Deconstructing Christmas pudding: secrets of a seasonal staple

Popularised by Charles Dickens, Christmas — or plum — pudding has been a festive staple for centuries, with a history as rich as its flavour.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

If you needed an emblem for a typically British Christmas, the plum pudding would probably be it. Love it or hate it, this currant-freckled sphere — better known as Christmas pudding, and often adorned with holly — is an instantly recognisable festive icon.

The British have a sentimental attachment to this dessert. A dark, sticky mass of dried fruit, suet, breadcrumbs and spices, it’s a proper rib sticker; Christmas just wouldn’t seem right without its solid, reassuring presence on the table.

Perhaps one of the reasons the dish remains so popular — despite many professing not to like it — is the fact we have such a longstanding relationship with it. Plum pudding can trace its origins back to at least the Middle Ages, when it had a less sturdy consistency. There’s a recipe in The Forme of Cury (believed to date from the late 14th century, it’s the oldest known English language cookery book) for something called ‘fygey’. This thick, porridge-like mixture contains ground almonds, wine, figs, raisins, ginger and honey, and while the end result looks fairly unappetising to the modern eye, it does actually taste like Christmas pudding. 

Elizabeth David, the doyenne of post-war food writing (who, incidentally, believed plum pudding to be ‘a pretty awful concoction’) suggested it may hark back as far as ancient Greece. In Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, she writes that a French historian called Bourdeau ‘says that it is precisely described by Atheneus in a report of the wedding feast of Caranus, an Argive prince’.

Dried-fruit porridges continued to be eaten at all manner of celebrations, including Christmas, and were enjoyed by historical figures, including the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys. This dish was given the catch-all name ‘plum pudding’, despite containing a variety of dried fruits, from prunes to currants. 

Perhaps one of the reasons the dish remains so popular is the fact we have such a longstanding relationship with it: plum pudding can trace its origins back to at least the Middle Ages.

In the ensuing decades, the porridgey version eventually yielded to the more solid incarnation we recognise today, with recipes for plum pudding starting to appear in cookery books in the early 18th century. Although animal intestines and stomachs had been used to encase puddings (like haggis) for some time, it was a cloth that revolutionised the way puddings were cooked. The pudding mixture was piled onto a damp piece of buttered and floured fabric (so it wouldn’t stick), which was then gathered up and tied with string to create a nice, plump sphere before boiling.

As for how this dish became inextricably linked with the festive season, Charles Dickens certainly bears some responsibility. He cemented the plum pudding in the popular imagination as the ultimate Christmas treat with his evocative description in A Christmas Carol, in which Mrs Cratchit presents her brood with a pudding ‘like a speckled cannon ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy’. 

In 1845, just two years after the publication of A Christmas Carol, cookery writer Eliza Acton offered up four plum pudding recipes in Modern Cookery for Private Families, two of which are referred to as ‘Christmas puddings’. The book even includes a recipe for ‘vegetable plum pudding’ (‘cheap and good’) that contains mashed potato and carrots. A version of this frugal dessert even appeared during the Second World War, popularised by the Ministry of Food.

What Dickens doesn’t tell his readers is how much effort went into producing a Victorian plum pudding. The raisins had to be stoned: a fiddly, sticky job. The suet (the raw, hard fat surrounding cow or sheep kidneys) had to be shredded. Bread had to be grated — for crumbs — as did the sugar, which came in solid cones. All this, of course, had to be done by hand: many a 19th-century finger will have been rasped raw grating a nutmeg for the mix.

Despite the cumbersome nature of the work required to make a pudding, it seems to have become a festive-season ritual. Traditionally, it began on the fifth Sunday before Christmas. On this day, a short prayer was read out from the Book of Common Prayer, which begins ‘Stir up, we beseech thee’. Parishioners would take this as their cue to go home and make their Christmas puddings and cakes and, as a result, it became known as Stir-up Sunday.

Like so many traditions based in folklore, there were — and for some cooks there continue to be — certain dos and don’ts. A wooden spoon had to be used to mix the pudding, as a reminder of the manger the baby Jesus lay in. The mixture had to be stirred in an anti-clockwise direction — from east to west — to honour the journey of the Wise Men; it was said that health and happiness were guaranteed if you did this correctly, and that disaster loomed if you stirred the wrong way. While stirring, you were also meant to make a wish, naturally keeping the details to yourself for fear it wouldn’t be granted. 

Various ‘fortune-telling’ trinkets could also be secreted in the mix. Rings or thimbles meant marriage or spinsterhood, respectively, while a coin signified imminent riches.

As for ingredients, there are few hard and fast rules for the modern pudding. Dried fruit is a must, but along with the currants and raisins, you could follow Nigella Lawson’s lead and include sherry-drenched prunes. Jamie Oliver, meanwhile, promises ‘dynamic flavours’ in his version, based on his grandmother’s recipe, which contains dates, apricots and crystallised ginger. Suet is generally considered essential, adding moisture to the pudding, although today it’s possible to buy vegetarian alternatives. Mixed spice, meanwhile, is commonly used these days, or you could create your own blend, as suggested by Raymond Blanc, who himself prefers a combination of ginger, clove, star anise and cinnamon. Alcohol such as beer or brandy — the latter favoured by King Edward VII — seems to be a given, except in the most frugal puddings.

The beauty of a Christmas pudding is that it keeps so well, with some cooks making theirs months or even years in advance of the festive season. The Spread Eagle Hotel in Midhurst, West Sussex has decades-old Christmas puddings suspended from the ceiling of its restaurant, and while these may be more for decoration than consumption, it’s speculated that even the oldest might be edible once revived with a little brandy. 

For the most part, the individual ingredients required to make a Christmas pudding can be found ready-prepared in most supermarkets (aside from fresh breadcrumbs, for which you may need to use a food processor). There’s no need to use a pudding cloth either, as it’s far easier to steam the dish in a pudding bowl. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the time Christmas pudding takes to cook, which might be why many people are reluctant to make them at home. You can count on steaming a pudding in a 600ml basin for at least five to six hours. The lengthy cooking time is essential in order to achieve the intensity and depth of flavour. That said, the pudding can be steamed in stages — say, in two three-hour stints — and, once cooked, it should be stored in a cool, dark place, ready for reheating on the big day.

Once the Christmas pudding is on a plate, tradition dictates it should be flambéed. Where exactly this custom comes from is uncertain — some suggest the flames represent the passion of Christ, while others link it to the winter solstice’s fire-based traditions. Whatever its origins, there are few more spectacular ways to end a meal than by setting light to dessert, whether you choose to use a drop of vodka or Mrs Cratchit’s generous serving of brandy.

A historic timeline of Christmas pudding

Fygey, a dried-fruit porridge, said to be a plum pudding forerunner, appears in cookery book The Forme of Cury

Diarist Samuel Pepys writes of having ‘a mess of brave plum-porridge and a roasted pullet for dinner’ on Christmas Day

The Duke of Bolton’s cook, John Nott, includes a plum pudding recipe in The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary

Queen Victoria has plum pudding as part of her Christmas dinner — a royal tradition that continued throughout her reign

George V urges the UK to make Christmas puddings using ingredients from the Empire

The Ministry of Food provides a rationing recipe for plum pudding bulked out with potato and carrots. It claimed you couldn’t taste the veg

Waitrose launches Heston Blumenthal’s Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding — a modern twist on the classic

Christmas pudding recipe

This family recipe for plum pudding dates from 1871. It was passed to my grandmother by her great aunt Eliza, who worked in service before her marriage. The original pudding was much larger and took 15 hours to cook. This is a scaled-down version.

Takes: 15 mins plus at least 1 hr marinating and 5 hrs steaming
Serves: 4-6 

75g currants
75g raisins or sultanas
100g pitted prunes, quartered
25g chopped mixed peel
10g blanched almonds, cut into slivers
1½ tbsp brandy, plus 4 tbsp for flambéeing (optional)
1½ tbsp dark rum
butter, for greasing
50g plain flour
50g ‘fresh’ white breadcrumbs (from a stale loaf is fine, but don’t use dried)
50g dark brown sugar
45g vegetable or beef suet
1 tsp mixed spice
1 egg
2-4 tbsp milk

To serve
50g brown sugar, 50ml brandy and 50g butter, for the pudding sauce (optional)
brandy butter (optional)

You’ll need
600ml glass or ceramic pudding basin
foil and greaseproof paper, to make the lid
string, to secure the lid
1 large saucepan, with a steamer basket

1. Put the dried fruit (including the mixed peel) and the almonds in a large bowl. Stir in the brandy and rum. Leave to marinate for at least 1 hr, or overnight if possible.
2. Grease your pudding basin well with butter. To make the lid, cut a circle of greaseproof paper and foil significantly larger than the top of your pudding basin, then fold a pleat in the middle of each circle (this will allow the pudding to expand when cooking without causing the lid to pop off)
3. Stir the flour, breadcrumbs, sugar, suet, mixed spice and a pinch of salt into the dried fruit mix.
4. Beat the egg and 2 tbsp of the milk together. Pour into the dried fruit mixture and stir until thoroughly combined — it should take on a dropping consistency. Add more milk if you think the mixture is too stiff.
5. Spoon the mixture into the prepared basin. Place the greaseproof lid on top of the basin, then add the foil lid, ensuring the pleats are roughly aligned. Secure with string (most pudding basins have a lip at the top, which makes this easier to do than it sounds). Place the pudding in a steamer basket set over a pan of simmering water. Cook for 6-8 hrs, ensuring the water is regularly topped up to stop the pan from boiling dry (this can be done in two or three stages if necessary). Allow to cool, then refrigerate until required or store in a cool place.
6. If you want to make a sauce for the pudding, melt the brown sugar, brandy and butter together in a saucepan set over a medium heat.
To reheat your pudding, steam it again for 1 hr. If you want to flambé it as well, gently heat the brandy in a small saucepan. Once hot but not boiling, remove from the heat and carefully ignite with a lit match. Pour the flaming liquid over the pudding before swiftly presenting it to your guests.
7. Serve with the brandy butter or pudding sauce, if you like.

Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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