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The history of both savoury and sweet puddings from Medieval times to present.

Updated on September 8, 2016
Victorian depiction of a Christmas pudding
Victorian depiction of a Christmas pudding
A moulded Christmas pudding
A moulded Christmas pudding
Christmas pudding moulded into the shape of a castle
Christmas pudding moulded into the shape of a castle
Tinned steel Christmas pudding mould
Tinned steel Christmas pudding mould
Another type of mould
Another type of mould
A silver British 3 pence coin
A silver British 3 pence coin
A silver American dime
A silver American dime
A standard modern Christmas pudding
A standard modern Christmas pudding
Homemade brandy butter
Homemade brandy butter

The earliest depictions of Christmas puddings show them as a large cannon ball shaped current pudding gently burning with a blue brandy flame and a sprig of holly on top.

This is not Christmas pudding as we enjoy it in Britain today and you may find it interesting to look at its history and perhaps treat yourself to one made in the traditional way.

Original British Christmas pudding dates from before 1430 when they were known as 'pyes' or 'cof fyns' made from a hard cold water flour paste and containing various meat or fish, fats and dried fruit from Spain or the Middle East. This was the food of the wealthy and this method of preservation became popular for two reasons. Firstly, meat, poultry and fish, which went off quickly, could be preserved for some time in a hard pastry case which contained plenty of sugary dried fruit and with the air spaces filled with butter. Secondly, the dried fruit replaced, to some extent, the sweetness of expensive honey and sugar used to improve flavour.

The meat, poultry and fish would have been prepared in quantity during the autumn when they were plentiful. There were certain meats or fish from the stew pond or carp pond which are difficult to feed through the winter. Young geese and ducks were at their peak, and were a suitable and obvious meat to preserve for winter use. For the moneyed classes Christmas celebrations were a 12 day feast, and all of the food had to be prepared weeks in advance. The great butter-filled 'minced' pyes (similar to a French 'confits') could be used both as a festival treat and as practical store cupboard food to feed a number of staff and guests for the duration of the holiday.

Another form of early Christmas pudding was the Christmas “pottage”. Thick sweet-sour meat or vegetable pottages date from as far back as Roman times. They were particularly popular with the British because widespread availability of wood fuel for all classes, allowed long slow cooking. Up until the seventeenth century, the “boil in a pot” dinner was the preferred method of British cooking. Pottages were particularly suitable for this, being simmered long and slowly over the flames of a fire used also for heating the house. They were often as thick as porridge; and for rich tables rather than the poor peasants. These included richly spiced meat and fish stews containing dried fruits and sugar. Many of the recipes still exist and are described as: white porray, joutes, charlet, cawdel fery, bukkenade, mortrews or mawmeny and the gold-and-white 'blanc desore'. For special occasions, some of these were served with a wine sauce in a jug, reinforced with brandy which was set alight so that the pottage was served 'flambéed'.

Some of the better quality foods were described as *standing' (stiff) pottages, and had been thickened with breadcrumbs and egg yolks, coloured red or bright yellow, flavoured with additional sugar and dried fruits. Mawmeny royal, for instance, contained teased (minced) game (hare, venison) or poultry, spices, ground almonds, breadcrumbs and sugar.

Like meat-and-sweet 'minced pyes', both running and standing sweetened pottages continued to be eaten until the seventeenth century. Then, for the upper classes, most of them went rapidly out of fashion because much closer ties with Europe, after the restoration, brought in many foreign made-up dishes. Two of the favourite pottages however survived until today. One was the Scottish Cock-a-Leekie, a running 'plum' pottage made with chicken and plums (prunes). The other was called, rather blandly, just Stewed Broth.

Surprisingly Stewed Broth was the direct forerunner of modern Christmas pudding. It started in about 1420, as a standing pottage made with veal, mutton or' chicken, thickened with bread crumbs, coloured with sanders (sandalwood) and rich with currants. By the time of Elizabeth I, it had prunes added, which had been used in pies for some time. These dried plums had now become so popular that their name became synonymous with all dried fruits, so that foods containing any of them, such as currant cakes, now became called 'plum' cakes. Stewed broth therefore became 'Plum Pottage'.

Cheap availability of a sort of refined sugar from beet or cane altered the whole pattern of our feeding. In particular, it sweetened bland foods making acidic and bitter meats and fruit more palatable. It therefore reduced the amount of expensive spices and honey, and created a division into savoury and sweet dishes possible. Therefore like pies, pottage turned into two distinct types of porridge-like pudding, a plain one for savoury dishes, and a sweet one for fruits.

Soon peasants would make and boil a plain pudding in their cauldron using any scraps of meat or fat they had, and served it as a filler before the main meat was offered. More wealthy people ate a similar (usually suet based) pudding before the main roast meat as well; but mostly theirs contained poultry, pork or sweet stuff, or was enriched in other ways. They were always well spiced and mixed with a lot of fat, ground almonds and with dried fruits. The fat, in the form of a butter sauce, was often served with them too; with the eighteenth century being the so called 'golden age' of butter cooking. The plum pudding eventually became festival fare although initially with Harvest Festival, not with Christmas like the older plum porridge.

By 1650, the plum pudding had stopped being a main dish and become a sweet dessert, normally served at Christmas. However shortly afterward, plum pudding was outlawed by that well known spoilsport and all round unpleasant person, Oliver Cromwell, as he believed the ritual of flaming the pudding symbolised the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.

After Britain reverted to a monarchy again plum pudding was used as a general 'party dish' for large numbers of people as it could be made well ahead in large sizes. It’s noted that William IV gave a feast for 3000 poor people on his birthday in 1830, offering boiled and roast beef and 'plum pudding'.

By 1836, the cannon-ball shaped plum pudding, flaming and topped with holly started to be depicted in illustrations of Christmas dinners, and Charles Dickens, described it in his novels as the centrepiece of the Christmas feast.

In 1861, Isabella Beeton wrote a recipe for 'Christmas Plum Pudding' which distinguished it from other plum-pudding recipes by being cooked in an elaborate copper mould, looking like a solid square-set building – perhaps a chapel or church.

The Christmas pudding had truly come of age bolstered by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's personal desire for all family festivals, especially Christmas. They firmly established and adopted Christmas pudding as part of the royal Christmas Day dinner. Queen Victoria’s chef Tschumi's produced recipes in detail, and the later Edwardian royal recipes followed his example faithfully, complete with the old 'hard' butter-sugar sauce. This recipe is what we still follow, albeit much sweeter, and with numerous regional variations We no longer use the idea of Isabella Beeton’s complicated moulded puddings but, to make up for it, we add charms or coins to our puddings.

As with so many things from the Victorian era, Prince Albert was so idolised by Queen Victoria that it comes as no surprise that his favourite variation has been passed into posterity.

Prince Albert's Plum Pudding

Suitable to serve 8 people: 1 Ib prunes; 1 pint water; 1 unwaxed lemon; 1 oz Barbados sugar; butter for greasing; 2 large free range eggs; 4 oz butter; 4 oz soft light brown sugar; pinch of salt; 4 oz soft wholemeal breadcrumbs; 1 oz semolina

The pudding would be served with brandy butter made using 3 oz butter; 4 oz icing sugar 1 oz ground almonds and brandy added slowly to taste. Whisk together until light in colour and forming stiff peaks. Refrigerate before serving. Modern day brandy butter is pretty much identical but without the ground almonds.

Preparation method: Soak the prunes in water overnight. Grate the rind of half the lemon and pare the rest into strips. Squeeze out the juice and save. Simmer the prunes in the water, pared rind, juice, and Barbados sugar until soft. Drain. Cut the fruit in half and carefully remove the stones. Grease the inside of a 2 pint pudding basin thickly with butter. Press enough prunes into the fat, cut side down, to line the basin completely. Shred any prunes left over. Separate the eggs.

Beat the 4 oz of butter and soft brown sugar until creamy, and beat in the egg yolks and salt. Mix in the grated rind, breadcrumbs, semolina and any shredded prunes. Whisk the egg whites until they hold firm peaks and fold them gently into the mixture. Turn into the basin, cover tightly with greased foil and steam for 2½-3 hours.

Allow to stand in the basin for 6 minutes, then turn on to a warmed serving dish. Serve with chilled brandy butter and whipped cream.

As I mentioned before there were variations in the recipe for Christmas pudding and below I reproduce two from the 18th C and 19th C.

A boiled Plum Pudding (18th century)

Take a pound of suet cut in little pieces, not too fine, a pound of currants and a pound of raisins stoned, eight eggs, half the whites, half a nutmeg grated and a tea spoonful of beaten ginger, a pound of flour, a pint of milk. Beat the eggs first, then half the milk. Beat them together and by degrees stir in the flour then the suet, spice and fruit and as much milk as will mix it well together very thick. Boil it five hours ~Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery made plain and easy,

Rich Plum Pudding (19th Century)

Stone carefully one pound of the best raisins, wash and pick one pound of currants, chop very small one pound of fresh beef suet, blanch and chop small or pound two ounces of sweet almonds and one ounce of bitter ones; mix the whole well together, with one pound of sifted flour, and the same weight of crumb of bread soaked in milk, then squeezed dry and stirred with a spoon until reduced to a mash before it is mixed with the flour. Cut in small pieces two ounces each of preserved citron, orange, and lemon-peel, and add a quarter of an ounce of mixed spice; quarter of a pound of moist sugar should be put into a basin, with eight eggs, and well beaten together with a three-pronged fork; stir this with the pudding, and make it of a proper consistence with milk.

Remember that it must not be made too thin, or the fruit will sink to the bottom, but be made to the consistence of good thick batter. Two wine glassfuls of brandy should be poured over the fruit and spice, mixed together in a basin and allowed to stand three or four hours before the pudding is made, stirring them occasionally. It must be tied in a cloth, and will take five hours of constant boiling. When done, turn it out on a dish, sift loaf-sugar over the top, and serve it with wine-sauce in a boat, and some poured round the pudding. The pudding will be of considerable size, but half the quantity of materials, used in the same proportion, will be equally good. ~Godey's Lady's Book, Dec. 1860

After cooking, Christmas puddings were often dried out on hooks or racks for weeks, prior to serving, in order to enhance the flavour. Once dried, they were wrapped in alcohol-soaked muslin or cheese cloth and stored in earthenware/crockery containers, in a cool place, for the duration. More alcohol was usually added during this period. The puddings might also have been sealed against air with suet or wax around the crockery lid to aid in preservation.

Old British Christmas pudding traditions.

With a festive food made over the centuries, many traditions have grown up in its production and serving.

The last Sunday before Advent is considered by some to be the last day to make Christmas puddings as they require aging before eating. This date is sometimes known as 'Stir-up Sunday', based on the first line of the main prayer in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 for that day which reads as follows:

"Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Choir boys, not unexpectedly, parodied the prayer and would sing:

"Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot. And when we do get home tonight, we'll eat it up hot."

Just as a point of interest the medieval Christmas pudding contained both meat and rolled oats and represented the end of a fasting period. Unlike today this was eaten before a Christmas dinner, and sometimes even on Christmas Eve, to prepare for the rich foods to come.

By the late Tudor period, spices and dried fruit were more freely available and the character of the Christmas pudding changed towards that which we know today.

A traditional Christmas pudding should consist of 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles which is then "stirred up" by each family member in turn using a special decorated or carved wooden spoon (in honour of Christ's crib). The stirring must be done in a particular way, eyes shut, using a clockwise motion, from east to west to signify the journey of the Magi, while making a secret wish.

After all of the family have stirred the pudding, tiny charms might be added to reveal their finders’ fortune. The trinkets have a traditional value and often include a silver thimble (for spinsterhood or thrift), a silver ring (for marriage), a silver coin (for wealth), a miniature horseshoe or a tiny wishbone for good luck, and an anchor for safe journey and arrival.

The addition of, a sprig of holly was as a reminder of Jesus' Crown of Thorns worn when he was crucified. Flaming the pudding, was described by Charles Dickens who believed it to represent the passion of Christ and of his love and power. It is also a key part of the theatrical aspect of the holiday celebration.

The British, wherever they may be in the world, retain a strong feeling of national identity and nowhere more was this reflected in what is known as the Commonwealth or British Empire. The Empire movement had started at the turn of the century in Ontario, “to foster Imperial patriotism and loyalty” by reminding British subjects of their allegiance, no matter where they resided. Special oaths were sworn, and a holiday” was called on May 24th. To bolster trade those at home and in the colonies were encouraged to buy Empire goods.

The Empire Marketing Board developed a pudding recipe, and made a 40lb sample (26 hours to cook!), which they presented to the King, who accepted it “in the hope that the public will be encouraged to buy Empire ingredients for their own Christmas pudding”.

Following the dire shortages caused by the Great War many of the ingredients, up until now, were not available and poor substitutes had to be used but by 1927, the supply situation improved and Imperial patriotism returned and a recipe could be a geography lesson to our past and present glories.

All-British (Empire) Pudding.

1 lb. currants (Australia)

1 lb. sultanas (Australia)

1 lb. stoned raisins (South Africa)

5 oz. minced apple (Canada)

1 lb. breadcrumbs (United Kingdom)

1 lb. beef suet (New Zealand)

6 oz. cut candied peel (South Africa)

8 oz plain flour (United Kingdom)

8 oz. Demarara sugar (West Indies)

5 eggs (United Kingdom)

½ oz. ground cinnamon (Ceylon)

¼ oz. ground cloves (Zanzibar)

¼ oz. ground nutmegs (Straits Settlements)

1 oz brandy (Cyprus)

2 oz rum (Jamaica)

1 pint dark beer or stout (England)

Using a large mixing bowl sieve the flour and add the fruit, ensuring there are no clumps. Mix and add the rest of the ingredients, mixing together well.

A further tradition that must not be overlooked at this stage is the inclusion of a coin. In Britain this was originally a pre-1952 silver sixpence but a pre-1941 silver three pence or silver groat (4 pence) coin or any of the 1,2,3 and 4 pence Maundy money coins which are pure silver, can be used instead, and is stirred in after cleaning and sterilizing. Whoever gets the coin in their serving is guaranteed luck in the coming year.

In other countries you can use:

Pre 1965 American dime, 3 cent coin pre 1873, half dime pre 1873

Pre 1921 5 cent, pre 1968 Canadian dime,

Australian 10 cent coin is silver (pre 1963 sixpence is silver),

Pre 1946 New Zealand 3 and 6 pence coin.

Transfer mix to a 4 pint heatproof bowl and seal with usual foil and string. Steam or boil for 5 to 6 hours.

Cool and store in a cool dark place until Christmas Day.

Finally steam for a further two hours on the day and serve with brandy butter, custard or fresh cream.

When serving the pudding it is traditional to pour brandy over it and set the brandy alight. This is most effective in a darkened room.

Lighter Christmas Pudding

Finally for those unable to eat a heavy rich traditional pudding, the following recipe can be adapted in many ways to suit varied tastes.

1 lb. mixed fruit (choose a variety of types, including raisins, sultanas, currants, candied peel, dried cherries, dried apricots, dried figs, or dried cranberries).

8 oz grated apple

2½ oz soft brown sugar

3½ oz wholemeal flour

3½ oz fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs

Spices: ½ tsp. each of mixed spice, ginger and cinnamon

Pinch of salt

6 fl oz liquid, to bind: use the juice of 2 oranges, topped up with milk or cold tea with a splash of brandy, if liked.

2 large free-range eggs, beaten

2tbsp treacle

Using a large mixing bowl blend the dry ingredients by hand– flour, breadcrumbs, salt, and spices. Add your selection of fruit, ensuring the different fruits are separated, stirring to cover it all in flour and distribute the spices. The eggs should now be beaten with fruit juice (brandy or milk) and then stirred into the mixture.

The mixture should drop slowly from a spoon when the right consistency. Stir the mixture well and decide if it needs any extra liquid – if so, add some more milk. At this point, you can leave the cake mixture and fruits soaking up the liquids overnight which will improve the flavour.

Use your largest saucepan. Prepare your pudding basin (a 2½-3 pint one) by buttering it well and preparing a greaseproof and foil lid. Now you’re ready to steam the pudding.

Place the pudding basin into the saucepan and check the lid fits well. Boil the kettle and half-fill the pan with boiling water around the edges of the basin. Replace the lid and steam for 6 hours, checking from time to time and topping up the water level.

Remove the pudding from the saucepan cool and store until Christmas Day. On the big day, give it another two hours in the steamer before serving with brandy butter, clotted cream or rich traditional custard.

© 2013 Peter Geekie

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    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      Okay, what you need to do is re-publish this article later this year, about the time one is supposed to be collecting all the stuff to make Christmas pudding out of. That will remind me and I can use these interesting-sounding recipes. I have been married to an Englishman for 10 years and have never yet succeeded in making Christmas pudding because I never think of preparing for Christmas in the fall!

    • Peter Geekie profile image
      Author

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Aethelthryth,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Many people in the UK will make their puddings in May as it is one of the foods that improves in the keeping. Done properly and stored correctly it will be absolutely delicious by Christmas.

      Kind regards Peter

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      Okay, I thought the deal with Easter was you eat your leftover Christmas pudding then. I didn't realize you start the next one then too! Thank you; guess I better get started!

    • Peter Geekie profile image
      Author

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Thanks Aethelthryth,

      Perhaps you should make two, then you have one for your Thanksgiving.

      On second thoughts, perhaps no as you can have too much of a good thing.

      kind regards Peter

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Thank you for posting this! I'm just starting research medieval Christmas traditions for a (non-HP) article, but mine isn't focusing on food. But, it's fascinating to read old recipes and your illustrations were lovely! This reminded me of a British television series I wanted recently called "The Supersizers Go" where they lived and ate food from different historical eras for a week in every episode. They did episodes on both Medieval and Victorian eras. If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend it! It's a few years old, but we are only starting to get access to more British television through streaming TV services here in the US, and I am loving it :-)

    • Peter Geekie profile image
      Author

      Peter Geekie 3 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Carolyn,

      Thank you for your comments.

      The large quantities of food and fats and sugars that were consumed in this historical period were more than offset by the heavy manual work that most had to do. Those who deliberately over indulged didn't live very long and were therefore not much of a burden. Good luck with your article.

      Kind regards Peter

    • profile image

      Wake Up England 3 years ago

      Although the Collect "Stir-up we beseech thee ..." is a part of the Book of Common Prayer, may I point-out that it was taken by Thomas Cranmer (who wrote the BCP) from the Roman Catholic Missal?

      Stir-Up Sunday is a Catholic creation; not a Protestant one.

    • Peter Geekie profile image
      Author

      Peter Geekie 3 years ago from Sittingbourne

      I certainly bow to your greater religious knowledge, but assume Christmas puddings were enjoyed by any Christian irrespective of their sub division.

      Kind regards Peter

    • profile image

      Wake up England 3 years ago

      Peter geekie:

      I well remember Methodists not eating Christmas Pudding because of the booze in them.

      My point is a historical one: "Stir-Up Sunday" is always attributed to Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, and never to the original source (The Roman Missal) from whence Cranmer copied it.

    • Peter Geekie profile image
      Author

      Peter Geekie 3 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Wake up England

      Thanks for your additional information

      kind regards Peter

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