Cookies, cakes and pies are the desserts most Americans associate with Christmas today, but back in the Victorian era, plum pudding was the highlight of the holiday feast. Even the poor Cratchit family in the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol had one on their holiday table.

We have the British to thank for bringing their love of puddings to America, particularly plum pudding, which can be traced back to the 15th century. It originated as plum pottage (sometimes called plum porridge), which was more liquidly, like a soup, and served at the beginning of a meal. Like most puddings of the time, it was meat-based, so the ingredients included chopped beef or mutton, onions and sometimes other root vegetables, as well as dried fruit, breadcrumbs as a thickener, and copious amounts of wine, herbs and spices for flavor.

This rich dish was a favorite for feast days such as All Saints Day, Christmas and New Years Day, but it wasn’t until the 1600s when it became specifically associated with Christmas, and began to be referred to as the more luxurious sounding plum pudding or even Christmas pudding. Around this time it also evolved into the larger, more solid consistency of a “boiled pudding” due to the creation of the pudding-cloth. The ingredients would be mixed together, then tied up into a tidy bundle inside the cloth and boiled in a kettle over an open fire. Sometimes the pudding was even cooked directly over a simmering stew.

So where are the plums in the ingredient list? Well, ironically, there aren’t actually any plums in plum pudding. The name comes from the use of dried plums (prunes), which were commonly used in medieval times. Later, when other dried fruits such as raisins were introduced into England, these were substituted or added, but the “plum pudding” name stuck. Over the years, the meat was replaced by suet (the protective fat around the kidneys of beef or mutton) and the vegetables were gradually phased out, although some cooks still include a token carrot in their version.

By the time of the Victorian era, plum pudding had evolved into a sumptuous dessert with a more varied ingredient list. Suet, dried fruit (typically raisins, sultanas and currants) and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves were mainstays, but any combination of nuts, lemon or orange peel, chopped apple, flour, eggs, sugar, milk and liquor were also commonly added. The Godey’s Lady’s Book of Receipts and Household Hints by Sarah Annie Frost (1870) lists nine different versions of plum pudding, with interesting titles and ingredient combinations such as Soyer’s New Christmas pudding (with powdered white sugar, candied citron and blanched bitter almonds), Barbara’s plum pudding (includes apples and molasses), Rich plum pudding without flour (uses breadcrumbs instead, as well as eight or nine eggs and brandy), and Unrivalled plum pudding (incorporates an incredible two pounds each of suet, breadcrumbs and sugar, two and a half pounds of raisins and 16 eggs). A rich sauce made from rum or brandy butter (sometimes called hard sauce) added right before serving also became customary.

The Christmas pudding became even more beloved with the establishment of Stir-Up Sunday, which took place on the last Sunday before Advent – sometime during the second half of November. The name actu
ally originated from the collect (prayer) of the day heard in church that morning: “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” Over time it also became associated with the stirring of the Christmas pudding, which began that same week.

On this day, all the ingredients for the Christmas pudding were gathered and mixed together, and each family member would take a turn stirring the pudding – from the oldest on down to the youngest. It was believed that anyone who made a wish while stirring the pudding would have the wish come true. The pudding was supposed to be stirred with a wooden spoon in a clockwise direction with eyes closed or the wish would not be granted. Sometimes the cook would add charms and trinkets while the pudding was being stirred. When the pudding was later served on Christmas day, whoever got the piece of pudding with a charm would have good luck for the year. Examples ranged from a ring (meaning the recipient would soon be married), a coin (coming into wealth), and a thimble (either a blessed life or spinsterhood, depending on how it was interpreted).

Once all the family members had their turn stirring and making a wish, the pudding was placed in the pudding cloth and hung up until Christmas Day. Letting the pudding mature over the weeks until Christmas was beneficial as it allowed the flavors to blend and deepen. In fact, many people would make two Christmas puddings at a time, preserving one for the following year. Before serving, it was boiled for 4-5 hours, and then turned out onto a dish where the warm brandy sauce was poured over it. The pudding was then lit up and the flaming dish, garnished with a sprig of holly, was proudly brought to the table to close out the celebratory meal.

It would be fun to go back in time to see the delighted faces of those experiencing this exciting ritual at the Ebenezer Maxwell home as part of their Victorian holiday festivities. Three different plum pudding recipes are included in Anna Maxwell’s journal – one traditionally fancy and the other two more suitable for everyday dinners.

The first is described as “The orthodox English recipe:”
One pound of raisins, half a pound of currants, half a pound of sugar, half a pound of flour, half a pound of bread crumbs, three-quarters of a pound of suet, a quarter of a pound of mixed candied peel, a small nutmeg, grated, a teaspoonful of ground cinnamon, ditto of pudding spice; the juice of one lemon and one peel grated, one orange ditto, six bitter almonds blanched and pounded, and a pinch of salt; mix the day or even longer before the pudding is needed, with six well-beaten eggs, a glass of cider or milk to moisten it, and boil for ten hours.

The second is simply called “A plainer pudding:”

One pound of bread crumbs, half a pound of chopped suet, four eggs, half a pound of raisins, half a pound of sultanas, two ounces of candied peel, half a pound of sugar, a little nutmeg and spice mixed with milk or cider, and boiled for four hours.

The sauce to accompany either pudding is made as follows:
Two teaspoonfuls of corn starch, two tablespoonfuls of water, half a pint of milk, two ounces of lump sugar, the yelks [yolks] of two fresh eggs, a small pinch of nutmeg, a tablespoonful of fruit jelly; mix the cornstarch smooth with the water, and beat the eggs up thoroughly with it; dissolve the sugar in the milk, and make it boiling hot, pour it gently into the eggs and cornstarch, then stir the whole over the fire until it has the thickness of cream; take it off and mix in the cider, stirring all the time; serve in a butter boat.

The third is the most basic of all, and seems almost “Americanized,” with its inclusion of molasses:
Poor Man’s Plum Pudding

1 cup of molasses –
1 cup milk
1 cup raisins
1 cup suet chopped fine
3 cups flour
1 teaspoonful of soda
Pinch salt

I decided to make the traditional, fancy, “orthodox English recipe.” As I started gathering the ingredients, I realized suet was not going to be easy to find. I went to a number of stores, including specialty groceries, and nobody had it. Most folks have heard of suet referenced as a bird food, and it is still available for purchase in this way, just not for human consumption. One butcher did give me some beef fat for free, but unfortunately this was not what I needed – suet is solid (like Crisco). I looked at other recipes and saw that lard could be a substitute, which I thought would be easier to find, but this was also difficult (I guess folks really are more health-conscious these days). Finally I found some Goya brand in my grocery’s Spanish section. Yeah – the plum pudding was a go!

I had no problem finding the rest of the ingredients. The recipe for plum pudding in the new cookbook by City Tavern chef Walter Staib, A Sweet Taste of History, suggested using stale egg bread for the breadcrumbs so I picked up a French brioche for this purpose. I think this made a difference by producing a richer batter. I followed the recipe in Anna’s journal, mixing all the ingredients together. I then covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left it in the refrigerator overnight to allow the flavors to blend and the mixture to thicken since it was kind of liquidy. This worked on both counts – the next day it was thicker and richer looking. I went ahead and buttered a molded baking pan and spooned it in. However, instead of boiling it, I decided to steam it in my crockpot. I covered the pan with foil, added some water to the pot, put the mold inside and closed the lid. I let the pudding steam for 4-5 hours on high, then took it out and let it cool for an hour. While baking, it gave off rich aromas – savory (almost a bacon smell) from the lard, mixed with the spicy scent of the nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

However, when I tried to get the pudding out of the mold, I realized it was stuck pretty well. I ran a knife around the edges and banged the pan but it wasn’t budging. Finally my husband gave it a few whacks and it came out, just not all in one piece. Since we were on our way to dinner with friends we decided to bring it anyway to get their opinions on the taste. I even made a brandy sauce to go with it that I found in the White House Cook Book (1889) By Fanny Lemira Gillette:
Stir a heaping teaspoonful of corn-starch in a little cold water to a smooth paste (or instead use a tablespoonful of sifted flour); add to it a cupful of boiling water, with one cupful of sugar, a piece of butter as large as an egg, boil all together ten minutes. Remove from the fire, and when cool, stir into it half of a cupful of brandy or wine. It should be about as thick as thin syrup.
The verdict: It was delicious! Everyone loved the flavors and commented that it was similar to a fruitcake but more delicious and moist. I did want to make one that looked better, so I used the remaining batter to try again the next day. This time, however, I sprayed the pan with cooking spray and then lined it with parchment paper. Voilà! No sticking this time – it turned out perfectly, as shown by the accompanying photo. And bonus – I froze it and will now bring it out to share with my family on Christmas Day! Maybe we’ll start a new tradition….

Sources: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink Ed. by Andrew F. Smith; The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson; The Book of Christmas: Descriptive of the Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions By Thomas Kibble Hervey; Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints; The Victorian Christmas by Anna Selby; China Bayles’ Book of Days by Susan Wittig Albert; Victorian Christmas by Bobbie Kalman and Barbara Bedell; A Sweet Taste of History by Walter Staib