‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, and may of thee be plenteously rewarded…..’
This is the collect for the twenty fifth Sunday after Trinity. It’s taken from the Book of Common Prayer first published in 1549. In the 1662 version, celebrants are told it should be used on the ‘Sunday next before Advent’. With its mention both of ‘stirring’ and ‘fruit’ it doesn’t take much imagination to see why this Sunday became the traditional day for the making of Christmas puddings. Advent like Lent was a period of fasting – so it was probably a good idea to get the puddings made before it started.
Like Christmas mincemeat, plum puddings also once contained meat and originated in the need to preserve it over the winter. The traditional inclusion of suet is a reminder of their mediaeval origin.The early receipts found in the Harleian manuscripts in the British Library contain numerous dishes that show the sweet-savoury divide as we now know it did not exist in the fifteenth century. The Christmas pudding may also have evolved from frumety – a wheat or barley porridge (see the blog in December), and we know that by the 16th century a traditional plum pudding was being made during the winter months.
Then in 1638, as well as cancelling Christmas, the Puritans banned eating Christmas pudding as a ‘lewd custom’ describing its rich ingredients as ‘unfit for God-fearing people’.
Fortunately that good trencherman George I, having tasted and enjoyed plum pudding, re-established it as part of the Christmas feast in 1714. (George’s cook’s own recipe can be seen in Florence White’s book ‘Good Things in England’) The Quakers, however still regarded it as ‘the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon’. I think they have relented by now – although I’m sure these days Quaker Christmas puddings will be made with fair trade ingredients.
A moulded plum pudding from 'Mrs Beeton's Everyday Cookery'
There are of course lots of Christmas pudding recipes - my copy of Mrs Beeton has eight alone. It is traditional to have thirteen ingredients to represent Christ and the Apostles and also to include a coin so that someone can have good luck for the next year. My Grandma always put a silver thre’penny bit into the mixture. Everyone in the household must also have a stir (clockwise only) and make a wish. The pudding coin has its origin in ‘touch-pieces’ – coins supposed to bring good luck and the communal stirring is a way of bringing the family together. The holly represents the Crown of Thorns and the flaming spirit is reminiscent of the traditional winter game of Snapdragon – where you try and nibble bits of brandy-soaked flaming raisins without burning your lips or fingers.
I’ve chosen the recipe used by Elizabeth David in ‘Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen’ published by Penguin in 1970. The accompanying article entitled ‘The Christmas Pudding is Mediterranean Food’ is vintage E.D. as is the updated article and recipe in ‘Elizabeth David’s Christmas’ published in 2003.
Plum Pudding courtesy of Elizabeth David.
(I’ve halved it and tinkered just a little bit)
½ lb currants
½ lb sultanas
3oz candied peel finely chopped
3oz cherries - I left them whole
6 large eggs
½ pint milk or stout (I used Theakston's 'Old Peculiar')
3/4lb plain flour
1/4 pint brandy or rum
1 teaspoon mixed spice
good pinch salt
(and no I haven't forgotten the sugar..)
ED says mix all the ingredients together then place into buttered pudding basins, cover with a pleated piece of greaseproof paper tied on with string and steam for about 4 hours. I soaked the fruit overnight in the ale and brandy, then added the premixed dry ingredients and then the eggs. The mixture made 3 x 1lb puddings and 2 x 1.5lb puddings. The latter I steamed in plastic blancmange moulds (v cheap) so I had moulded versions a la Mrs Beeton. You can see the half cooked version in the picture - it's clearly taken the imprint of the mould, but needs another 2 hours or so steaming to attain the correct level of darkness.
"Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone too nervous to bear witnesses… to take the pudding up and bring it in.. Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that. That was the 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 bedecked with Christmas holly stuck into the top."
From ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens (1812-1870)