The Great Plum Pudding ‘Bake’-Off

Thursday 21 December 2017

Four more sleeps till Christmas. The mental background burble of the culinary checklist is getting louder. Make pastry. Bake biscuits for gingerbread house. Make mince pies. Prove stollen. Decorate Christmas cake. Raised pie, bread sauce, chestnutstuffingbrandybutterturkey …

In the legendary Book of Household Management, first published in book form in 1861, Isabella Beeton identified ‘the principal household duty’ for December as ‘preparing for the creature comforts of those near and dear to us, so as to meet old Christmas with a happy face, a contented mind, and a full larder’. The epitome of this seasonal activity is one iconic dish:

in stoning the plums, washing the currants, cutting the citron, beating the eggs, and Mixing the Pudding, a housewife is not unworthily greeting the genial season of all good things.”

Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London, 1861. St Andrews copy at r TX717.B44E61.

‘Making the Christmas Pudding, with help’ by Kenny Meadows. Illustrated London News, 23 December 1848. St Andrews copy at per AN4.I6

Identifying making the Christmas pudding as the key festive preparation is interesting. Of course, it is a lot of work, especially given the additional labour required in this period to prepare ingredients like dried fruit and sugar, which the modern cook may be able to bypass. But I think this also points to a more important and central role for the Christmas pudding itself than is perhaps the case today. This primacy of the pudding is supported by literary accounts of Victorian Christmas feasts, at least those written by Dickens. (Other festive authors are available). In ‘A Christmas Dinner’, first published in the newspaper Bell’s Life in London but republished in 1836 in Sketches by Boz, Dickens foregrounds the making of the pudding:

On Christmas-eve, grandmamma is always in excellent spirits, and after employing all the children, during the day, in stoning the plums, and all that, insists regularly every year on uncle George coming down into the kitchen, taking off his coat, and stirring the pudding for half an hour or so, which uncle George good-humouredly does, to the vociferous delight of the children and servants.”

Later, during the Christmas Dinner itself, the pudding receives a rapturous reception:

and when at last a stout servant, staggers in with a gigantic pudding with a sprig of holly in the top, there is such a laughing, and shouting, and clapping of little chubby hands, and kicking up of fat dumpy legs, as can only be equalled by the applause with which the astonishing feat of pouring lighted brandy into mince pies, is received by the younger visitors.”

(Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, London, 1836. St Andrews copy at s PR4570.A1E36)

A toddler’s excitement at seeing the pudding, just as Dickens describes. Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas, London, 1836. St Andrews copy at s GT4895.H2

Here in St Andrews Special Collections we have our own festive traditions, one of which is that at this time of year we cook our way through recipes from Christmas Past. After mincemeat and gingerbread, this year was the Year of the Pudding.

It may be worth pointing out that we couldn’t just start looking in the contents lists and indices of cookery books for ‘Christmas pudding’ recipes. The OED’s earliest citation for defining ‘Christmas-pudding’ as ‘the plum-pudding at the Christmas dinner’ is Trollope’s 1858 novel Dr. Thorne. In fact the usage seems to start earlier than this – as is widely noted, Eliza Acton provided recipes for ‘Ingoldsby Christmas Puddings’ and ‘Cottage Christmas Pudding’ in 1845[1] (sadly, we don’t have a copy of Modern Cookery in Special Collections), and the caption to this illustration in Thomas Hervey’s The book of Christmas shows the term in use in 1836.

‘Christmas Pudding’, 1836. Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas, London, 1836. St Andrews copy at s GT4895.H2

In our survey of recipe books in our collections, however, the common denominator is ‘plum’ or ‘plumb’ pudding, though with a huge variety of descriptive qualifiers: ‘Common Plum Pudding’ (Maria Rundell, 1806), ‘A best Sort of Plum Pudding’ and ‘A Family Plum Pudding’ (John Simpson, 1806), ‘A rich plum pudding’ (Esther Copley, 1834), and seven varieties in Mrs Beeton: ‘Baked Plum-Pudding’, ‘An Excellent Plum-Pudding, made without Eggs’, ‘An Unrivalled Plum-Pudding’, ‘A Plain Christmas Pudding for Children’, ‘Christmas Plum-Pudding (Very Good)’, and ‘A Pound Plum-Pudding’, plus one made with fresh plums as opposed to raisins.

The completed puddings, ready for tasting

A trawl through our collections yielded over twenty recipes for plum pudding, mostly from printed sources. The earliest recipe we found was from Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery (first published in 1755, but we have the second edition, from 1759 TypBE.D59WC). The latest was from The Royal Cookery Book by Jules Gouffé , translated from the French by Alphonse Gouffé, and published in London in 1868 (r TX719.G6). The one manuscript recipe we tracked down in the archives comes from a family collection of recipes in several hands kept by the Edwards family of Henlow Warden, between 1747 and the 1850s.

Looking through these recipes, one striking feature is scale. The winning recipe in our test, from Esther Copley’s The Housekeeper’s Guide (London, 1834  s TX717.C7), produced a pudding of a nice size for most modern families, using one-fifth of the original quantities.

A winning recipe

Mrs Beeton’s Unrivalled Plum-Pudding, with its 16 eggs, two pounds of suet and four and a quarter pounds of dried fruit, is described as sufficient for 12 or 14 persons; just for comparison, a quarter of these quantities is roughly equivalent to a BBC Good Food recipe which makes two puddings, each in a 900ml basin. This suggests, very crudely, that the Unrivalled Plum-Pudding is over seven litres in volume. Suddenly the illustrations of puddings being boiled in the laundry copper make sense; and no wonder the servant in the Dickens story is ‘staggering’.

‘Taking up the Christmas Pudding’ by Kenny Meadows. Illustrated London News, 23 December 1848. St Andrews copy at per AN4.I6

A plum pudding is, of course, a dense mass of dried fruit, suet, spices, and brandy, steamed in a basin, mould, or floured cloth, dark and rich. Yes? Except when it isn’t. I think our biggest surprise was two recipes for light and fluffy baked plum puddings, from Richard Dolby (1830 s TX717.D6) and the Edwards’ family manuscript recipe book.

A baked plum pudding from Mrs Edwards’ family recipe book, ms38783
‘Milk pourd over it’

Both recipes are very similar: cut the crumb of a penny (or two-penny) loaf into slices and soak in hot milk, then stir in suet, raisins, currants, a little sugar, beaten eggs and a cup (or just a spoonful) of brandy. The Edwards’ family recipe adds grated nutmeg, while Richard Dolby includes candied orange, lemon, and citron peel. Then pour into a dish and bake. The result is very similar to a bread and butter pudding, but with festive flavours; popular with our testers (representative comment: ‘Not a typical Christmas pudding, but very nice!’) and highly recommended.

The most unusual ingredient in our test came in Mrs Beeton’s Excellent Plum-Pudding, made without Eggs. This contains both mashed carrot and mashed potatoes. Testers were dubious before tasting, but were impressed by the texture of the finished pudding, although the strong treacle flavour wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

¼ lb. of mashed carrot, ¼ lb. of mashed potatoes

Quite a few of the recipes don’t add any spices at all, but for those that do nutmeg is by far the most common. Ginger also appears, particularly in the early recipes (Elizabeth Cleland and Hannah Glasse r TX705.G53D74), and testers commented on the pronounced ginger flavour in the Elizabeth Cleland pudding. Apicius Redivius; or, the cook’s oracle (London, 1817 s TX717.A6) has nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon, while Esther Copley’s recipe 426, for ‘A rich plum pudding’ has the longest list of spices, specifying ‘half a nutmeg grated, and as much ginger, or part cinnamon, and mace finely powdered’, although her following recipe simply says ‘with salt and spice’.

The ingredients for the Esther Copley pudding, including a nifty modern cheat – mixed fruit pre-soaked with brandy

As for alcohol, again, many of the recipes don’t contain any. One lists it as an optional extra, commenting at the end of the recipe ‘A little brandy is an improvement’ (Apicius Redivius, 1817). One of our chefs, who chose an 1815 recipe, remarked that the lack of alcohol ‘meant that it didn’t quite taste like a modern Christmas pudding which I feel harmed its chances with the judges.’

Our honorary judge, Dr Norman Reid, former Head of Special Collections, samples the puddings

It is an undeniable fact that the winning recipe was also the only pudding which tasted markedly alcoholic, containing both white wine and brandy, and the baker confessed ‘I think the sizeable amount of booze may have worked in my favour.’ Brandy appears more frequently than any other kind of alcohol, but Colin Mackenzie’s 1823 recipe uses ‘a glass of rich sweet wine’, and Jules Gouffé half a gill of rum.

Many of the puddings mention serving with a white wine, Madeira, or similar sauce. Beeton, in 1861, and Jules Gouffé, in 1868, are the only recipes in our collections to include instructions for flaming the pudding: after turning the pudding out, pour brandy or rum around the pudding and light it when putting the pudding on the table, or in Beeton’s case, bring it to the table ‘encircled in flame’. (Note to our insurers: we didn’t do this). We did sample a historic recipe for ‘brandy’ sauce – though, as the cook had run out of brandy, she decided in her wisdom to substitute Ardbeg instead. If you like your Christmas pudding to come with a hefty punch of peat and smoke, try this.

Merry Christmas!

Elizabeth Henderson
Rare Books Librarian

[1] I have only been able to check the second edition. The first edition was also published in 1845.

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5 thoughts on "The Great Plum Pudding ‘Bake’-Off"

  • Peter Ross
    Peter Ross
    Wednesday 27 December 2017, 12.55pm

    Really enjoyed your blog and will certainly be trying the winning reciipe next year. I lecture on the history of Chrismas food and your discovery of the 1836 image of a 'Christmas Pudding' means I have had to correct my lecture notes. Why not try mince pie recipes next year? I could point you to a few interesting early recipes! Maybe we could do a joint tasting between our two libraries as we have an extensive cookbook collection too. Peter Ross, Guildhall Library, London

    • St Andrews Special Collections
      St Andrews Special Collections
      Wednesday 3 January 2018, 9.52am

      Hi Peter, we are glad to hear that you enjoyed the post. We did a mince pie bake off back in 2013 ( It would be great to share receipes, please get in touch ([email protected]).

  • Mercer Lynda
    Mercer Lynda
    Monday 23 November 2020, 9.14am

    I like Christmas pudding or plum pudding or plum duff, as it is called too. My mother in law gets a Christmas cake and a Christmas pudding for us each year from her cousin. They are delicious! My mother used to serve it with sweet white sauce. My husband loves it with cream. I like it anyway at all. This Christmas, I’m going to have to try them. Mercer Lynda

  • E Macfarlane
    E Macfarlane
    Thursday 17 December 2020, 1.37pm

    Would you consider putting some of the recipes in as well. I'm assuming most are out of print and hard to get hold of but it would be really interesting to read.


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