The fairy tale-ness of a Christmas Pudding

By: Madhulika Dash

Sweet, sticky, studded with fruits and a marzipan leaf, when it comes to history and tradition, few can match the fairy tale-ness of a Christmas Pudding. From a sausage to a pottage pudding to the celebrated plum pudding, the story of how the Christmas Cannonball has a Cinderella like quality about it

Shred a Pound and a half of Suet very fine, and sift it; add a Pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun ston'd, six spoonful of Flour, and as many of Sugar, the Yolks of eight Eggs, and the Whites of five, beat the Eggs with a little Salt, tye it up close in a Cloth and boil it for four or five Hours.

John Nott published the above recipe 1723 in The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary when Britain Emperor George I had four more years of his reign left. Considered to be one of the oldest recipes of Christmas Pudding - then called Plum Pudding because of the large quantity of raisins, blackcurrants and prunes used -- it was one of the highlights at George I first Christmas dinner after his coronation. Such was his love for the pudding - which was made in excess and then distributed among the commoners - that he was nicknamed the 'Pudding King.'

Yet, curiously, it would not be until George VI's lavish coronation that the Plum Pudding - which by that time had been named by Elizabeth Acton (author of the first cookbook for readers called Modern Cookery for Private Families in 1845) Christmas Pudding - made a reappearance, albeit with a lot of flair and a half cannonball-like look.

So where did the Christmas Pudding disappear in the middle? Some say, it was still there as part of the royal Christmas table, whereas others blame the original Grinch, Oliver Cromwell - the first Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland - who banned it. But more on that later.

A case of sausage becoming pudding

The Christmas Pudding is nothing like its first iteration. Born in medieval England, the Pudding was actually a fat, juicy sausage that was made with beef fat, spices, fruits (the best preservatives back in the day) meats, grains and vegetables that was stirred in a large pot and then packed into animal stomachs and intestines to mature. It was then called a winter treasure that helped people sustain the bone chilling winters, and beyond that. Rightly mixed, says Chef Bill Machetti, such sausages could last even longer than one winter.  

The first mention of plum pudding was in the early 15th century as "plum pottage," a savory dish made of meat and root vegetables that was served at the beginning of supper. Raisins though a good ingredient for preservation was relatively used less because of its availability. But that was till the end of the 16th century when dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pottage became plum pudding, a sweet, meaty, sticky dish. But the taste wasn't the only thing to change. With the taste changed the vessel for maturing with the pudding cloth—a floured piece of fabric that could hold and preserve a pudding of any size.
This while took care of the offal smell; meat was still a part of the dish, especially suet, fat from the thighs, that was still used as the glue to keep ingredients together. Funnily though, even when plum pottage became a pudding, it wasn't before mid-Winters that people got to enjoy the treat, purely because it took that kind of time to mature and become so dense that a single wedge (more than a sliver back then) could satiate a person. Since it was always around Christmas, the association with Christmas became obvious.

In fact, even when Cromwell banned Christmas and the pudding along with Yule Logs, Candies and carol singing calling it Druidic paganism, in small hamlets and poor colonies the pudding survived in extreme secrecy. Poor people would often collect their exotic vegetables, fruits and other ingredients in a small granary, and then get together to mix it and create their pudding that would cook for up to 8-9 hours in small kiln in underground dungeons.

Interestingly, says Amit Bajaj, Chef de Cuisine, Indigo Delicatessen, "the Christmas pudding till date is cooked using double boilers method. It's baked in the oven at 165 degree Celsius for about an hour, and a few days for the mixture to mature and gets its dense flavour."

Pudding becomes sattire and rises

The resurgence of Christmas Pudding happened more because of the political leaders and novelists (including Dickens) who used it as part of their works. Like this 1848 satirical cartoon titled "John Bull Showing the Foreign Powers How to Make a Constitutional Plum-Pudding," which showed an English stand-in preparing to carve a bulging, holly-sprigged pudding labelled "Liberty of the Press," "Trial by Jury," "Common Sense" and "Order."

What was aimed as a poke on the well-preserved nature of the pudding - it took a month to get seasoned and could last over a year - led to the rise of Christmas saving clubs, who patronised the making of the pudding by helping homemakers to save pennies throughout the year to purchase pudding ingredients come Christmastime for the pudding, and just like that Christmas Pudding was back in vogue, albeit with a new cannonball look and a "Stir-up Sunday," in which family members took turns stirring up the Christmas pudding-to-be, which was then wrapped and boiled and set aside to mature until Christmas Day.

By the 19th century the ingredients were more or less standardized to suet, Demerara sugar, raisins and currents, candied orange peel, eggs, breadcrumbs, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and plenty of alcohol. The pudding, adds Chef Bajaj, "was now less of a pottage and more of a cake, much like the one we see today."

The final dressage

So how different was the 1900 version to the one we see today? It was fatter and more dense, says Bajaj, who feels that over the past century the Christmas pudding has slimmed down and simplified somewhat. The pudding-bag, in which the pudding is twice-boiled, is today replaced with moulds shaped like a half-melon or Bundt cake. Served with a brandy butter or flambeed with it.

The recipe too has changed, though only slightly. So there is butter replacing suet with addition of nuts, and brandy often is a mix of rum and brandy to give it that heady booziness. But, adds Chef Bajaj, "There are a few things that haven't changed. Like the benchmark of a good Christmas Pudding, which is  still brandy-soaked dry fruits and spices, and the moistness that lends it that teeth coating chewiness but not that stickiness of the old." But that has been a case for the past two century, which in a way makes it still traditional.

Picture Courtesy: Amit Bajaj, Chef de Cuisine, Indigo Delicatessen