This Sunday is “Stir-up Sunday”, the date on the calendar when households traditionally made up the Christmas pudding in order for it to develop its bewitching flavour ready for the big day.
Now, like most of you, I’m quite happy to buy my puddings these days, and it’s always fun to test one against another. Quite often the slightly cheaper brands are the better puddings, in my experience.
I know that a certain German-based discount supermarket has a brilliant pudding, for instance. And believe me when I tell you, because I absolutely adore Christmas Pudding. So much so that I usually have one or two throughout the year, just as a reminder.
I can’t think of anything sillier than just eating something so delectable just once a year, especially after a huge main course when the appetite is blunted. And on these occasions, it’s easy to defrost a pud bought in the post-holiday sales and steam it back to life. But it’s sometimes quite nice to delve back into history and have a crack at one of these old recipes once more, from scratch.
It’s not a hard pudding to knock up at all – just an assembly job really – but that shopping list often sees people reaching for the ready-mades.
Just once, try making your own. It’s so worth it, and the flavours, tweaked to your personal requirements, make for a very special pudding indeed.
As I was making this, I was put in mind of Downton Abbey’s below-stairs kitchen juggernaut Mrs Patmore, herself as plump as a plum duff, knocking up dozens of these without breaking stride, in a flurry of flour and steam.
It’s very much one of those incredibly evocative dishes. Christmas pudding is a wonderful historic dessert, steeped in history as much as it is in brandy; originally it was decreed by the Roman Catholic Church that a celebratory fruit pudding be made with thirteen ingredients to represent Christ and his apostles, and stirred by the whole family.
This must be done in a clockwise east-to-west direction to symbolise the journey made by the three kings.
Later, a similar pudding was created as a way of preserving meat long after it should have gone off (this is how mincemeat got its name and origin).
This, thankfully, evolved into the more traditional meat-free pudding over the years, with the great cook and writer Eliza Acton being credited with the first coining of the name ‘Christmas Pudding’.
Speaking of coins, no pudding should be without its sixpence, originally placed inside to bestow good fortune upon the finder.
I forgot to put a coin in and promptly lost my lovely old watch, so be careful that you adhere to this tradition! These days a well-cleaned pound coin will suffice.
One thing this pudding will require, if you’re as bad at knots as I am, is a willing helper who’ll offer a vital finger at the right time – the sealing of the pudding is crucial if you want it to cook evenly and perfectly. So, why not have a go this year?
And if getting it done for Christmas doesn’t appeal, just take the heathen road as I do, and make it whenever you want. It’s a terrific winter pudding at any time during the cold months.
Traditionally, a sweet white sauce is served alongside the glorious pud, but I like mine with brandy butter, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with custard or even a scoop of good ice-cream. Aprons on!
Ingredients (makes 2 litre puddings):
140g dried figs
90g dried apricots
60g dark glacé cherries
120ml brandy or rum
1 large Bramley apple
The juice and zest of 2 small oranges
270g dark muscovado sugar
5 medium-sized free-range eggs, beaten
200g fresh white breadcrumbs
135g self-raising flour
2 tsp mixed spice
A little butter for greasing
2 litre-capacity pudding basins
A means of steaming the puddings
Two 10p or pound coins, washed in boiling water and soaked in a little brandy
Clean the pudding basins thoroughly, and smear liberally with butter.
Chop the larger dried fruit until it’s all the same size as the raisins, roughly speaking.
Cut the apple in half, remove the core and grate the flesh and skin.
Put the dried fruit, grated apple, brandy, orange juice and zest, the suet and the sugar into a large bowl.
Mix well, then stir in the beaten eggs gradually. Add the breadcrumbs, and sift in the flour and mixed spice.
Mix well, until the mixture forms a dense, uniform mixture. Divide the mixture between the two basins, remembering to pop a coin in each pudding.
Take a large sheet of greaseproof paper per pudding, grease it well on one side with butter, and fold a pleat into it, about two inches in width. This allows for the expansion of the pudding as it steams.
Make the same pleat with a sheet of foil for each pud. Cover the puddings with the greaseproof and foil, making sure the pleat is across the centre of the basin, and fold the paper down the sides.
With the help of a willing assistant, encircle the foil and greaseproof below the rim with string, and tie into a knot to secure it. Repeat for the other pudding.
Trim away all but an inch or two of the excess paper and foil. Set the pudding in a steamer with a lid, and cook over gentle heat for 3 hours, checking on the water level occasionally and topping up from the kettle.
Remove from the heat and chill until Christmas, or your desired date.
The pudding will keep in the fridge for weeks.
To cook, reheat the pudding in the steamer for a further 3-4 hours, and serve immediately.
To flame the pudding, warm a ladleful of brandy or rum over gentle heat, douse the pudding, and ignite it just as you head to the table.
Mind your hands.