A sweet and heavy dessert still rules Irish holiday tables, no matter what low-cal food fads come and go
By Regina Sexton
By mid-October the shops and supermarkets have it on their shelves. By early November, those who prefer the homemade have mixed and stirred, put it through its first boiling and set it aside to mature. When Christmas Day finally arrives, almost every Irish household will feast on plum pudding. It is the quintessential Christmas dessert. Luscious, heavy, fruit and fat laden, and moistened with whipped cream or brandy butter, it’s truly heart-stopping stuff.
This gob of goodness is a curious tradition in several ways. Its ongoing popularity is odd, considering Ireland’s recent tendency to quickly adopt newer low-calorie food trends. Somehow, plum pudding has fought off the competition. Personally, I feel that a Christmas without pudding would be like a boiled egg without salt – sadly deficient. It can be challenging to get through such a rich finale after a traditional Christmas dinner of turkey and ham, stuffing, Brussels Sprouts, roast potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce. But for Christmas feasting, it seems, we’re happy to abandon the sensible for the comforts of the familiar.
Foreign Influence Plum pudding for Christmas is, in fact, something we borrowed from England. Its presence on Irish plates is a reminder that our food traditions are a fusion of the home-grown and the foreign (it’s only one of many English traditions we Irish have embraced).
It was only during the Victorian revival of Christmas in the 19th century that plum pudding was first called “Christmas pudding." So closely allied is the dish with the holiday that even Christmas dinners served on the western front during World War One included plates of pudding, set aflame with brandy. During the Christmas Truce of 1914, English plum puddings were exchanged with the German troops for sausages, sauerkraut and chocolate.
The dish had very humble beginnings. It originated as a pottage of porridge of cereals, flavored with scraps of meat or fish, thickened with bread crumbs and bound together with eggs, fruit and spices. During the Tudor and Stuart periods, dried plums or prunes were added to the mix, which became known as “plum pottage" or “plum porridge."
Folklorist Kevin Danaher points out that until relatively recent times, a version of this early plum porridge was still prepared each Christmas Eve in parts of County Wexford, and served as “cutlin pudding." By the late 17th century, the plum porridge had left the iron pot, and was packed into animal stomachs and set to boil in cauldrons over the open fire, rendering a dish similar to our modern day plum pudding. This preparation demanded a lot of hard work, from stoning the fruit to scrapping the suet from the beef kidneys and cleaning the animal stomach for boiling. When the pudding cloth became more commonplace, accommodating a more bulky mixture, it had to be made watertight by wetting and buttering it thickly, before bundling the mixture into the center to make the characteristic globe-shaped pudding. Irish folk memory recalls that puddings made in cloths demanded a ten-hour first boiling, which took the woman of the house from her bed throughout the night to replenish the boiled-off water.
Stir-Up Sunday Traditionally, the preparation of this food was imbued with a great deal of religious symbolism. “Stir-up Sunday," the Sunday before Advent Sunday, was when the ingredients were mixed. Entire families assembled around the bowl to take turns stirring from east to west, in commemoration of the journey of the Magi. In addition, many Christmas pudding recipes called for exactly thirteen ingredients, in honor of Christ and the twelve apostles. Images of the Crucifixion were also incorporated into the presentation and serving of the pudding. A flaming halo of brandy came to represent Christ’s passion, while the holly stuck on top symbolized the crown of thorns.
Plum pudding certainly is not designed for swift cooking. But it is often made at home, with the woman of the house putting herself back into the traditional role of kitchen keeper, if only temporarily. With its disregard for modern diet trends, maybe it’s a bit of a renegade dish today. Partake with pleasure!
Christmas Plum Pudding Recipe Plum pudding is often made in November. Once the ingredients are mixed, they receive an initial boiling and are then stored for the flavors to develop and mellow. Prepared in this fashion, puddings remain good until Easter. Serve warm with lots of whipped cream or brandy butter (a mixture of butter, confectioner’s sugar and brandy).Ingredients:
One 2 ½ - 3 pint pudding bowl
8 oz./225g butter (or suet)
8 oz./225g dark brown sugar
7 oz./200g plain flour, sieved
12 oz./250g currants
8 oz./225g raisins
6 oz./175g sultanas
1 oz./25g chopped almonds or nuts of your choice
1 oz./25g glace cherries
6 oz./175g fresh bread crumbs
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon mixed spice rind
2 large eggs
Generous measure of stout
Generous measure of whiskey
1) Melt the butter and add in the rest of the ingredients, mixing well until all are incorporated.
2) Place the mixture in a greased pudding bowl and secure with greaseproof paper and aluminum foil.
3) Steam in a steamer with a tight-fitting lid for 5-6 hours. Check the water level frequently and as it subsides replenish with boiling water.
4) Cool and re-cover with fresh greaseproof paper and aluminum foil.
5) On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day replace the coverings and steam for 2-3 hours.
Regina Sexton is a writer and food historian in County Cork.