after it was soaked in brandy and lit on fire for the dramatic entrance like Mrs. Cratchet demonstrated, of course!)

There are many different pudding sauce recipes. Many of them use some type of alcohol mixed with butter and sugar. The pudding sauce recipe on this page is one such recipe. Or, if you want an alcohol-free version, this is one recipe I typically use, which is also adapted from Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Recipe Book:

Simply mix the ingredients together for a rich, sweet sauce to accompany your Christmas pudding.

Or, for a less sweet option, if you are serving the pudding warm, you can spread some butter over your slice of pudding and let that melt in a bit and sprinkle a bit of sugar over it to get a bit of sweetness without being overly sweet. I found that I really enjoyed having the pudding this way when I made it with suet because I was missing the butter flavor that I’m used to in desserts. I used salted butter since this pudding recipe doesn’t have any salt and I tend to like things a bit salty, and it really helped to add to the flavor.

Plum pudding on a red plate with a sprig of holly in the top and a slice of plum pudding on a plate beside it and pine needles and red berries scattered around.

Old-Fashioned Plum Pudding Recipe

Made famous by Dickens' A Christmas Carol, old-fashioned plum pudding is one of those quintessential holiday desserts that will forever be associated with Christmas. This pudding has plenty of dried fruits and warming spices, and it can be served with pudding sauce if you like.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour (Baker's choice of type. I prefer either all-purpose or spelt.)
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 Tbs. allspice
  • 1 1/4 cups raisins
  • 1 1/4 cups currants (or additional raisins if you don't have currants)
  • 1 1/2 cups of grated or chopped suet (or 1 cup of chopped tallow, or 1 cup cold butter, or 1 cup coconut oil, or 1 cup vegetable shortening - see notes below.)
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup of candied citron
  • 1/8 cup brandy or lemon juice for an alcohol-free substitute
  • Pinch of salt (Optional - it wasn't in the original recipe, but it adds to the flavor if you are using a fat other than salted butter.)

Instructions

  1. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs lightly until they are foamy, and then add the sugar and whichever fat you are using.
  2. Add the lemon juice or brandy, the nutmeg, and the allspice and stir until combined.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix raisins, currents, citron and flour together, making sure the fruit is coated in the flour.
  4. Fold in the fruit and flour mixture until well incorporated with the other ingredients.
  5. Prepare your pudding cloth or mold by greasing it well (see information in the article above about the different methods for boiling the pudding.)
  6. Place your pudding batter in your greased cloth or mold. If using a cloth, tie the cloth tightly, leaving enough space for the pudding to expand a bit. If using a bowl as a substitute for a mold, use the instructions in this video for securing your bowl.
  7. Heat a large pot of water until it reaches a steady boil. You want a good rolling boil if you are using a cloth and a steady boil if using the bowl method but not such a strong boil that water will splash over the top of the tin foil covering the bowl. Using a bowl tall enough to stick out of the water level a couple of inches (while also allowing the pudding batter itself to be under the water level) will help the pudding to cook better. If you are using a cloth, you want the pudding to be fully submerged in the water at all times.
  8. Keep another pot of hot water simmering on the stove so that you can refill your larger pot as needed without allowing the water temperature to drop below a boil. This will help the pudding to cook more evenly.
  9. Ever half hour or so, check the water level to make sure that it is still ok, and add more water as needed.
  10. After about 4 1/2 to 5 hours the pudding will be done and you can carefully take it out of the water using the string that you tied it up with. (If in doubt, it's better to let the pudding go for the 5 hours because it's not likely to be overdone if you let it boil a bit longer.
  11. Let the pudding cool just enough that you can touch it without burning yourself, and then carefully turn it out of it's cloth or mold onto a plate.
  12. Serve with pudding sauce, if desired, and enjoy!

Notes

Though the original recipe calls for suet, suet can sometimes be very hard to find if you live in the United States. I've substituted butter when I didn't have access to suet, but unfortunately butter does change the texture of the pudding somewhat. Because the butter melts faster than suet does the finished pudding can be denser and heavier than it was originally intended to be back when suet was easily available. (It still tastes good, though, if you don't mind a denser texture.)

I've also read that coconut oil can substitute for suet, although I haven't tried it myself. If you try coconut oil, I would suggest using a refined coconut oil because if you use virgin coconut oil the flavor will change (it might not be a bad change, but it just won't taste as authentic).

I've also read that tallow can sometimes be a substitute for suet depending on what type of tallow you have. Tallow rendered from muscle fat won't work as well, but if you can find tallow rendered from kidney fat then it might be a close enough substitute. This kind of tallow is supposed to be rendered from kidney fat. I've also read that vegetable shortening can be a substitute for tallow, but I don't personally consider vegetable shortening to be something that falls into the "real food" category, so I've never tried it. 

So, if you have suet available to you, it would make for the most authentic plum pudding, and in order to use the suet, I recommend following the steps in this video about how to prepare suet. If you don't have suet available, you could try butter, coconut oil, or tallow depending on what is the most accessible to you.

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Plum pudding on a red plate with a sprig of holly in the top and a slice of plum pudding on a plate beside it with a spoon and pine needles and red berries around them.

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Nancy Roper

Saturday 23rd of October 2021

My mother was Welsh and we made Christmas pudding every year. I still do. A good quality butter has always worked for us as we couldn’t find suet. Put in cooked mincemeat, golden raisins and currants. I order my currants from Amazon. Also never white sugar always brown. Half the flour and homemade bread crumbs. I pressure cook for 1 1/2 hours…..works so much better than the 6 hours of boiling. The hard sauce is made similar to a good white sauce and sweetened lightly with brown sugar. Yummy!

Lori Elliott

Monday 25th of October 2021

That sounds like a delicious pudding and such a great Christmas tradition each year! I've never thought of using a pressure cooker for a pudding, but that certainly sounds like a faster way to do it!

Amber

Friday 4th of December 2020

I don't plan on making this, I was just curious what plum pudding really was. However, I wondered if lard would be the same as suet? That's basically what suet is right? Or what about shortening?

Lori Elliott

Monday 7th of December 2020

From every old plum pudding recipe I've seen, suet seems to be the preferred fat to use. If I'm correct, I believe that suet is beef fat that has not been rendered (it's usually chopped up finely to use in plum pudding and other similar desserts.) Tallow is beef fat that has been rendered. And lard is pork fat that has been rendered. So lard would have a different flavor than suet would. And as far as vegetable shortening, it wouldn't be the same as using suet, but it could be a potential substitute for people who can't find suet or for people who want to avoid animal products. Those are all great questions, and it's pretty interesting to think about all of the different types of fats used in cooking and baking! :)

Linda

Wednesday 11th of November 2020

Can I freeze this or how long does it keep in the fridge?

Lori Elliott

Wednesday 11th of November 2020

I've never tried freezing it, so I really don't know from personal experience how freezing would affect the texture or taste. It should keep fine for several days in the fridge, though.

Susan

Thursday 26th of December 2019

I grew up eating and making plum pudding with my grandmother who used her families traditional recipe they brought with them from Wales. Our version is a little different spices- cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. We use raisins and currants. We also only use suet. In the US you can get this from any butcher shop. This is important though, you must ask for the suet to be taken from around the kidneys. It yields a powdery and light suet. If not you have a heavy and greasy pudding. This year I froze the suet and in small batches pulsed it in the food processor. We also used gluten free flour and breadcrumbs with a decent outcome.

Traditionally we serve it w a creamed brandy sauce.

Hope this may help out about the suet inquiries. Happy Holidays to all!

Lori Elliott

Friday 27th of December 2019

That's really neat that you have a traditional family recipe from Wales! Someday I'll have to try to get suet from an actual butcher shop. I haven't had much success so far with finding it in grocery stores or by asking the workers in the meat department in grocery stores (at least not the ones close to where I live anyways) but I haven't tried any real butcher shops yet. And thanks for sharing the advice about the kidney fat. That's a really good idea to freeze the suet in small batches, too. Thank you, and I wish you Happy Holidays as well!

Lanie

Friday 17th of November 2017

If using suet how much would I use? Same as butter one cup?

ourheritageofhealth

Monday 20th of November 2017

Yes, one cup of suet would be the right amount.

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