Plum Pudding | Recipe with a History
Photo/Art by Kristin TeigBefore there were bûche de Noel Yule-log cakes dotted with meringue “mushrooms,” gingerbread houses blanketed with snowy icing, or even St. Nick’s provisional plate of milk and cookies, there was the grande dame of classic Christmas desserts—plum pudding. Heady and fragrant from a combination of raisins, currants, figs, and spices (along with a glug of spirits for preservation’s sake), plum pudding is a rich, dense English dessert whose pedigree dates back to the 15th century—a time when dried fruits were a more affordable alternative to sweeteners such as sugar and honey, and dessert was something special to look forward to instead of a nightly occurrence. By the mid-19th century, plum pudding had evolved into a Victorian Christmas icon.
Despite its name, plum pudding (figgy pudding is another version, immortalized in the jolly English carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”) contains no plums and isn’t even a pudding by modern culinary definition. It owes its charming moniker to the popularity of prunes (dried plums), when early versions of the dish were emerging from cauldrons; later, the British used the word “pudding” as a general term for any sweet dessert dish.
A proper plum pudding is steamed—meaning that it needs a deep pot of boiling water and several long hours to achieve perfection. But in the end you’ll have not only a tasty dessert, but the latest in a long line of puddings stretching back 600 years—not to mention a kitchen that will entice noses for miles around with the spicy aroma of Christmas.
Versions like the one Charles Dickens described as the sweet centerpiece for the Cratchit family Christmas feast in his 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, were bulky from steaming in a cotton bag, but decorative molds soon emerged to yield more uniform, attractive results. Though the results are instantly recognizable on the outside for their curved shape and dark color, almost no two plum pudding recipes are alike. Our version packs plenty of flavor, with dark and golden raisins, currants, and dried figs, enhanced by a quartet of favorite Christmas spices. Garnish it with a sprig of holly and present it flambé (thanks to a cloak of lit brandy), and you won’t find a more impressive finale to your holiday table, earning plum pudding a worthy spot on any list of Yuletide traditions.
After all, as the 16th-century West Country carol says, “We won’t go until we get some, so bring some right here!”