PITTSBURGH (AP) — One of the traditional highlights of an English Christmas is the plum pudding served at the end of the meal – dense, rich, and dripping with rum butter or other boozey glaze.
It used to be a standard in Pittsburgh as well, if the recipes in the old cookbooks in the Heinz History Center archives are any indication, and it merits a return.
But first, some clarification. Jell-O brand forever altered Americans’ sense of what is “pudding.” The gloopy stuff we tend to think of would traditionally have been considered a custard. “Pudding” before the the advent of add-milk-and-stir was a combination of fruits, sugar, eggs, fat and spice with just enough bread or flour to hold it all together. There were many variations, but the English plum pudding, also known as Christmas Pudding, was the richest.
Charles Dickens immortalized the Christmas pudding in “A Christmas Carol.” In Victorian England – because each of the pudding’s many ingredients could be sourced from various of the far-flung dominions – there was an explicit effort to make it a symbol of the Empire itself. But the pudding’s ancestry is solidly Medieval, the age of stone castles and armored knights, when bread crumbs were the common thickening, when meats and fruits were often combined, and when spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon were like our champagne and caviar: high-priced luxuries denoting wealth and status. Never forget: Columbus discovered America because he was in search of cloves.
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The PG tested three recipes for Christmas pudding: two from Pittsburgh in the 1890s and England’s historical favorite dating to 1845.
While our testers praised all three, most preferred the recipe from Kate Edna Negley, who ran the McKelvy school kitchen in Homewood and who published her own cookbook here in Pittsburgh in 1898.
All the recipes contain a key ingredient that will give some cooks pause: beef suet. It’s key to the luxuriant texture of the pudding. Ask your butcher for a thick piece, more than you think you’re going to use, and tell her what you’re making. The easiest way to deal with suet is to pop it into the freezer till it’s frozen solid, then – with a sharp heavy kitchen knife – cut it into slices and dice them fine. The frozen suet will shatter nicely and not make a slippery mess.
Two of the recipes call for bread crumbs – these are NOT the dry crumbs with Italian seasoning sold in cardboard canisters, but rather soft, two-day old bread slices with the crusts removed and diced or torn into pieces.
Traditionally, the puddings were tied up in a wet, well-floured cloth and boiled for hours.
It’s much easier to put them into a 1 1/2 quart bowl or mould and steam them. If you don’t have a steamer, put the bowl into a pot of shallow boiling water, so that the water comes about 2/3 up the side of the bowl, cover, and steam. A saucer in the bottom will keep the pudding from burning. Replenish occasionally with boiling water from a kettle.
All the puddings can be made ahead and set aside in a cool place (not the refrigerator) for a month or more – simply reheat by steaming for another couple of hours.
Serve with rum butter: two sticks of soft butter creamed with 3 Tbsp. brown sugar and 3 Tbs. of high quality rum, such as Pyrat.
Negley’s Christmas Pudding
Kate Edna Negley’s Christmas Pudding, 1898
This pudding, the only one without any sugar or booze, was the general favorite among the PG staff, who preferred its drier, more cake-like texture. Ironically some called it “more sweet.” The lack of sugar seemed to bring the full flavor of the fruits to the fore and allowed the “nutty” character of the bread-crumb base to come through. Taken from “The Negley Cookbook,” Pittsburg, 1898.
Kate Edna Negley’s recipe for Christmas pudding in her 1898 cookbook, located in the Heinz History Center.
1 cup flour
4 oz. (about 8 slices) soft bread crumbs
8 oz. (2 cups) beef suet, frozen and then sliced and chopped fine
8 oz. (1 1/3 cups) dried currants
8 oz. (1 1/3 cups) raisins
1 oz. (1/8 cup) candied peel
1 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 cup milk
4 beaten eggs
Mix together in order, stir (hands actually work best) until everything is well mixed, pack into a well-buttered 1 1/2 qt bowl or pudding mould (a round slip of baking parchment in the bottom of the bowl will help pudding come out easier). Cover bowl with waxed paper and secure it with a string tied snugly around under the rim; cover with a piece of aluminum foil. Steam for 5-6 hours.
Prof H. I. Blits’ Christmas Pudding, 1890
This pudding, more traditional and rich, was a very close second. It brings all the fireworks: two kinds of booze, four kinds of spice and a smooth, moist texture. Taken from Prof H. Blits’ “Canning Fruit and Vegetables by Hot Air and Steam, and Berries by the Compounding of Syrups, and the Crystallizing and Candying of Fruits, Etc., Etc.,” Pittsburgh, 1890
4 oz (3/4 cup) flour
4 oz (35 or one sleeve) Saltine crackers – rolled fine or pulverized in a food processor
8 oz (2 cups) beef suet, frozen and then sliced and chopped fine
8 oz (1 1/3 cup) dried currants
8 oz (1 1/3 cup) raisins
8 oz (1 cup, packed) dark brown sugar
2 oz (1/4 cup) candied peel
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cloves
pinch of salt
grated peel of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup sherry
Mix together in order, stir (hands actually work best) until everything is well mixed, pack into a well-buttered 1 1/2 qt bowl or pudding mould (a round slip of baking parchment in the bottom of the bowl will help pudding come out easier). Cover bowl with waxed paper and secure it with a string tied snugly around under the rim; cover with a piece of aluminum foil. Steam for 6 hours.
Eliza Acton’s Christmas Pudding, 1845
This is the pudding that most often wins blind taste tests in England. It was easily the most sumptuous of the three, with the fresh apple making the pudding so moist it seemed just on the brink of falling apart. The flavor was more subtle, with some detecting a slightly “bitter” undertone.
3 oz. (1/2 cup) flour
3 oz. (5 or 6 slices) soft bread crumbs
6 oz. (1 1/2 cups) beef suet, frozen and then sliced and chopped fine
6 oz. (1 cup) dried currants
6 oz. (1 cup) raisins
one apple, diced fine
5 oz. (3/4 cup, packed) dark brown sugar
2 oz. (1/4 cup) candied peel
1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
small glass (1/2 cup) brandy
3 beaten eggs
Mix together in order, stir (hands actually work best) until everything is well mixed, pack into a well-buttered 1 1/2 qt bowl or pudding mould (a round slip of baking parchment in the bottom of the bowl will help pudding come out easier). Cover bowl with waxed paper and secure it with a string tied snugly around under the rim; cover with a piece of aluminum foil. Steam for 3-5 hours.
“Bring us some figgy pudding”
Technically, the “figgy pudding” referenced in the Christmas carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is the same thing as the recipes above. Some recipes employed dried figs or dates instead of – or in addition to – the raisins. But it also serves as a reminder of the Christmas pudding’s Medieval roots.
One of the oldest collections of recipes in the English language, compiled by the head chef for King Richard II in the late 1300s, contains a recipe for “figgy” – a clear ancestor of the Christmas pudding and a tasty treat in its own right.
Fygey. Take almaundes blaunched; grynde hem and drawe hem up with water and wyne, quarter fyges, hole raisouns. Cast therto powdour gynger and hony clarified; seeth it wel & salt it, & serve forth.
1 cup dried figs, chopped into quarters or eighths
1/2 cup sherry
1 cup blanched almonds, ground fine
1 cup water
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
4 Tbsp. honey
1 cup raisins
pinch of salt
Soak the chopped figs in the sherry overnight. Combine the ground almonds and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the figs, sherry, spices, honey, raisins and salt. Simmer until it thickens, about 20 minutes.
Although the original recipe calls only for powdered ginger, other versions of the recipe in other manuscripts call for “good spices,” and the flavor improves with the addition of a little cinnamon and nutmeg, both “good spices” in the Medieval culinary mind. Other versions of the recipe thicken it with bread crumbs and serve it garnished with fresh pomegranate seeds.
Although fygey would have been served to King Richard II warm, it’s also very tasty cold.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com