My family’s roots lie in Co. Durham, so growing up, it was traditional for us to have plum pudding, or Christmas pudding, as a holiday dessert.
Every other year, in late November, my mother would spend an afternoon making puddings, putting them in pudding basins, topping them with a pastry crust to make them airtight and wrap them in cheesecloth. One would be used for Christmas Eve and the other would be stored for Christmas the following year.
According to the Book of Common Prayer and the reading for the final Sunday before Advent:
“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”
Evidently, cooks took this literally as the last Sunday in Advent was the traditional pudding-making day called appropriately “Stir-Up Sunday.” This alludes to the tradition that every family member was required to stir the pudding “in turn from east to west to honour the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction,” making a wish as they did so. Incidentally, the pudding was (and is) traditionally made with 13 ingredients symbolizing Christ and the apostles.
The origins of this interesting dessert go back to medieval times when it was a not actually a dessert at all. There are two schools of thought as far as the origins of this pudding are concerned. The first was as a way of preserving meat. In the autumn when livestock were slaughtered due to lack of feed available for animals during the winter months, meat was placed in pastry along with dried fruits which acted as a preservative. Hence, mince pie. These enormous meat pies fed large numbers of people, and were particularly handy to have on hand for celebratory occasions. We still call it mince pie today and it is sweet rather than its savory predecessor, and it is rarely made with meat, although I have seen some recipes for it which call for actual minced meat. (My mother, for example, used to make her mince pies out of green tomatoes, dried fruits and spices).
The second origin of plum pudding and a more direct one, goes back to Roman times in the form of a stew-like pottage (sometimes called frumenty) made of meat and vegetables. In a large pot over an open flame, meat was slow-cooked with dried fruits, sugar and spices and served as a first course. As better ways of preserving meat were developed, the savory part of this dish made way for the sweet and the pottage evolved into pudding served at celebratory harvest dinners. Plum pudding was popularized as a Christmas dish by King George I who had it served as part of his traditional holiday gorge-fest.
The cannonball–like, round pudding made its debut in Victorian times and, thanks to Charles Dickens, it has become a part of English holiday cuisine.
“Mrs Cratchit left the room alone – too nervous to bear witness – to take the pudding up and bring it in…Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper which smells like a washing day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute, Mrs Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The eating of the pudding is no less packed with tradition and symbolism. Prior to serving, coins or tokens are inserted intermittently throughout the pudding. Threepence or sixpence pieces were usually included, and the lucky recipient of a serving containing said coinage got to keep the prize, which symbolized wealth. Other tokens were created such as a small wishbone (for good luck), a silver thimble (for thriftiness) and an anchor (for safety and security). In my family, my grandmother used a penny (which meant you were going to be poor), a thimble (an old maid), a button (for bachelorhood), and a quarter (wealth). (Believe me, with so much at stake, there were tears around the table when either my sister or I got the penny or the thimble.) A stake of holly is traditionally poked into the top of the pudding to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion. A large quantity of brandy is then poured over the pudding, after which it is set alight and ceremoniously brought to the table (greeted with appropriate applause).
My grandmother, and subsequently my mother, made a “hard sauce” laced with even more brandy to go be heated and poured over each serving. The pudding is rich and consuming large quantities can leave one with the feeling that they have indeed devoured a cannonball.
If you are feeling adventurous this holiday, I suggest you bring a small part of the English holiday tradition to your table. Although it is too late to make your own pudding, there is a plethora of good quality, ready-made puddings available which you could order in time for your own holiday feast!