A pudding steeped in mystery (and brandy)

Just like Thanksgiving, the history of plum pudding is anything but straightforward. It’s the cake of legends, some based in truth, others apocryphal.

First, I have to explain the not-so-obvious: before the Victorians, the term ‘plum’ meant raisin. So the plums in plum pudding are not plums but raisins.

Second, in the US the term ‘pudding’ refers to a custard or mousse-like dessert. In Britain, where plum pudding originates, ‘pudding’ can refer to many dishes, both sweet and savory. For our purposes here, it refers to a steamed cake.

Lastly, while many people in the UK, Ireland and some Commonwealth Countries know ‘plum pudding’ as ‘Christmas pudding,’ this is actually a Victorian reinvention of the dish based on the myth that King George I served plum pudding at his first Christmas as monarch in 1714. He was henceforth (and unfortunately) nicknamed ‘The Pudding King.’ There are exactly zero archival sources backing this up.

In fact, the first instance of a plum pudding recipe being published as ‘Christmas pudding’ comes much later in Eliza Acton’s 1845 Modern Cookery for Private Families. Before then (and certainly before the 1830s), it was associated with the harvest festival, which is actually closer to the early concept of Thanksgiving.

Early recipes

The first time plum pudding appears in a cookbook is in 1714 in Mary Kettilby’s A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery. At this point, the pudding is very simple, containing only suet, raisins, flour, sugar, eggs and salt:

The pudding’s second appearance comes in John Nott’s 1723 The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion. The recipe is very similar, almost identical, in fact, showing that even chefs in the 18th century might have borrowed each other’s recipes:

Plum pudding appears in early American cooking, even before the Revolution. Helen Bullock’s The Williamsburg Art of Cookery: Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion of 1742 includes a recipe for a ‘fine plum pudding’ containing dried fruits, candied orange and lemon peel with plenty of brandy. Interestingly, there is a lot more sugar in this one.

There are several other early recipes we could list. The ingredients and methods are largely similar: some include brandy, others wine; some are steamed for only a few hours, some boiled for over 8. But regardless of its origins, ingredients or processes, plum pudding was always a celebratory dish.

19th-century recipes

The first recipe to really resemble a modern plum (or Christmas) pudding is John Mollard’s The art of cookery made easy and refined from 1802:

The similarity of ingredients between Mollard’s recipe and the one Tilly describes in An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving, makes this a perfect base for our modern recreation. And the date is highly relevant to the period in which the Bassett’s would have been cooking, which is around 1812.

However, there is one more historic cookbook I think relevant here, and that is the international best-seller, A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell. It was first published it in Britain in 1806 and then in the US in 1807. A New System of Domestic Cookery was so popular that it was pirated the world over, went through 67 editions and stayed in print until 1888.

So the years of print for Mrs. Rundell’s cookery masterpiece, 1806 to 1888, mean that Alcott would have been familiar with the cookbook in 1882, but also that it would have been used by the Bassett family around 1812.

However, Mrs. Rundell’s recipe for plum pudding is a bit lacking in measurements and cooking times. It also misses out some ingredients Tilly includes in her pudding:

The best representation of the early plum pudding described in An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving is probably a combination of the Mollard and Rundell recipes. Luckily Eric has filled in the gaps and, as always, stayed as close as possible to the original recipes while taking into account modern taste. However, this pudding will turn out heavier than a modern plum pudding recipe due to the lack of breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs make the pudding lighter, but weren’t used in early recipes due to save money.

 

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PLUM PUDDING

Ingredients

  • 200 g self-raising flour
  • 200 g shredded vegetable suet
  • 100 g dark brown sugar
  • 150 g currants
  • 150 g raisins
  • 25 g candied lemon peel
  • 25 g candied orange peel
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 115 g brandy
  • 2 free-range eggs beaten
  • 150-200 g milk enough to bind

Instructions

  1. Butter a 1.5 liter pudding basin.

  2. Mix the flour, suet, sugar, currants, raisins, candied peels, salt and spices together in a large bowl.

  3. Add the brandy.

  4. Beat the eggs, add, and mix well.

  5. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes together, is sticky and well combined.

  6. Place the mixture into the pudding tin or basin and cover with lid, greaseproof paper, or a pudding cloth. If using paper or cloth, secure it well with kitchen string.

  7. Using a pan with a lid large enough to comfortably contain the pudding tin or basin. Half-fill the pan with boiling water. Add the pudding basin and cover pan with the lid. Steam the pudding for 1 hr 45 mins to 2 hours, checking frequently. Replenish the water level if necessary.

  8. Remove the basin from the pan and allow to cool slightly before turning out upside down on a decorative plate.