The Centerpiece: Christmas Plum Pudding
In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
All of us, I presume, are familiar with the image generated by the words above. We have seen the drawings and paintings, such as the ones below, of the famous “Christmas Pudding” vital to the British holidays.
What all plum pudding drawings like the ones below have in common is they date to the Victorian Era and afterward. Indeed, by the mid to late 1800s, Christmas Pudding had assumed its final form and has stayed much the same ever since. Prior to this, however, the vast array of pudding and porridge recipes dating back to the middle ages (and possibly further) were quite different and varied.
What is “pudding”?
To Americans, pudding is a creamy, semi-liquid dessert. Anything firmer, even slightly so, is a custard.
For our neighbors across the pond, pudding is a word dating to c.1300 meaning: “a kind of sausage: the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, etc., stuffed with minced meat, suet, seasoning, boiled and kept till needed.“
By the late 1600s, in Britain, the word pudding had evolved to define “other foods boiled or steamed in a bag or sack,” yet with nothing indicating sweetness or that the thickness had changed. This is why images of puddings in England, both long ago and today, are of firm and ofttimes shaped/molded concoctions resembling a cake.
The origins of Christmas Pudding lie far into the past and begin as a pottage or porridge. A general dish, albeit with hundreds of recipes, pottage was a mixture of meats, vegetables, and grains boiled together in a cauldron for hours. Also called “stewed broths,” they resembled a very thick soup. As a versatile menu item, pottages were staples to an English diet for centuries.
A common variant was frumenty (also called furmity, fromity, fermenty) a soupy porridge made from boiled, cracked wheat enhanced with milk, eggs, or broth sweetened with dried fruits, nuts, sugar, and so on. They contained meat always, and as with mincemeat pies, the meat would be spiced with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, etc.
These types of puddings were practical for ease of cooking (everything was mixed together) as well as a perfect way to preserve meats in an age without stable refrigeration.
All sources seem to agree that the use of the word “plum” had some relationship to actual plums. During the Elizabethan era prunes were hugely popular, and since a prune is indeed a dried plum, the word became the standard for all dried fruits. Dried fruits are sweeter, and with sugar an expensive commodity, using dried fruits was a sensible alternative. With the addition of plums/prunes and other dried fruits in equal or greater measure than the meat, the “plum pottage” was born.
As the recipes shifted to contain more sweet ingredients that were expensive to acquire — especially with the inclusion of alcohol — plum pottage ceased to be an everyday food. Instead, it was a treat served only on major holidays, such as All Saint’s Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
During the reign of the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell (who in truth had scant to do with these wild restrictions) in the mid-1600, rich foods were banned as part of the Christmas celebrating. The Puritans believed a fast was more appropriate than feasting, going so far as to attempt banning Christmas entirely in 1656. These efforts failed, but to avoid harassment by local Puritan leaders, many folks submitted to the government’s will. This included Christmas foods, people altering recipes to the simple mixtures from past times. Thankfully, in 1714 George I returned to take the throne and one of his first requests was for “Christmas porridge” to be served at the royal Christmas feast.
As I explained in my blog post What IS a Sugar-plum? the word “plum” came to be applied to anything that was special and delightful. It is unlikely the word “plum” was applied to pre-Victorian versions of frumenty, pottages, and puddings. These recipes were fairly unsophisticated in the realm of fine cuisine. According to food expert Martha Bradley, in 1758 “the French laugh outrageously at this old English dish.“
Perhaps in an effort to prove the French wrong, or in a reflexive rebound to the Puritan restrictions, plum pudding recipes in the 18th century grew increasingly richer and elaborate. Rare spices, finer cuts of meat, imported fruits, and massive quantities of alcohol were added. Thanks to cheap sugar from the expanding West Indian slave plantations, plum puddings became sweeter and the savoury meat elements waned until the only meat product remaining was suet (raw beef or mutton fat).
It is unclear when or precisely why plum puddings evolved from an anytime menu item to a specific Christmas-only centerpiece culinary delight. Many cookbooks published in the late-1700s onward included recipes for plum pudding. By 1836, the familiar ball-shaped plum pudding topped with holly and doused with brandy to be set alight was commonly shown on prints of the period depicting Christmas dinners, establishing the dish as a holiday favorite.
In that same year, Charles Dickens described it as the centerpiece of the Christmas feast (see quote at the top of the post). Eliza Acton published Modern Cookery for Private Families in 1845, her cookbook including the first known recipe for plum pudding actually called “Christmas Pudding.”
Not long after, in 1861, Isabella Beeton gave a notable recipe for “Christmas Plum Pudding” distinguished from her other plum-pudding recipes by being boiled in an elaborate mould. *see images below
At the time when Eliza Acton was composing her cookbook, Christmas puddings were traditionally made four Sundays before Advent on what became known as “Stir-up Sunday”. The name comes from the Book of Common Prayer for that Sunday:
“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth good works, may by thee be plenteously required; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Traditionally everyone in the household gave the pudding mixture a stir — from east to west, reminiscent of the traveling Magi — and made a wish whilst doing so. The garnish of holly represented the crown of thorns and the flaming brandy symbolized the coming Passion.
It was a common practice to include either a threepence or a sixpence in the pudding mixture which could be kept by the person who found it. For children this was a welcome piece of pocket-money and for adults it was supposed to bring wealth in the coming year. Other common tokens included a tiny wishbone to bring good luck, a silver thimble for thrift, and an anchor to symbolise safe harbour.
A nice summary of the history–
“Christmas pudding, the rich culmination of a long process of development of ‘plum puddings’ which can be traced back to the early 15th century. The first types were not specifically associated with Christmas. Like early mince pies, they contained meat, of which a token remains in the use of suet. The original form, plum pottage, were made from chopped beef or mutton, onions and perhaps other root vegetables, and dried fruit. As the name suggests, it was a fairly liquid preparation: this was before the invention of the pudding cloth made large puddings feasible. As was usual with such dishes, it was served at the beginning of the meal. When new kinds of dried fruit became available in Britain, first raisins, then prunes in the 16th century, they were added. The name ‘plum’ refers to a prune; but it soon came to mean any dried fruit. In the 16th century variants were made with white meat… and gradually the meat came to be omitted, to be replaced by suet. The root vegetables disappeared, although even now Christmas pudding often still includes a token carrot… By the 1670s, it was particularly associated with Christmas and called ‘Christmas pottage’. The old plum pottage continued to be made into the 18th century, and both versions were still served as a filing first course rather than as a dessert… What currently counts as the traditional Christmas pudding recipe has been more or less established since the 19th century.” —Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson
Recipes for Christmas pudding are as plentiful as are those who cook them. Even today with the “standard” Christmas pudding as opposed to centuries past, the ingredients and methods of cooking widely vary. If interested in whipping one up for this year’s feast, I’ll let you search the web for a recipe that appeals. YouTube has loads of watch-while-you-cook videos for Christmas pudding as well. Here is a collage of images for fun and to show the diversity, and perhaps to spark your enthusiasm.
The flaming of the pudding requires a steady hand–
Half-fill a metal ladle, or similar, with brandy and heat over a gas flame or lit candle.
When the flame is hot enough, the brandy will light.
Pour the flaming brandy over the pudding.
Once the flames have subsided, serve with a brandy butter, brandy sauce, cream or home-made custard.
What is “Figgy Pudding”?
“We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin;
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here!”
So what in Sam-Hill is a “figgy pudding”? More confusion! Well, not really. Simply another name for the same thing. A lesser known name, and specific to recipes of Christmas pudding using figs as opposed to other dried fruits, but still the same.