Christmas Pudding


FOTCM Member
Christmas pudding, also known as plum, or figgy, pudding (although it contains nether), is the traditional dessert served at the end of a British or Irish Christmas dinner. The sweet, dried fruit pudding is decorated with holly, doused in brandy, lit and ceremoniously brought to the dinner table to a round of applause (compare this with a haggis being ceremoniously piped in for Burns supper (Burns night is on 25 January)). A portion of Christmas pudding is traditionally served with brandy butter, brandy sauce, or custard (in part, a remnant of its past forms).

It is possible that the original form of plumb pudding arose in the 14th century as a form of cinnamon flavoured porridge called ‘frumenty’, that was coloured with saffron. This was associated with meatless days, Lent, and Advent. Other possible ancestors include savoury puddings such as those found in Harleian MS 279 (a cookbook in three parts that was produced around about 1430), croustade (a dish of meat, fish and fruit bound by a custard), malaches whyte (a custard tart), crème boiled (a stirred custard), and sippets (bread soaked in soup). However, there were also a variety of recipes which included ingredients such as beef, mutton, dried fruits, spices, and wine. These were more like a soup and were eaten as a fasting meal; in preparation for the Christmas festivities to come. Plum pudding is first recorded in the early 15th century, then it was called plum pottage, which was a savoury concoction, mainly meat and root vegetables, that was served at the start of a meal. In those days, plum was a generic term for any dried fruit. It was during the 16th century that dried fruit became more plentiful in Britain, and as a consequence, plum pudding moved from being a savoury dish to a fruit dish. In fact, by 1595, ‘frumenty’ was slowly changing into ‘plum pudding’, as it was thickened with breadcrumbs, eggs and dried fruit, and given more flavour with the addition of beer and/or fortified wine, or spirits. By 1650 it was the customary Christmas dessert. Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1647, and in 1664 he had it banned, along with Yule logs, carol singing and nativity scenes. Cromwell and his Puritan associates considered them as connected with Druidic paganism and Roman Catholic idolatry. However, in 1660, the Puritans were disposed and the English monarchy was restored along with Christmas pudding. One of the earliest recorded plum pudding recipes was written by Mary Kettilby in her book Three Hundred Recipes in Cookery, Physick, and Surgery, in 1714. Many others followed. The tradition of Christmas pudding was cemented during the Victorian era.

It was during the 1830s that a boiled cake of flour, fruits, spices, suet, and sugar became more associated with Christmas. The first reference to Christmas Pudding was made by the East Sussex (South East of England) cook, Eliza Acton, in her 1845 book, Modern Cooking for Private Families. By the 19th century, the ingredients were more or less standardized as suet, brown sugar, currents and raisins, candied orange peel, eggs, breadcrumbs, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and liberal amounts of alcohol.

After the 19th century Christmas puddings were traditionally boiled in a pudding cloth. A pudding cloth was a floured piece of fabric that could hold and keep a pudding of any size until it was needed. As a Christmas pudding did not need to be cooked in an oven, it became more available to lower class households. Originally, the pudding was round in shape as it was hung up in the pudding cloth. It was only during the Victorian era that the pudding was placed in a basin and steamed.

There is a popular myth that took hold in the late Victorian era. This was that the pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity (The Sunday before Advent). It was based on the collect for that day, which in the Church of England Book of Common Prayer begins with the words ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of the faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruits of good works …’ It became known as ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This date is 4 – 5 weeks before Christmas (the last Sunday before Advent). By the 1920s it was an established custom that everyone in the household stir the pudding three times and make a secret wish. There are other Christmas symbols associated with the mixing too: the number of ingredients; the direction of stirring; and even with the ‘wooden’ spoon used!

Steaming the pudding took many hours (it still does). Most pre-20th century recipes assumed that the pudding would be served immediately, however, by the second half of the 20th century, it became more usual to steam the pudding in advance and then reheat the steamed pudding on the day of serving; this was done by steaming the pudding once more for a shorter period of time.

It was, and still is, common practice to put a small silver coin in the pudding mixture, which is kept by the person whose serving included it. The usual choice was either a threepenny bit or a sixpence. The coin was believed to bring good fortune in the coming year, and this practice came from an earlier tradition where tokens were put in a Twelfth Night Cake (which was just like a heavily iced and decorated Christmas cake) that is now defunct.
This Gluten-free recipe is based upon a consideration of the recipes of several well-known British bakers and blogsites: Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson, BBC Good Food, Good Housekeeping, and primarily Jane Gregson’s book, English Foodstuffs, (London, Penguin Books, 1993).

Ingredients: (enough for a total of 4 – 5 pints (2.1 – 2.8 litres) and for 12 plus people)
Breadcrumbs (fresh) 175g
Cooking apple (diced) 75g
Suet 300g
Candied peel (diced) 60g
Raisins 300g
Sultanas 250g
Currents 250g
Gluten-free flour mix* 125g
Rapadura sugar 300g
Mixed spice 1tsp
Salt 1/2tsp
Lemon zest 1Tbsp
Lemon juice 60g
Eggs 100g (2 large)
Brandy 175g

*Gluten-free flour mix: Brown rice flour 440g; Sweet rice flour 125g; Potato starch 45g; Tapioca starch 95g; Arrowroot powder 55g. Total weight: 760g

On the day before ‘Stir-up Sunday’, prepare the breadcrumbs.

If it is intended to include a silver coin, soke it overnight in cola to clean it, and then dry.
Take slices of Gluten-free bread, remove the crust, cut into slices; place in a preheated oven (80g) and dry for one hour; then place the cubes of bread into a food processor and pulse to make breadcrumbs; measure out the breadcrumbs into a bowl (1) and set aside.

On ‘Stir-up Sunday’, make up the Christmas pudding and spoon into the bowls; cover and leave overnight for the flavours to merge.

Peel, core and dice the apple.
In a large bowl (2), add the suet, diced apple, diced candied peel, raisins, sultanas, and currants; mix together; add the gluten-free flour mix, breadcrumbs, Rapadura sugar, mixed spices, and salt, and then combine. If using, add the cleaned silver coin.
Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, lightly beaten eggs, and brandy; mix to thoroughly combine all of the ingredients to form the pudding mixture.
Generously butter the pudding basins (3 and 4; in this case a 2 ½ pint (1.4 litre) and a 1 ½ (0.7 litre) pint size pudding basin).
Scoop the pudding mixture into each of the two basins, packing in the mixture using the back of a spoon to press it in and pack it down; divide the mixture between the two basins.
Cut either a double layer of cheesecloth (as was traditional), or two layers of parchment paper together, that forms a square that is 23cm (9in) wider than the diameter of the pudding basin. In the centre, of one direction, fold a pleat that is 5cm (2in) wide. The pleat will allow for expansion as the pudding cooks. Drape the prepared cheesecloth or parchment paper over the top of the basin and smooth it down the sides to beyond the rim. Secure the covering with an elastic band.
Cut a length of kitchen string that is at last three times the circumference of the basin rim. Tie a loop in one end. Hold the loop in place with one hand, pass the string , below the lip around the basin; thread the free end through the loop, pull tight; and pull the string back around the basin to a point on the opposite side of the loop; at this position, pass the string beneath the existing string and tie a knot; loop the string over the top of the basin to form a handle, with the string passing through the loop again and back over the top of the basin to return to the knot, and there tie another knot to secure the string. Cut off any excess. The handle will be useful for taking the steamed pudding basin out of the steamer.
Trim off excess muslin or parchment paper below the string (in the not-too-distant past, the muslin would have been left intact and the ends looped back over the string and tied with a knot to form a handle). Repeat with the other basin.

Leave overnight for the flavours to merge.

On the day after ‘Stir-up Sunday’, steam the pudding.

Place an upturned saucer in the base of a large saucepan; place the filled basin on top; fill the saucepan with water so that it comes halfway up the side of the basin; cover with a lid, and over medium heat, bring the water to a boil, then reduce the water to a simmer, and steam for 8 hours, topping up the simmering water as necessary. Repeat with the other basin.

Carefully remove the steamed pudding basins from the steamers and set aside to cool.
Store in a cool, dry place, or freeze, until needed.

On the day of serving the Christmas puddings (usually Christmas day), re-steam the puddings to heat it up for eating.

On the day of serving, re-steam the puddings for 2 ½ hours, or even longer if the puddings have been stored in a freezer. Remove the reheated Christmas puddings from the steamers and allow them to sit for 5 minutes, then cut the string and remove the covering. Place a serving plate on top of the pudding basin and invert, let the pudding slide out of the basin on its own, then remove the pudding basin.

If it is proposed to flambé the Christmas pudding, place 125ml of brandy (or vodka since it burns longer) in a small pan and heat. Once it is warm, carefully light the brandy fumes; then pour the lit brandy over the plated Christmas pudding and take it to the Christmas table.

Serve with brandy butter, brandy sauce, or custard.


Below is a stock photo of a ‘flaming’ Christmas pudding, as it is too complicated to take photos of the process at the time of consuming.

View attachment christmas-pudding-flambe.webp
Brandy butter
It is typically served with plum pudding, or Christmas pudding and mince pies at Christmas time in the United Kingdom. It is usually served cold.

The exact origins of brandy butter are shrouded in mystery. The first written reference for brandy butter occurred in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1939, although brandy butter was in use long, long before that. There is an alternative, Rum butter (and contains nutmeg too), of which more is known, which is a speciality in Cumberland (Northwest England), and seems to have first appeared in the 18th century, and was used extensively in the 19th century. A recipe was first contained in The North Lonsdale Magazine, published in 1867, in an article by James P Morris.

This recipe is based upon that given by the British food writer, Mary Berry on her website post (Mary Berry).

Butter (room temperature, sliced) 220g
Soft Dark brown sugar (Muscovado) 170g (superfine, or blitz in a coffee grinder)
Cane sugar 170g (superfine, or blitz in a coffee grinder)
Brandy 5Tbsp

In a large bowl, initially at low speed then increasing to medium, beat the butter using a hand-held electric mixer for 3 minutes, or until the butter is light, creamy and smooth.
Add the superfine sugars, and cream the mixture until creamy and smooth, and lightly, or paler than when it started.
Add the brandy, one tablespoon at a time, mixing it in with a silicone spatula until fully incorporated.

Transfer the Brandy butter to a serving container.

Covered, it will keep for up to 3 weeks in refrigerator.


The sauce, custard, referred to in this case, is crème anglaise, vanilla sauce, or simply as pouring custard. It is the basis for many other creams, desserts ice creams, and mousses. Depending on the recipe, custards may vary in consistency from a thin to a thick pouring sauce, and may be used either warm or cold. Sauces are in fact, not a component of pastries in general. They are served as an accompaniment, either poured over or beside slices of cakes, crumble, pastries, steam puddings, desserts or on fruits, on their own or in tarts.

Crème anglaise or vanilla sauce is a stovetop custard, since it is cooked from start to finish in a saucepan. Custard is essentially egg yolks mixed with milk, sweetened with sugar, and flavoured with vanilla (other flavourings may be added as desired). The key to its smooth rich consistency is the egg yolks which thicken the sauce when placed over low heat and stirred.

There is very little history about custard as a cooked sauce, only as a baked custard. The word custard derives from the French word, ‘crustade’, a tart with a crust. It is known that ancient Roman cooks were the first to recognize the binding properties of eggs. As a cooked sauce, in England, a dressing was used on poached eggs in medieval times; this dressing became what is now called crème anglaise.

Stirred custard is thickened by coagulation, or binding, of egg protein. Egg yolk also contains enzymes like amylase, whose activity contributes to the overall thinning of custard in the mouth. Egg yolk lecithin also helps to maintain the milk-egg interface.

The most important task in achieving a successful stirred custard is to avoid excessive heat which will cause over-coagulation and syneresis that will result in a curdled custard.

Secondly, to achieve the desired thickness and texture, the temperature of the custard needs to be carefully monitored to prevent the yolks from exceeding their maximum coagulation temperature. During cooking, the proteins in the egg yolks coagulate, or solidify, and in the process provide texture and structure. When the yolks are diluted with ingredients such as milk or sugar, the temperature of coagulation rises.

Slow, even heat ensures that all of the proteins in the egg yolks are completely coagulated. Yolks coagulate at a temperature between 65 - 70°C, and above 70°C, the yolks will clump. Hence, constant stirring is required to maintain a consistent temperature throughout the whole body of the custard as it cooks. The more egg yolks there are in a crème anglaise, the thicker the custard will be. However, the larger the number of yolks the more easily the vanilla sauce will curdle. If stirring stops for any reason, the proteins closest to the heat source at the bottom of the saucepan will coagulate and overcook. Note also that chemical reactions such as coagulation develop their own momentum and do not stop the moment that they are removed from the heat source. If the thickening process is too fast, it may not be detected and stopped before it overshoots and hits ‘curdled’: over-coagulation.

Thirdly, as with most things mixed for pastries, the way in which ingredients are combined will increase the likelihood of success. Since almost simmering milk is at a vastly different temperature to a whisked egg yolk-sugar mix, the different temperatures need to gently come together, otherwise once again, the yolks will curdle. This is achieved by tempering. The term refers to temperature, and it is a way that two ingredients with extremely different temperatures can gently come together, in this case, to prevent premature coagulation. To temper custard: a small portion of the heated milk is whisked into the egg yolk-sugar mixture. In the process the yolks begin to warm to 60 - 66°C. Then, the pre-warmed yolk mixture is poured back into the heated milk and whisked together.

This recipe is based upon the dairy recipes of Healy B, and Bugat P, Mastering the Art of French Pastry, (New York, Barron’s, 1984), for a Crème Anglaise, and of Sherry Yard for a Master Vanilla Sauce, The Secrets of Baking, (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2003).

This recipe also makes use of a dairy free variant that is based upon Hemp milk, or Coconut milk.

Ingredients: (makes about 600 – 650ml)
Egg yolks 144g (8 large)
Hemp milk 500g (or Coconut milk)
Vanilla essence 1tsp
Cane sugar 150g
Take the eggs out of the refrigerator, and immediately (for easier separation) separate out the yolks. Allow the yolks to come up to room temperature (about 30 minutes), so that they will whip together and combine more easily.

Prepare an ice bath; using a large bowl, fill it with water and ice cubes. Set aside a smaller, medium bowl or pouring jug that can hold the finished custard: this will be placed in the ice bath later. Set aside.

Pour the milk into a medium (1.5 – 2L), non-aluminium, saucepan, add the vanilla essence to the milk, and over medium heat, bring it almost to a simmer (the ‘surface shivering’ stage).

Meanwhile, in a medium sized bowl, lightly whisk the egg yolks with a fork, or hand whisk. Add the sugar and initially whisk together for a minimum of 30 seconds to ensure that all of the sugar is covered by yolk (it is important that any clumps of sugar are dispersed, or the sugar will burn the egg yolks, resulting in grainy yolks (often referred to as cooked), as the acid in the sugar can coagulate the egg yolks). Then whisk together until very well blended, smooth and lemon coloured.

Remove the milk saucepan from the heat, slowly pour in about a quarter of the hot milk into the whisked egg mixture, while whisking constantly. Place the saucepan of hot milk back on the stove top, off heat. Then, scrape the warmed egg mixture back into the hot milk, whisking constantly. Ensure that all of the warmed egg mixture is scraped into the milk saucepan. Whisk the mixture until thoroughly blended.

If new to the process, and an instant read thermometer is used to determine the custard temperature, note that when taking a reading, keep stirring and keep in contact with the bottom surface of the saucepan, and take the custard off the heat source before taking a reading, and keep stirring; the bottom surface will curdle quicker than is thought. After taking the reading, keep stirring, still in contact with the bottom of the saucepan, and move the saucepan back to the heat source and continue stirring.

Otherwise, the method is as follows. Place the saucepan containing the custard mixture over low heat and with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon, or even better with a flat bottomed wooden or silicone spatula and stir without stopping, constantly scraping the bottom of the saucepan. Stir constantly in figure eights and around the edge of the saucepan and into the centre (that way the whole of the bottom of the saucepan will be covered). The custard should reach a temperature of 77°C, yet no more than 79°C, on an instant read thermometer. The vanilla sauce is ready when it has the consistency of thick cream. A further test of readiness is, off heat, to lift the spatula out of the sauce and run a finger across the back of the spatula. It should leave a clear trail, with the rest of the spatula remaining coated with the vanilla sauce. Also, it will be noted that the base of the spatula will be thickened with a layer of coagulated custard (due to its close proximity with the bottom surface of the saucepan). If the crème anglaise runs, cook for one more minute, or until the consistency is right.

An easier method to use without the aid of a thermometer (although this use only comes with experience) is to observe the surface of the custard whilst it is being stirred.

While stirring the custard mixture in the manner described above, observe the surface behind the spatula as it is moved through the custard mixture. Initially there are lots of tiny, long ripples, and look like vortices, whirlpools, or waves. Then the ripples or waves will begin to thicken into large smooth and thicker waves. When the custard sauce is ready these waves will turn into a single wave that may extend across the whole surface of the custard. As before, a further test of readiness is, off heat, to lift the spatula out of the sauce and run a finger across the back of the spatula. It should leave a clear trail, with the rest of the spatula remaining coated with the vanilla sauce. Also, it will be noted that the base of the spatula will be thickened with a layer of coagulated custard (due to its close proximity with the bottom surface of the saucepan).

Immediately, and whilst still stirring and scraping, remove the saucepan of custard from the heat source and continue to stir for a further 1 – 2 minutes (as the residual heat in the base of the saucepan will continue to cook the custard, which could curdle it).

Then, immediately strain the custard sauce through a fine mesh strainer into either a chilled stainless-steel bowl or pouring jug.

Set the filled custard sauce container in the ice bath to cool; stir the vanilla sauce occasionally for 5 – 10 minutes, or until the temperature drops to that desired. If quicker cooling is required, place the filled container in a refrigerator and stir occasionally, moving and exchanging the cold exterior custard (closest to the container walls) with that in the middle of the container (then check the temperature with an instant read thermometer). Serve warm crème anglaise sauce at approximately 40°C (just above finger temperature (36 -38°C)), or cold custard sauce at 4°C. Some baking authors (usually American) even recommend placing the custard sauce in a refrigerator for 24 hours before using cold.

The pouring custard can be refrigerated for between 2 – 3 days.

If, whilst stirring, the yolks should begin to curdle, or the crème anglaise sauce looks grainy, or there are lumps in the vanilla pouring sauce, it is because the yolks got too hot, all is not lost. Once the sauce has cooled, the use of a stick or hand blender will chop up the mixture to once again produce a smooth, velvety sauce that holds together. Once strained, it can be used. If this does not happen, then the sauce has been overcooked and needs to be discarded.

Top Bottom