Christmas Past

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Let’s make Christmas Pudding like it’s 1845

Time for a confession: I’ve never had a proper Christmas pudding. The closest I’ve come is buying something that was called a Christmas pudding at a Christmas fair in 2019. But it was more like a cake, almost the texture and consistency of Boston brown bread, and packed with cherries and nuts. Tasty, for sure, but nothing like the genuine article.

Here in the U.S., Christmas pudding isn’t as popular as in the UK, so I gave up hope of trying to buy a good one, and decided to try making one. (Confession #2: I’m a perfectly adequate cook, but I’m not exactly famous for my baking skills.)

Going straight to the source

To make a classic Christmas pudding, you need a real, classic recipe. And for that, I consulted Modern Cookery in All its Branches, an 1845 cookbook by Eliza Acton. In it, she includes a recipe for “The Author’s Christmas Pudding.” Some people have wondered whether “the author” in question is Ms. Acton herself, or if she’s referring to Charles Dickens, who published A Christmas Carol just two years before. The recipe is very similar to the one that Dickens describes.

Getting a little extra help

The recipe is easy enough to read and follow. But there were a couple of parts I didn’t totally understand. For example, the recipe calls for “mixed spice.” And “a small wineglassful” of brandy. I wasn’t sure what exactly those things meant, so I got a little extra help from this video from the Charles Dickens Museum. (By the way, a “small wineglassful” apparently is 140ml, which isn’t very small at all, if you ask me.) I don’t know where the host of this video got that info, but I’m willing to put my trust in the Charles Dickens Museum.

Additionally, the video above puts some modern touches on the method, such as cooking the pudding in a pudding basin, as opposed to in a cloth (which produces the classic “canon ball” pudding shape).

Originally, the mixture was wrapped in a cloth to be steamed
A pudding cooked in a cloth produced the classic canon ball shape often pictured in old books

Ready to go

OK, everybody hold hands. We’re doing this. Wish me luck!

Adding the dry goods

Thank goodness for food scales, because both Acton’s original recipe, and the video above reference the ingredients by weight. We start with three ounces of flour…

Add a pinch of salt…

Three ounces of bread crumbs…

Now for some sugar. Acton’s original just refers to “sugar,” but the video uses brown sugar, so I did too. Five ounces…

Some “mixed spice,” as it’s called in the original recipe. I have no idea if that means something specific, or if the author is just speaking generally. The video suggests, that it’s whatever you have around. The video also recommends 1 tsp, whereas the original calls for 1/2 tsp. I mixed cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice in roughly equal portions, and decided to split the difference and add 3/4 tsp.

And finally, some suet. Now, traditional beef suet is almost impossible to find in the U.S. And ordering on Amazon would have taken almost a month. So I decided to go with vegetable suet. I know I’m missing out on the truly authentic experience, but what can you do?

Pretty sure this is just vegetable shortening in disguise. It has that Crisco consistency

And now the “plums”

If you’ve heard the Christmas Past episode about sugarplums, you’ll know that “plums” in this context are not literal plums. It was a generic word for anything sweet and desirable.

We start with six ounces of raisins…

And six ounces of currants…

Two ounces of candied peel. Acton calls for candied orange peel. The video refers to “mixed peel.” So I did 1.5 ounces of orange, and .5 ounces of lemon…just to make it interesting.

And some apples. Acton calls for minced apples. In the video, they’re grated. I decided to try grating. I’m sure the variety of apple makes a difference. I’m using a Jazz apple, which is sweet and tart. four ounces…

Now we beat three eggs…

And add some booze. Again, Acton calls for a “small wineglassful” of brandy, which apparently translates to 140ml. This does NOT sound small to me. Disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about brandy. I’ve never had it. I actually had to Google what it is. I didn’t even know that cognac is a kind of brandy (hoping I’m right about that), but I used this Hennessey cognac.

Time to stir it all up

Holy smokes, this smells really boozy! I’m hoping the smell and taste will mellow out while it steams (and that the alcohol itself burns off). Stirring the pudding is a big event in the UK, and there are all kinds of rituals and superstitions that go with it!

Gotta mix everything really well, especially because the vegetable suet is pretty sticky and clumpy

Let’s get it ready

So, first we grease up the basin (I used unsalted butter), and put a circle of parchment at the bottom, to help get the pudding out cleanly later on…

Then we pour in the mixture and put another disk of parchment on top. Right off the bat, I’m worried something is wrong. I bought a 1.5 liter basin, based on the video. In the video, her mixture nearly fills the basin. Mine comes a bit shy. Maybe the woman in the video misspoke about the volume of the basin. (And again, Acton doesn’t discuss a basin at all.)

OK, now we wrap the top with both parchment and foil, and tie it with string…

And place it in a pot. This is where I’m concerned. There needs to be space between the pot and the basin for water. Because my basin is too large, there’s not very much room. There seems to be just enough, though. I think I’ll just have to keep a closer eye, and replace the water more frequently as it evaporates.

But, we’re steaming it now for about three and a half hours.

Three and a half hours later

Time to take this fella out of the steam…

Turning it out onto the plate took some doing. I had to bump and shake it a few times, but it came out cleanly!

Ta-dah!

I decided against trying to light it. There was already so much brandy in it, I didn’t want to add more, just for show…

Brian’s review

OK, this definitely doesn’t taste like the one I bought at the fair in 2019! But overall, it’s good, and I’d probably make it again. The brandy flavor is fairly strong, a little too strong for my preference. (Glad I didn’t go for dousing and flaming it!)

Good mix of flavors. The texture was fairly crumbly right when it came out of the steamer. But I later cut a second piece, and it held together much better.

I know it’s also common to serve it with a sauce like brandy or rum sauce. (It’s a mixture of butter, flour, milk, sugar, and brandy), but that’ll have to be for another day.

If I were to make this again, I would (1) Definitely use less brandy, (2) use a full teaspoon—or even more—of the mixed spice, (3) try to find traditional beef suet, (4) use a smaller pudding basin, (5) make some brandy cream (probably minus the brandy), (6) maybe experiment with adding some dried pineapple or candied ginger, and (7) try flaming it. I feel like I need to have that experience at least once!

The full recipe

  • 3 oz. flour
  • 3 oz. bread crumbs
  • 6 oz. suet
  • 6 oz. raisins
  • 6 oz. currants
  • 2 oz. candied orange and/or lemon peel
  • 4 oz. minced or shredded apple
  • 5 oz. brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp – 1 tsp “mixed spice” (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace, cloves…whatever you like)
  • 3 eggs
  • A pinch of salt
  • 140 ml. brandy

Mix everything together and add to a greased pudding basin. Cover with parchment and foil and steam for 3 1/2 hours.

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