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Visions of sugary plum pudding? Try this

December 12, 2009|By MARLENE PARRISH / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Steamed Christmas plum puddings are as British as the Queen Mum. Traditionally, the steamed cakes are made about five weeks before Christmas, preferably on the last Sunday before Advent (this year, it was Nov. 22). Stir-up Sunday marks the official start of the holiday baking and cooking season in England. A steamed plum pudding for dessert at Christmas dinner is still a big deal, as essential to a British celebration today as it ever was.

The nickname, Stir-up Sunday, is taken from the Collect for the Day in the Book of Common Prayer on the Sunday before the beginning of Advent: "Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people ..." But it was the rhyme of schoolboys on the playground that made the pudding connection: "Stir up, we beseech thee, The pudding in the pot, And when we get home, We'll eat it all hot."

To the Brits, "pudding" is the dessert course of a meal, nothing like the American pudding, a soft, spoonable dessert. A plum pudding is a version of fruitcake that has been steamed in a special pan in a bain marie (water bath), not baked, say, in a layer-cake pan in a hot oven. Originally, it did contain plums, but today it has dried prune plums along with other dried fruit with nuts.


Back in the day, pudding-making brought the family together. Each person took a turn stirring, making a wish and tossing a coin or charm into the batter. To find a lucky charm on Christmas could mean a future of wealth, health, happiness (or possibly a trip to the dentist), and made sure that everyone at the table clamored for a slice of pudding.

The perfect pudding is a dense, moist and oozing decadence, rich in fruits and rum or brandy. Making one takes time, most of it in assembling the ingredients. Some desserts hold the line at 13 ingredients, to represent Christ and his disciples. Most have even more, but they are largely spices and flavorings. Christmas puddings originally contained meat and suet as well as onions, wine, spices and dried fruit. These days, butter or oil is the fat of choice. Once made, the puddings are put away in a cool, dry place. The dessert needs only a further hour of steaming on the day you want to serve it. If you missed Stir-up Sunday (and who had time to bake for Christmas with all the Thanksgiving cooking to do?), there's still plenty of time; just know that a plum pudding, like its cousin fruitcake, develops its full flavor when made at least a week ahead.

To steam a plum pudding, it's best to use a special pudding mold with a center-tube, made for this purpose. The container has a very tight lid, which is clamped on to seal the pan throughout the cooking. (For want of a lid, I've covered the batter-filled mold with tightly pressed aluminum foil.) The mold goes into a Dutch oven or kettle, and enough water is added to the kettle to come a third of the way up the sides of the mold.

If you don't have a pudding pan, use a ring-type pan with a 2-1/2-quart capacity. You'll have to fudge on the timing, checking the baking as you go. A bundt pan will not work.

Traditional cooks prefer a stovetop steam, but you have to keep adding water to be sure it doesn't boil off. I prefer to steam the pudding in a 350-degree oven for 2-1/2 hours. The pudding, or cake, is moist and very forgiving.

The pudding is done when it is a dark walnut-brown color and fairly firm to the touch. A cake tester will come out clean and the pudding will pull away from the side of the pan a bit.

Remove the pudding from its bath, place on a cooling rack and allow it to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn it out from the pan and allow to cool completely. Wash and dry the mold and return the cooled pudding to it. I like to poke the cake a dozen or so times with a toothpick or cake tester, then spoon over about 1/3 cup of rum or brandy as you would a fruitcake. Store the pudding in a cool place such as an unheated attic or a cool garage.

Warming for service: A good two hours before you plan to serve, re-steam the pudding. Unmold it onto a hot serving platter and garnish with sprigs of holly.

Serve the plum pudding flaming. Do this in either of two ways. Either pour hot rum around the warm pudding and ignite it at the table. Or, half-fill a metal ladle, or similar utensil, with rum or brandy and carefully heat it over a gas flame or lighted candle. When the flame is hot enough, the brandy will light. A long fireplace match is insurance against scorched eyebrows and cuffs. Pour the flaming brandy over the pudding. Make sure the lights are out for this once-a-year grand finale. When the flames have subsided, serve slices of pudding with hard sauce, whipped cream or creme Anglaise.

In the glass, the fruit cake's flavors and richness work very well with a vintage port, but good matches are also a muscat liqueur or rich Madeira.

Merry Christmas to all!

Note: You will find 2-quart pudding molds online or at most upscale kitchen stores.


o (Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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