One of my favorite desserts during the holidays is plum pudding, the dense and gooey fruit-filled cake smothered with a sauce of butter, sugar and cream. Plum puddings, traditionally served at Christmas time and often referred to as Christmas puddings, trace their culinary heritage to England, where the word “pudding” denotes anything that is substantial and sweet.
Originally containing plums, but now made with raisins, currants and candied fruits, the puddings are steamed or boiled, served warm, often flamed with brandy and accompanied by a rich sauce.
These festive desserts often are family recipes – closely guarded secrets. One of the most delicious Christmas puddings I ever enjoyed was a pudding flamed with brandy and prepared by Robert and JoAnn Clough. It was a real treat and the recipe still is a secret. Our family feast every year includes Grammie Nonie’s Plum Pudding, a pudding that has comforted the palates of at least 11 generations.
The secret to the richness and moistness of these Christmas puddings is the type of fat used to bind the fruits. Traditional English puddings use suet (yes, the stuff you feed the birds). Suet is the white fat found around the kidneys and loins in beef cattle and sheep. This makes a very rich, dense pudding. Old-time New England cookbooks often call for lard – rendered and clarified pork fat. Lard is richer than many fats, including butter, which Julia Child prefers to use.
Culinary shops such as Rooster Brother in Ellsworth or The Good Table in Belfast carry assorted sizes of pudding molds. Antique stores and flea markets often have beautiful old copper or tin molds that can be used to make Christmas puddings. Or, like many of our frugal Maine ancestors, you can improvise and use 1-pound coffee cans.
As with most culinary creations that taste sinful, time is the most important ingredient in plum puddings. Julia Child writes that timing is critical because, “Like a good fruitcake, a plum pudding develops its full flavor at least a week ahead.” My 1975 edition of “The Joy of Cooking” calls plum pudding “a truly festive Christmas dish that needs patience in the making,” and advises that the slow cooking process is necessary so that all the suet melts before the flour particles burst.
I have always found that the best gifts are not the ones found in shops and stores, but the ones we create ourselves. This holiday season, take a moment to savor old traditions and create some new ones. Enjoy!
Grammie Nonie’s Plum Pudding
1 large cup sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 cup seedless raisins
1 cup chopped suet
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup mixed fruit
1/2 cup red and green cherries (save some to decorate top of pudding, bottom of mold)
1/2 cup lemon and orange peels
1/2 cup nuts, coarsely chopped
3 large cup flour
1 heaping teaspoon soda
Salt (to taste)
1/2 cup candied pineapple
2 eggs, beat in last
Mix ingredients in a large bowl. Grease 3 small molds, or as my Grammie Nonie did, use three 1-pound coffee cans. Decorate the bottom of the molds with sliced red and green cherries, and pack the pudding mixture into the molds. Set on the steaming rack in a canner, or on a rack in a large pot. Fill about halfway with boiling water and 3 for three hours.
Cook’s notes: My mother has assumed the matriarch culinary role in our family, and she reminds me that Grammie Nonie always used a large, ivory-colored coffee mug to measure the sugar and the flour, and suggests that “heaping-up” the measuring cup will do. The salt is all a matter of taste, as is the variety of nuts. Mother is also flexible with the fruit, sometimes using even dates and figs. “Just keep it four cups total,” she says. Now I suppose we’ll have to change the name to Grammie Ro’s Plum Pudding.
Sauce for plum pudding:
1/4 pound butter
2 cups sugar
1 quart cream
vanilla to taste
Heat all ingredients slowly in a saucepan on top of the stove.
Julia Child’s Glorious Plum Pudding
3 cups lightly packed homemade white bread crumbs
1 cup each black raisins, yellow raisins and currants, chopped
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, mace and nutmeg (more if needed)
8 ounces butter, melted
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
a few drops of almond extract
1/2 cup bitter orange marmalade
Toss the bread crumbs in a large bowl with the raisins, sugar and spices. Then toss with the melted butter, and then the remaining ingredients. Taste carefully for seasonings, adding more spices if needed.
Pack the pudding mixture into an 8-cup pudding mold; cover with a round of waxed paper and then the lid. Set in a steaming contraption and steam for 6 hours.
Let the pudding cool in its container. Store in a cool wine cellar or the refrigerator. A good 2 hours before serving, resteam the pudding. Unmold onto a hot serving platter, and flame with 1/2-cup heated rum or bourbon. Serve with Zabaione Sauce.
1 large egg
2 egg yolks
a small pinch of salt
cup rum or bourbon
cup dry white French vermouth
1/2 cup sugar
Whisk all ingredients together for 1 minute in a stainless steel saucepan. Then whisk over moderately low heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until the sauce becomes thick, foamy and warm to your finger. Do not bring to a simmer or it will scramble the eggs. Serve warm or cold.
Martha Stewart’s Persimmon Pudding
This Persimmon Pudding from Martha Stewart gets its richness from the fruit, not from fat. I found it to be an intriguing way to learn about persimmons.
3 large very ripe persimmons
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Grease a 3-quart pudding mold or baking dish with vegetable oil. Peel the persimmons and mash the flesh, removing black seeds. You should have 2 cups of pulp. In a large bowl, beat the sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla until fluffy, then add the persimmon pulp. Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Add to the persimmon mixture and mix until just smooth. Pour the mixture into the pudding mold and cover tightly with a round of parchment paper and a rubber band, then with foil. Place on a rack in a large pot and add boiling water until it comes halfway up the mold. Cover the pot and simmer for 21/2 hours, adding boiling water as necessary to maintain level. Cool pudding on rack for 1 hour, then unmold and carefully invert on a serving platter. Serve with Sour Lemon Sauce.
Sour Lemon Sauce
1 cup sugar
11/4 tablespoon cornstarch
11/4 cups hot water
31/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 teaspoons grated lemon rind
Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in the top of a double boiler. Add hot water and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, whisking gently, until thick. Add butter, lemon juice and rind, and continue cooking, stirring gently, for about 5 minutes. Cool slightly before using, but do not refrigerate and do not reheat.
Cook’s notes: Persimmons are in season from October to February. I recently purchased some at the Belfast Co-op. Ask the produce manger in the your supermarket to order them. When ripe, persimmons have red-orange skin and flesh. They should be ripened at room temperature. An underripe persimmon will pucker the mouth. Traditionally, they are used in baked goods and puddings, but the fruit also may be eaten out of hand. Persimmons are a good source of vitamin A and contain vitamin C.