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 sauce made from rum or brandy butter (sometimes called hard sauce) added right before serving also became customary.
I decided to make a recipe from the journal of Anna Maxwell of Philadelphia's historic Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion labeled 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.
My adapted version ~
Makes one large (Bundt pan-sized) pudding or two smaller ones, serving 15-20 people
- 2 ¾ cups raisins
- 1 ½ cups dried currants
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 ¾ cups flour
- 1 ¾ cups bread crumbs (preferably from egg bread such as Challah or French brioche)
- 1 ½ cups suet (or lard)
- ½ cup chopped candied ginger
- Pinch of salt
- ½ cup chopped dried pineapple
- 1 small nutmeg, grated
- Juice of one orange and one peel, grated
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Juice of one lemon and one peel, grated
- 6 eggs, well-beaten
- ½ cup chopped almonds
- 1 cup of cider, milk or brandy
- Mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator overnight.
- The next day, stir batter again to make sure ingredients are well mixed.
- Coat a tin mold or Bundt pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper. Pour mixture into pan and cover with foil. Add some water to cover the bottom of a crock-pot, place the pan inside and close the lid. Steam the pudding for 4-5 hours on high, then take it out and let it cool for an hour on a wire rack.
- When cool, loosen the edges and carefully turn out onto a plate.
Just before serving make a hard sauce:
Anna’s version: Mix the 2 teaspoons cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water until smooth, then whisk in 2 egg yolks. Dissolve ¼ cup sugar in 1 cup milk, heat to boiling, then add the egg yolks and cornstarch. Stir over low heat until it has the thickness of cream; then take off the burner and mix in 1 tablespoon fruit jelly and a pinch grated nutmeg. Pour over the pudding and then cut in slices to serve.
“Traditional” hard sauce from 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.
While baking, the pudding will give off rich aromas – savory (almost a bacon smell) from the suet or lard, mixed with the spicy scent of the nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. The verdict from my taste testers: delicious! Everyone loved the flavors and commented that it was similar to a fruitcake but more delicious and moist. Give it a try and resurrect a Victorian holiday 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