I’m not joking. My Christmas pudding is about the best thing there is in the entire world. If you are in any doubt, ask Ampersand Duck, who paid tribute to it in 2007 after devouring one with Zoe and their other halves. For some years I’ve made special ones that I’ve set aside to give to Ducky and her Best Beloved, as they love them almost as much as I do and so, after much begging from Duck and some not so subtle hints from Zoe, I’m finally going to share the recipe. The world needs more pudding love.
I’d just like to say at this point that I hope nobody confuses my love of Christmas pudding with love for the festive season or even Christmas dinner. For me, the only good thing about Christmas is the pudding and it has to be perfect. This one is. It’s based on Stephanie Alexander’s mum’s recipe, AKA Emily Bell’s Christmas Pudding. However, over time I’ve worked in some important enhancements. Mine is more alcoholic and has nuts and treats in it. Best of all, I’ve learned how to do it vegetarian, which is helpful if you want to show Christmas love to people who object to consuming beef fat with their fruit.
Make it now so the flavour develops over the coming weeks. It takes some planning, so I’ve laid it out in stages – both vego and suet versions are included. The given quantities make two puddings, each of which furnishes about eight slices. You can do the math, because there are families in which eight slices will go a long way, but mine is not one of them. Just halve or double, depending on your pudding needs.
1 very large basin (and room for it in the fridge), two full-sized pudding basins or four little ones (see pic below) a stock pot or pressure cooker pot, a trivet or a round cake rack, foil, baking paper, string, a food processor with a grater attachment. Pudding basins don’t cost any more than $15 each and are worth it because they are pretty for give away puddings or can be reused at home. You can also use calico, which is cheaper, and I’ll tell you how, but the puddings don’t keep so well.
If you are not vegetarian or vegan, go to a proper butcher: ask them to put aside some beef suet (you cannot use suet mix, it won’t work as it’s got stuff added and the proportions don’t hold). You need to order proper suet. Ask for about a kilo – it’s really cheap and you’ll need more than you think.
Allow at least a weekend to do this: the mixture soaks for two full days and it takes six hours to cook each pudding. So choose a weekend when you’re happy to stay home and guard the fridge and the stove.
Now you are ready.
- Shortening: at least 500g suet OR 360 grams of vegetable shortening, cooking margarine or unsalted butter
- Dry ingredients: 180g plain flour, 180g fresh white breadcrumbs (not dried ones), 180g dark brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt.
- Fruit: 900 grams in combinations that please you. The original recipe calls for 360g seedless raisins, 360g currants and 180g sultanas. I prefer to reduce the raisins in favour of extra currants and other additions. You could add some dried apricots, apples or figs, just make sure you keep the weight up to 900g. I warn thee, fruit from the co-op will have far too many seeds and sticks in it, so it’s best avoided.
- Liquids: 4 big eggs, 600 ml milk (or soy milk), 150ml brandy, at least 1/4 cup of vodka (the original recipe is far too dainty in the alcohol stakes and calls for extra milk to make the mixture wet. I added extra vodka, with pleasing results). Note, you need more than 150 mls of brandy as it’s necessary for serving.
- Special magic additions: 125g candied peel and/or crystallised ginger, 180g (very) roughly chopped hazelnuts or almonds, around 125g of glace cherries if that’s what you are into. Again, whatever you choose to substitute, make sure it weighs about 430g. Also, grated zest of a lemon (or two if you don’t add peel) and a half a nutmeg grated (about two teaspoons of ground nutmeg). You can add allspice and cinnamon if you love them as I do.
Dead easy, except for managing the shortening. If you are a vegetarian shortening is no big deal. Just stick it in the freezer then grate it (don’t bother rubbing it into the flour).
If you are doing it the traditional way, with beef suet, it gets messy, but it’s worth it for flavour, holding quality and keeping ability. Suet is the fat that forms between layers of skin and muscle and comes with a membranous layer. Peel that off, and take the lumps you’ve got left (without any bits that are pink or gristly) and put them through your food processor’s grater blades or sit there for hours hand grating (and grating your hand). I know I’m not exactly selling the process, but do persevere! Keep the suet loose. It’s naturally soft, so if you pack it into the grater it sticks together. Starting with the suet very cold or frozen helps. Do try to avoid spraying it around the kitchen as it’s smeary and hard to clean up. Once you’ve got a nice fluffy lump of the stuff weigh it. You can stop grating when you get to 360 grams.
Take the shortening and everything else and chuck it in the bowl and stir until you have a big sloppy mess. It will be quite wet. Stick it in the fridge and ignore it for one day. Then get it out, stir it and taste a little bit. If you think it needs more spice, add it. Likewise brandy and vodka. Then refrigerate it for one more day.
Prepare your basins. Invert the basin onto baking paper. Draw a line around the bowl, and then cut out a nice little circle. Butter the dishes. Divide the pudding mixture evenly between the bowls and level off the surface. Butter the nice little baking paper circle and lay it butter side down on the pudding. Then get tinfoil and put two layers over the top of the bowl so it covers the sides at least 1/3 of the way down. Get a rubber band to hold it in place and tie it with heaps of string (the rubber band won’t stand up to the cooking, but it will help you get the string tight).
If you’ve decided not to use a basin, get two big pieces of calico, about 1 metre square, and boil them. While they are steaming hot lay them down on a scrupulously clean bench and chuck a big handful of flour in the middle. Smooth the flour out to make a circle. That will form a gluey coating that will protect the pud from the elements. Put half the pudding mix in the middle and pull the corners together. Use rubber bands to pull the top of the pudding into the characteristic pudding shape – you want as little room as possible between the top of the pudding and the rubber band and you want the floured bits to go all the way over the pudding. It’s tricky, so redo it if you need to. Tie long lengths of string around the top.
To cook them, get your biggest, tallest pot(s). If you are using a basin, put a trivet or cake rack in the bottom and sit the bowl down on that. Pour water in so it comes 2/3 the way up the sides of the bowl. If you are using a cloth tie the string on the handle of a wooden spoon and balance the spoon on the top of the pot so the pudding is suspended in the water. Whichever method you use, cover them, bring them to a boil and keep them going, topping up the water as needed. (If they are full size basins cook for six hours, half size three, teeny weeny two, etc.) Bits of suet or butter will leach out into the cooking water, just ignore. DO NOT GO OUT, we don’t want the firemen coming and destroying the puddings.
After cooking and cooling the foil on top of the basins will have gone all grey and horrid so replace it (an opportunity to smell the puds). If you’ve used a cloth, fan the fabric out so the top dries over a couple of days and keep the pudding hanging somewhere. Basin puddings keep for at least a year in the cupboard or the fridge (hah!). Cloth puddings can develop mould because this mix is wetter than you’d usually use so watch them, keep them in the fridge and eat them within a few months.
On Christmas Day boil it for another hour, using the same arrangements. To serve invert the bowl (or peel off the cloth), and you will have something that looks rather like this:
But before you eat it, you must flame it with brandy. To do that, get a big old tablespoon and fill it with brandy (remember, I told you that more than 150ml is required). Hold the spoon over the pudding and use a lighter to warm the bottom of the spoon until you see heat rising from the brandy, then flick the flame over the edge of the spoon so you get a blue flame. Pour the whole shebang over the pudding. Kids and adults are invariably delighted to see this:
After you’ve done that three or four times, as Zoe and Owen did for this picture in 2007, you are ready to eat. You can use cream or make proper vanilla bean custard or ice cream or brandy sauce, or serve it with hard sauce (which is overkill for such a rich pudding). One of my best moments was eating it with diet carton custard. Whatever you accompany it with, enjoy.
And here’s to you Ducky – a project for when you are feeling a bit better.