According to tradition, plum pudding should be made on ‘Stir-up Sunday’.It is a custom that is believed to date back to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer where a reading states ‘stir up, we beseech thee’. The words would be read in church on the last Sunday before Advent and so the good people knew it was time to start on their favourite Christmas treat.
It was family affair where everyone would gather to stir the pudding mixture from East to West, in honour of the Three Kings who came from the East. Sometimes coins would be hidden in the dough; finding them on Christmas day would bring luck and good fortune. I think we all know this tale. But is this story in fact a 16th century custom or a Victorian interpretation?
There are a lot of legends and claims made about the origins of the plum pudding. Some say it was King George I in 1714 who requested plum pudding as a part of the first Christmas feast of his reign. And that it was because of him that Oliver Cromwell’s ban on Christmas and its rich festive foods was lifted. George I was baptized ‘the Pudding King’ because of these myths but there are no written records prior to the 20th century to tell us that indeed this king deserves his regal pudding title. Nor is there truth in the claim that George I was responsible for lifting the ban on the festivities surrounding Christmas. However, this ban, along with other prohibitions, was abolished at the start of the Restoration of 1660, long before George I came along.
The first written record of a recipe for plum pudding as we know it today can be found in John Nott’s ‘The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary’ from 1723; there is however no reference suggesting that it is associated with George I or to the practice of Stir-up Sunday.
An earlier reference in the diary of a British naval chaplain during the reign of Charles II, speaks of a Christmas Day dinner on board a ship in the year 1675, consisting of a rib of beef, plum puddings, mince pies and plenty of good wines. This is the first time a plum pudding is associated with Christmas in a written record.
In their early days, puddings were more often savoury than sweet, containing meat and spices and encased in animal intestines. There was a Hackin pudding in the North of England that could be the fore-runner of the Christmas plum pudding. It can be described as a sweetened haggis, containing among other things meat, lemon peel, apples, currants and oats encased in a calf’s stomach and then boiled in cloth.
The most plausible story suggesting that there is indeed a link to George I is from an article about the home life of the royal family that appeared in a 1911 issue of The Strand Magazine during the reign of George V. The article talks of a recipe for plum pudding that had been in the possession of the Royal Family since the days of George I.
But it was his namesake George V who really made a difference in the pudding tale. In 1927 he encouraged people to cook a Christmas pudding made from ingredients sourced in the British Empire. The recipe for this pudding was created by his head chef Cédard, and based upon the recipe earlier provided by the Empire Marketing Board. And so the Empire Christmas pudding, or the King’s pudding as it was often referred to, was born. Large Empire or King’s puddings were crafted and paraded through the streets to promote buying only the foods grown or produced within the British Empire.
Although nothing suggests that the day on which the King’s pudding had to be made was indeed Stir-up Sunday, I think this was the moment when preparing the pudding became a family affair and a celebration. In our journey through myth and legend we found a Pudding King after all!
For this plum pudding, I started off from one of the earliest recipes. I didn’t cook it on the fire but in the oven – that way I was able to steam 2 puddings at the same time, but you can just as easily do it on the hob.
What you need
- 230 g shredded suet
- 75 g spelt flour
- 150 g bread crumbs
- 150 g dark molasses sugar – or dark muscovado sugar
- 150 g currants
- 150 g raisins
- 40 g candied orange peel
- 1 small dessert apple, grated
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 3 large free-range eggs
- 75 ml stout
- 150 ml brandy or dark rum
- butter to grease the pudding bowls
- baking parchment
- tin foil
- bakers string
- two pudding basins, 14 cm or one large
Generously grease your pudding basins with butter and cut two circles out of baking parchment the size of the bottom of the pudding basins. Place the parchment circles in the basins; they will stick perfectly to the butter. This will make it easier to get the pudding out of the basins.
Mix together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl, now combine the eggs, brandy and stout and mix well by gently stirring with a wooden spoon. You can stir from East to West if you fancy it. If you have the time, leave the mixture to rest overnight.
Spoon the batter into the pudding basins, cut another two circles out of baking parchment about 5 cm larger than your basins. Make a fold in the middle in order to leave your paper room to expand slightly. I like to use two layers of paper. Tie securely with string, now cover in tin foil and tie with the string to create a handle so it will be easier to lift the basins out of the pan after steaming.
Preheat your oven to 160° C
Place your pudding basins on inverted saucers on the base of a deep pan or tray. Pour in boiling water to come half way up the sides of the basins. Cover the pan, either with its lid or with tin foil, in order to trap the steam. Place in the preheated oven and leave for 7 hours if you use a large bowl and 6 hours for the smaller ones.
After the puddings are steamed you can either serve them straight away or, if Christmas is still a while off, cool the puddings in their basins, change the baking parchment covers for clean ones and tie up. Store in a cool cupboard and if you like a boozy pudding, feed with brandy or rum once a week.
To serve on the day, steam for two hours and serve with custard, clotted cream or brandy butter and enjoy.