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Made famous by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 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. Up until two years ago, I had always though 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. Traditionally, plum pudding was also 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!)
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:
(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.)
Old-Fashioned Plum Pudding Recipe
- 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 cup 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 ***
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, you would simply mince it into small pieces and mix it in with the rest of the batter. 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:
- In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs lightly until they are foamy, and then add the butter pieces and sugar.
- Add the lemon juice or brandy, the nutmeg, and the allspice and stir until combined.
- Gradually add flour, stirring until fully combined.
- Dredge raisins, currants, and citron in flour to keep them from sinking to the bottom of the pudding. (I combined them all in a bowl and then used a strainer to sift away the extra flour.)
- Fold in the fruit until well incorporated with the other ingredients.
Directions for Steaming the 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 about 6 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!
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. The method of steaming a pudding that I typically use follows the same basic idea as the old-fashioned versions, but it’s a little bit simpler and doesn’t require any special cloths or molds.
The four things you will need for this method are:
- A bowl that can be submerged in boiling water for several hours. (I used a ceramic bowl for my pudding)
- Parchment paper (I like this unbleached kind)
- Aluminum foil (It won’t actually touch the pudding)
- 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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
After six hours, the pudding should be done and ready to take out of the water. 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 🙂
Serve the pudding with sauce, if desired and enjoy a taste of traditional Christmas cheer!
There are many different pudding sauce recipes, but the one I typically use, which is also adapted from Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Recipe Book is:
- 2 cups powdered sugar (either homemade from unrefined sugar or from storebought organic powdered cane sugar)
- 2 Tbs. butter
- 1/4 tsp pure lemon extract
- A spoonful or two of water
Simply mix the ingredients together for a rich, sweet sauce to accompany your Christmas pudding 🙂
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.