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This is Part 2 in our Celebrating Christmas series, a peek into some of the activities our family undertakes to make Christmas a special time, even when we’re celebrating alone and there’s no snow in sight. Follow along every Sunday in Advent for Christmas recipes, decoration ideas, book recommendations and an insight into how we celebrate. You may like to look back at Part 1 for Advent countdown suggestions.
Last weekend we made our Christmas pudding! It may have been a week late (‘Stir Up Sunday’ is traditionally the Sunday before Advent begins), but it’s far enough in advance that the pudding will have time to develop flavour before Christmas day, and it’s one less thing to do in the lead up to Christmas. On a couple of occasions I have made my pudding in the week leading up to Christmas and it still turned out fine, so if you haven’t made one already and still want to try it, all is not lost.
I have many memories of making Christmas pudding as a child, we used to go on a special trip to buy the dried fruit from a bulk food store/continental deli and take it home to soak in brandy. On cooking day, my brother and I would take turns stirring and would each make a wish, just like in Shirley Hughes’ Lucy & Tom At Christmas. My mother even had the same big ceramic mixing bowl (which is a better size than the glass one I use that barely fits the whole recipe), and my brother had a navy and white striped apron like the children in the book (rereading it as an adult, some of this book is outdated, such as the gift of a feather headdress, but most of it is very relatable).
Once everything was mixed, we would wrap it up in a big pudding cloth and leave it to boil for the rest of the day, filling the house with the smell of Christmas. The pudding would then hang from a rail in our laundry (above the laundry trough) until Christmas Day. As a teenager, I recall inviting friends over to make the pudding. Many of them had never had homemade pudding, and there was plenty of batter to make a couple of smaller puddings for us to share.
I continued to make puddings in pudding cloths whilst living in Taiwan (I used a cloth liner made for giant bamboo steamers that I found in a catering supplies shop) and for our first few years in northern Australia. When I didn’t have anywhere to hang it from, I tied it to a wooden spoon that I sat across the top of the giant stock pot that I had used for cooking it, making sure it didn’t touch the sides or the bottom. I was reluctant to leave the pudding out at ‘room temperature’, when room temperature could well mean 40˚C and 70% humidity, so would either have to leave the air conditioner on in a room just for the pudding, or take shelves out of our fridge to fit the giant cooking pot inside (or devise another in-fridge hanging mechanism). Eventually, I decided it would be easier to use a pudding basin instead, so I could then just store at the back of the fridge (it also didn’t need as big a pot). The texture of the steamed pudding isn’t quite the same as the boiled and dried pudding, it’s missing the distinctive ‘skin’, but I prefer steamed pudding to mouldy pudding so while I’m in the tropics I’ll stick with this technique.
In the middle of last year, we bought our first pressure cooker and had been using it to cook all sorts of things that we had previously boiled on the stove for hours, such as chicken broth and dried beans. I really couldn’t be bothered monitoring a boiling pudding for 5 hours, especially as we don’t use the air conditioner in our kitchen/living area, so figured I may as well try the pudding in the pressure cooker too. A quick search revealed it could be done, but the trick to getting the texture right is to cook it for 10-15 minutes first with the pressure vent open (on a ‘steam’ or ‘slow cooker’ mode) so as to allow it to expand a bit before it cooks under pressure. I have only eaten the one pudding cooked with this method so far, and didn’t want to experiment with different times or with skipping this step, as enough different recipes insisted it was required. It may add 20 minutes or so to the process, but when you’re saving hours by using the pressure cooker in the first place I can live with that.
I have skipped the steaming on the ‘leftover pudding’ this year (my pudding tin only fits about 2/3 of the mix), so when we get around to eating it I can comment back on the process then. However, it’s also cooked in a Pyrex dish and will likely spend months in the freezer before eating (maybe for winter solstice) so that may leave us with too many variables to make an accurate comparison.
Our family’s recipe is based on one from the 1970 Cookery Book of the Country Women’s Association of Tasmania. The recipe in my mother’s copy of the book has a number of additions and amendments written in the margins (one suggesting the fruit be soaked for 7 days in 12 tablespoons of whiskey or sherry in addition to the 6 tablespoons of brandy), although I now refer to a typed version my father sent to me when I was living overseas (he also converted all the weights from ounces to grams, thanks Dad).
The goji berries are a new tradition, they were first added to the pudding when we were living in Taiwan and could only find the right dried fruits in a mixed pack that also included goji berries. At the time, we referred to them as ‘those little red Chinese medicine berries you get in the soup at the dumpling shop’, it was only on returning to Australia that we discovered their English name (and that you can now buy them everywhere and they are supposedly a superfood). I’m not sure they add much flavour or anything else to the pudding, but they look festive and we continue to stick them in each year to remind us of Christmases in Taiwan, when we would cook and share our pudding with 20 or more friends and coworkers, most of whom had never tried Christmas pudding before.
When cooking the pudding with young children, I find it easiest to measure all the ingredients out beforehand (I don’t always do this when baking, but the pudding does have a lot of ingredients). I use a dry measure instead of weighing, or I just estimate based on the total weight listed on the packet, as our children get older we may use a scale just for fun. They enjoyed making the breadcrumbs and helping to grind the spices in the coffee grinder. We used a mix of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and a small piece of star anise, although that was just what we had in the cupboard. ‘Mixed spice’ from a packet or your own blend from what you have on hand (or whatever you think of as ‘Christmassy’) would work fine, I seem to use a different blend each time.
I pre-warned my children that they won’t be able to lick the spoon or eat any of the dried fruit as it has alcohol in it, as this is something they usually enjoy (you can use your own discretion here). That said, my children had lost interest by the time I was putting it into the tin so it didn’t end up being a problem. The alcohol will cook off, so your finished pudding isn’t going to be alcoholic. If you do want to avoid alcohol completely, I have seen recipes that recommend orange juice or even black tea for soaking the fruit (you would only soak for an hour or two, not for a week), although I haven’t tried either.
On Christmas Day, we pull the pudding out of the fridge in the morning so it can come to room temperature, then it only takes 5 minutes in the pressure cooker to reheat (last year we put it on before we ate our lunch, then just left it in there with a natural pressure release until we were ready to it eat a few hours later). By cooking the pudding in the pressure cooker and our roast and veggies in the barbecue, that left us with only custard and gravy to make on the stove and we didn’t need to switch the oven on at all. If you’re not using a pressure cooker, you’ll need to boil or steam the pudding for an hour.
Dim the lights before serving, warm a couple of tablespoons of brandy in a small pan until you start to see vapor coming off, bring the warm brandy to the table then set it alight and pour the flaming brandy over the pudding. I unfortunately don't have a photo, as I'm usually the one doing it, but will see if I can get one this Christmas to add to this post. We serve our pudding with cream, custard (I use this recipe) and vanilla ice cream, many families also serve it with brandy butter.
I’ll be posting a few other (simpler) Christmas recipes for ‘bring a plate’ Christmas parties and picnics (or Christmas Day appetisers), as well as some Christmas nature crafts and decoration ideas next weekend.
Here’s the recipe:
Traditional Christmas Pudding (in a pressure cooker or on the stove)
Mix together and soak for up to a week beforehand, stirring every few days and adding more alcohol as you wish:
50g glace cherries
125g dates (chopped)
125g mixed peel
75g goji berries (optional)
6 tablespoons brandy
For cooking day:
Dried fruit (see above)
225g brown sugar
½ teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons mixed spice
½ teaspoon bicarb soda
125g soft breadcrumbs (pinch apart some sliced bread, we used a stale roll this year)
175g plain flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons milk
You will need either a large pudding basin or a 90cm2 (calico) pudding cloth for cooking and either large pressure cooker or a very large cooking pot (depth is usually the limiting factor). This pudding serves 12 but you can make multiple smaller ones instead (or halve the recipe). Our pudding tin (that fits inside our pressure cooker) takes about 2/3 of the mix, then we make a mini pudding or two to freeze with the leftover batter.
1. Cream butter and sugar.
2. Add eggs to butter and sugar, beat well.
3. Add fruit and almonds to the butter and egg mixture. Mix through.
4. Add the dry ingredients, stir.
5. Add milk and brandy, let everyone stir to make a wish, keep stirring until everything is thoroughly combined.
If you’re using a pudding tin or basin:
6. Grease tin/basin and put a disc of greaseproof paper in the bottom (draw around the base and cut out the circle of paper).
7. Pour mix into pudding tin/basin, leaving a centimetre or two at the top for expansion. Cover with a double layer of greaseproof paper and a layer of foil and tie tightly with string.
8. Place on trivet in pressure cooker (we actually use an egg ring instead as the trivet is too high for the pudding tin to fit) and fill with water to the minimum marker. Steam (cook with vent open/not pressurised) for 15 minutes, then cook at pressure for 1 hour. Switch off and allow a natural pressure release.
If you don’t have a pressure cooker, sit the pudding basin inside a large pot (on an egg ring or chopstick or something so it’s not resting directly on the bottom), pour boiling water 2/3 the way up the basin and put the lid on (foil works if you don’t have a lid or to close the gap if it doesn’t quite fit). Steam for 5 hours, checking periodically to top up the water and check it’s still simmering.
Let the pudding cool to room temperature (I use a large pair of tongs and an oven mitt to get it out of the pot, but you can find instructions for fancy foil slings online), then store in a cool dry place until Christmas (in the tropics or anywhere humid, I recommend storing in the fridge).
To reheat, cook in pressure cooker (at pressure) for 5 minutes then allow for a natural pressure release, or steam in a large pot (method as above) for an hour. Remove string, foil and paper and place a plate over the top of the basin/tin, then tip upside down to unmould.
If you’re using a pudding cloth:
6. Boil cloth to sterilise. Lie out on a flat surface and sprinkle flour over the middle of the cloth and spread evenly with your hands (leave a 20cm gap around the edges).
7. Pour pudding batter into the centre of the cloth, then pull up all the corners and edges to form a bundle.
8. Tie the bundle securely with cooking twine, leaving some space for expansion. Leave a ‘tail’ on your twine to hang it from afterwards. Tying a loop in the end can also make it easier to fish the pudding out of the pot.
9. Fill a large pot with boiling water, then boil the pudding for 5 hours. Check periodically to ensure the pudding is still covered with water and isn’t sitting on the bottom.
After 5 hours, drain the water and hang the pudding to drip dry and cool. If you don’t have a convenient rail anywhere, try hanging from a wooden spoon over the top of a large (clean) pot or bucket. You don’t want the pudding cloth to be touching anything. Let it hang in a cool dry place until Christmas.
To reheat, boil for an hour. Let the pudding drain in a colander until it stops dripping. Cut the string and peel back the cloth, then place a plate over the top and turn it upside down onto the plate. Gently peel away the rest of the cloth, trying not to damage the skin.