For many Americans, cookies, cakes and pies are the desserts most often associated with Christmas. But if we traveled back in time to the Victorian era, it was plum pudding that was the highlight of the holiday feast. Even the poor Cratchit family in the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol had one on their holiday table. After being doused in a thick, sugary sauce, (which usually included brandy or wine), the pudding was lit up and the flaming dish, garnished with a sprig of holly, was proudly brought to the table to close out the celebratory meal.
We have the British to thank for bringing their love of puddings to America, particularly plum pudding, which can be traced back to the fifteenth century. It originated as plum pottage (sometimes called plum porridge), which was more liquidly, like a soup, and served at the beginning of a meal. Like most puddings of the time, it was meat-based, so the ingredients included chopped beef or mutton, onions and sometimes other root vegetables, as well as dried plums (hence the name), breadcrumbs as a thickener, and copious amounts of wine, herbs and spices for flavor.
This rich dish was a favorite for feast days such as All Saints Day, Christmas and New Year’s Day, but it wasn’t until the 1600s when it became specifically associated with Christmas and began to be referred to as the more luxurious sounding plum pudding or even Christmas pudding. Around this time it also evolved into the larger, more solid consistency of a “boiled pudding” due to the creation of the pudding-cloth. The ingredients would be mixed together, then tied up into a tidy bundle inside the cloth and boiled in a kettle over an open fire. Sometimes the pudding was even cooked directly over a simmering stew.
The name comes from the use of dried plums (prunes), which were commonly used in medieval times. Later, when other dried fruits such as raisins were introduced into England, these were substituted or added, but the “plum pudding” name stuck. Over the years, the meat was replaced by suet (the protective fat around the kidneys of beef or mutton) and the vegetables were gradually phased out, although some cooks still include a token carrot in their version.
By the Victorian age, plum pudding had evolved into a sumptuous dessert with a more varied ingredient list. Suet, dried fruit (typically raisins, sultanas and currants) and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves were mainstays, but any combination of nuts, lemon or orange peel, chopped apple, flour, eggs, sugar, milk and liquor were also commonly added. The Godey’s Lady’s Book of Receipts and Household Hints by Sarah Annie Frost (1870) lists nine different versions of plum pudding, with interesting titles and ingredient combinations such as Soyer’s New Christmas pudding (features powdered white sugar, candied citron and blanched bitter almonds), Barbara’s plum pudding (includes apples and molasses), Rich plum pudding without flour (uses breadcrumbs instead, as well as eight or nine eggs and brandy), and Unrivalled plum pudding (calls for an incredible two pounds each of suet, breadcrumbs and sugar, two and a half pounds of raisins and 16 eggs).
The recipe I have adapted and made several times comes from the journal of Anna Maxwell of Philadelphia’s historic Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion and is called “The orthodox English recipe:”
The original version: One pound of raisins, half a pound of currants, half a pound of sugar, half a pound of flour, half a pound of bread crumbs, three-quarters of a pound of suet, a quarter of a pound of mixed candied peel, a small nutmeg, grated, a teaspoonful of ground cinnamon, ditto of pudding spice; the juice of one lemon and one peel grated, one orange ditto, six bitter almonds blanched and pounded, and a pinch of salt; mix the day or even longer before the pudding is needed, with six well-beaten eggs, a glass of cider or milk to moisten it, and boil for ten hours.
My adapted version: (included in The Gilded Age Cookbook, to be published in August 2023)
Makes one Bundt pan-sized pudding or two smaller ones, serving 15-20 people
- 2 3/4 cups raisins
- 1 1/2 cups dried currants
- 1/2 cup candied ginger, chopped
- 1/2 cup dried pineapple, chopped
- 1/2 cup almonds, chopped
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 3/4 cups breadcrumbs (preferably from egg bread such as Challah or French brioche)
- 6 large eggs, beaten
- 1 1/2 cups suet (or lard)
- 1 cup brandy (or apple cider)
- Juice and zest from one orange
- Juice and zest from one lemon
- 1 small whole nutmeg, grated
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch of salt
Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day, stir batter again to make sure ingredients are well mixed. Coat a tin mold or Bundt pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper. Pour mixture into the mold and cover with foil.
To steam the pudding, place a steamer insert or some crumbled aluminum foil in the bottom of a deep stockpot, then place the mold on top so that it is not touching the bottom. Fill the pot with enough water so that it is two thirds up the sides. Bring it to a boil, then lower it to a simmer, placing the lid on top. Steam for 4–5 hours, adding water if necessary. Remove pudding from the pot and cool for one hour on a wire rack. When cool, loosen the edges and carefully turn out onto a plate.
You can also steam the pudding in a crock pot. Add some water to cover the bottom of the crock pot, place the mold inside and close the lid. Steam the pudding for 4–5 hours on high, then take it out and let it cool for one hour on a wire rack. When cool, loosen the edges and carefully turn out onto a plate.
Just before serving make a hard sauce:
Mix the 2 teaspoons cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water until smooth, then whisk in 2 egg yolks. Dissolve ¼ cup sugar in 1 cup milk, heat to boiling, then add the egg yolks and cornstarch. Stir over low heat until it has the thickness of cream; then take off the burner and mix in 1 tablespoon fruit jelly and a pinch grated nutmeg. Pour over the pudding and then cut in slices to serve.
Learn more about plum pudding from these Rutgers Libraries articles:
- Fare of the Country; Dense, Rich Plum Pudding in London – The New York Times
- Food News: Plum Recipes Are Full of Plums – The New York Times
- Unpacking Great-Aunt Gertrude’s plum pudding – The Christian Science Monitor
- American Adaptation and Mrs. Charles Dickens’s Plum Pudding – Journal of American Culture
- Food: The delicate delights of Christmas desserts — From plum pudding to Risgrynsgrot and Stollen, Europeans celebrate the season with sweet treats – Wall Street Journal Europe
And here are some examples of historic plum pudding recipes from our collection:
- PLUM PUDDING – Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1878
- USEFUL RECIPES: AN EXCELLENT RECIPE FOR PLUM-PUDDING – Harper’s Bazaar, 1880
- Some Fine Art in the Decoration of the Plum Pudding, Described by a Culinary Connoisseur – The New York Times, 1911
- The Menu: Preparations for Christmas: A Rich Plum Pudding – The Bystander, 1912
- Christmas Puddings: Every Recipe Tested by the Department of Cookery – Good Housekeeping, 1920