” But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up, and bring it in.
Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose: a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell 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-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”
–Chapter 3, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
The customs of holidays and celebrations change as each era comes and goes, but through literature, we can look through history’s keyhole, and peek at what life was once like.
It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but in the early 1800s, Christmas popularity was declining. But thanks in part to Queen Victoria and also to writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, there came a revival of Christmas traditions through the Victorian era. The plum pudding was one tradition that saw a resurgence in popularity.
Today we easily reach for a plum pudding in the supermarket, but how did they look in the Victorian era? Let’s sneak a look into Mrs Cratchit’s kitchen as she makes an old fashioned Victorian Christmas pudding.
What’s the difference between Christmas pudding and Christmas cake?
Christmas pudding is made of dried fruits, sugar, eggs, flour, spices, suet and brandy. In Victorian times, the more affluent you were, the more likely you were to make a richer pudding, filled with more fruit, eggs, spice and brandy. The pudding is either steamed or boiled. Before serving, brandy is poured over and set alight or is served simply with a brandy sauce. Christmas cake is baked in the oven, often made months in advance and, in some cases, is covered with icing or marzipan.
Where is the plum in the plum pudding?
Plums would have once been added in their dried form, prunes. By Victorian times, plum meant any dried fruit.
What shape is a traditional Victorian plum pudding?
Mrs Cratchit’s pudding is clearly in the shape of a ‘speckled cannon-ball’- a firm round ball, thanks to the process of boiling in cloth. While the Christmas puddings in Eliza Acton’s 1845 cookbook are all boiled, the surrounding pudding recipes in the cookbook use a ‘thickly buttered mould or basin’. An edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1874 shows plum pudding being served in a mould which indicates the plum pudding made its transition from boiled to steamed during the Victorian era. By 1906, we see ads in Mrs Beeton’s cookbook promoting a ‘Queen’s Pudding Boiler’. “No cloth used. Water Kept Out. Goodness Kept In.”
What is Mrs Cratchit’s pudding cooked in?
A floured pudding cloth boiled within a copper basin. This copper basin would have been Mrs Cratchit’s ‘wash copper’, the large water boiler used for washday, bathes and cleaning. If you’re imagining a big cooking pot, the basin was usually not removable, as it was built into a brick structure in the house.
Is the modern Christmas pudding the same as the Victorian era?
Today you’re more likely to purchase your Christmas pudding that’s been steamed in a pudding basin, that’s shaped like an upside-down dome.
Beef suet is becoming less commonly used. In its place I’m seeing more recipes using butter (at home recipes) and vegetarian suet made of palm oil and rice flour in commercial puddings.
How early can you make a Christmas pudding? And how long can you keep a plum pudding?
Traditionally plum pudding is ‘made’ on the fifth Sunday before Christmas, which gives the pudding flavours enough time to infuse and age. This day was even specifically called ‘Stir Up Sunday’ during the Victorian era, as they prepared for Advent. Some cooks today recommend making it 2-3 months in advance, and some swear by a well-aged one-year pudding. What’s interesting is that many 1800s cookbooks don’t mention this ‘delay’ between the day you make the pudding and the day you serve. Was it just a given that everyone knew you needed to make the pudding in advance?
How many times do I cook Christmas pudding?
Twice. Traditionally Christmas pudding is made several weeks in advance, set aside for the flavours to mature, and then re-steamed on Christmas Day. However, the fact Mrs Cratchit is concerned about the pudding not being done enough or in breaking when turning it out, means she likely only cooked it once.
- Broomfield, Andrea. Food and Cooking in Victorian England. Connecticut, 2007.
- White, Florence. Good Things in England. 1953.
- Acton, Eliza. Modern Cookery for Private Families. 1845.
- Oxford Companion to Food. 2014
A Christmas Carol; Christmas Pudding
**This recipe post is currently being updated and a comprehensive boiled pudding recipe will be added shortly.**
- 2 cups mixed sultanas, currants and raisins
- 1/3 cup chopped mixed dried fruit
- 1/8 cup mixed peel
- 1/4 cup brown ale
- 1 tbsp rum or brandy)
- 1.5 tbsp of orange juice
- 1.5 tbsp of lemon juice
- 112.5g of grated suet
- 1/2 cup soft brown sugar
- 2 beaten eggs
- 1 1/4 cups breadcrumbs
- 1/3 cup self raising flour
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/3 cup chopped almonds
- a pinch of salt
- butter, for greasing
- In a large bowl mix together the sultanas, currants and raisins mix, chopped mixed dried fruit, mixed peel, brown ale, rum or brandy, orange juice and lemon juice.
- Stir together, cover with cling wrap and leave overnight to soak
- Add in the grated suet or frozen butter, soft brown sugar, beaten eggs, breadcrumbs, self raising flour, mixed spice, ground nutmeg, chopped almonds and a pinch of salt.
- If the mixture is too stiff, add in more ale.
- To steam a pudding, take a large saucepan, place in a trivet, or in our case a low overturned metal veggie steamer, and place the pudding basin on top (without the pudding in yet!).
- Fill the saucepan with water until it reaches halfway up the outside of the pudding basin.
- Remove the pudding basin and put the saucepan over high heat to let the water begin to boil.
- Grease the pudding basin with butter and pour in the pudding mixture.
- With a wet spoon, smooth the top of the mixture.
- On the kitchen counter, layer baking paper and foil together.
- Create a pleat down the centre, about 3 cm.
- Cover the pudding basin with this layer of baking paper and foil and secure with kitchen string (unwaxed). Any excess can be snipped off. This will ensure water and steam doesn’t sneak into the pudding (if this does happen, after it’s been cooked, I pop the basin into the oven to remove some of the excess moisture for a few minutes).
- It’s also recommended to use the string to tie a loop on the top of the pudding basin, so you can lower the basin into the boiling water with a wooden spoon, keeping your fingers away from the boiling water.
- With the basin in the water on the trivet, turn down the heat to a low simmer, place on the pot’s lid and let cook for 1.5 hours. Check with a skewer. If cooked, it’ll come out clean. If not, continue to cook.
- Once finished, turn off heat, remove pudding basin from water and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Invert onto a plate and serve.
- To light up the pudding (for display), make an indent in the top of the pudding with your fingers. When you are ready to bring the pudding in for your guests, pour in 80 proof alcohol (rum, brandy etc) and light the alcohol. Note (as I found out) that the flame will be blue only (no flickers of yellow and orange flame), and ready can only be seen in a darkened room. Which also means be careful as you might not realise it’s alight!
Note: This recipe has been halved to make smaller puddings (recipe serves 5-6). By the description, the pudding would’ve been a boiled one, however we’ve gone for the steamed version.
Recipe adapted from ‘The Essential Christmas Cookbook’ (Murdoch Books)