Tuesday, December 11, 2012

800 years of Plum Pudding

By Maria Grace

"Hallo!A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper [boiler]. A smell like washing –day! That was the cloth [the pudding bag]. A smell like an eating house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding. like a speckled cannon ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top." "Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage..."

Charles Dickens~A Christmas Carol  

Origins of the Plum Pudding

Christmas PUdding
Few foods can trace their history back through multiple centuries. Plum pudding stands out as one of those few. It began in Roman times as a pottage, a meat and vegetable concoction prepared in a large cauldron. Dried fruits, sugar and spices might be added to the mix as well.

Another ancestor to the plum pudding, porridge or frumenty appeared in the fourteenth century. A soup-like fasting dish containing meats, raisins, currants, prunes, wine and spices, it was eaten before the Christmas celebrations began. By the fifteenth century, plum pottage a soupy mix of meat, vegetables and fruit was served to start a meal.

As the seventeenth century opened, frumenty evolved into a plum pudding. Thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, and dried fruit, the addition of beer and spirits gave it more flavor and increased its shelf life. Variants were made with white meat, though gradually the meat was omitted and replaced by suet. The root vegetables also disappeared. By 1650, the plum pudding had transformed from a main dish to a dessert, the customary one served at Christmas. Not long afterward though, plum pudding was banned by Oliver Cromwell because he believed the ritual of flaming the pudding harked back to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.

George I, sometime called the Pudding King revived the dish in 1714 when he requested that plum pudding be served as part of his royal feast to celebrate his first Christmas in England. Subsequently it became entrenched as part of traditional holiday celebrations, taking its final form of cannon-ball of flour, fruits, suet, sugar and spices, all topped with holly in the 1830’s. In 1858 it was first dubbed the Christmas Pudding, recorded as such in Anthony Trollope's Doctore Thorne.  

Preparing plum pudding

Many households have their own recipe for Christmas pudding, some handed down through families for generations. Two sample recipes from different centuries show remarkable similarity in ingredients.

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 storied, 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 wineglassfuls 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 for weeks prior to serving in order to enhance the flavor. Once dried, they were wrapped in alcohol-soaked cheese cloth and stored earthenware/crockery and placed somewhere cool for the duration. More alcohol may have been added during this period. The puddings might also have been sealed against air with suet or wax to aid in preservation. Click here for a modern recipe and instructional video.  

Plum pudding traditions

 With a food so many centuries in the making, it is not surprising to find many traditions have evolved around the making and eating of plum pudding.

The last Sunday before Advent is considered the last day on which one can make Christmas puddings since they require aging before they are served. It is sometimes known as 'Stir-up Sunday'. This is because opening words of the main prayer in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 for that day are:
"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 parodied the prayer.
 "Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot. And when we do get home tonight, we'll eat it up hot." 

Christmas pudding is prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles then it is "stirred up" all family members who must take a hand in the stirring, using a special wooden spoon (in honor of Christ's crib). The stirring must be done clockwise, from east to west to honor the journey of the Magi, with eyes shut, while making a secret wish.

After the family stirred the pudding, tiny charms might be added to the pudding to reveal their finders’ fortune. The trinkets often included a thimble (for spinsterhood or thrift), a ring (for marriage), a coin (for wealth), a miniature horseshoe or a tiny wishbone for good luck, and an anchor for safe harbor.

 When the pudding was served, a sprig of holly was placed on the top of the pudding as a reminder of Jesus' Crown of Thorns that he wore when he was killed. Flaming the pudding, as described by Dickens was believed to represent the passion of Christ and represent Jesus' love and power. It is also a key part of the theatrical aspect of the holiday celebration.

 Why is it called plum pudding?

 And the answer to the most burning question: Why is plum pudding called that when there are no plums in it? Dried plums, or prunes, were popular in pies in medieval times, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth century they began to be replaced by raisins. In the 17th century, plums referred to raisins or other fruits. The dishes made with them retain the term plum to this day.  


  An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002
 The Art of Cookery made plain and easy, Hannah Glasse.  
The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Knightly. London:Thames and Hudson, 1986 Godey's Lady's Book, Dec. 1860
 The Folklore of World Holidays, Robert H. Griffen and Ann H. Shurgin editors, Second Edition [Gale:Detroit] 1998
 Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Andrea Broomfield [Praeger:Westport CT] 2007 Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2000
 Plum Pudding History - Plum Pudding Recipe
Christmas Foods
The Christmas Pudding Sarah Lane Traditions & History

Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision and The Future Mrs. Darcy. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook or email her.


  1. Thank you for such a detailed article! It was very interesting and informative.

  2. A mouth-watering post. How well I remember the Christmas tradition of "stir up Sunday". Even as a little girl of four or five I was given the spoon for my turn. I would never have imagined going back to Roman times for plum pudding's origin.

  3. Plum pudding was a very important part of my family's tradition. Our Christmas dinner always ended with one decorated with a sprig of holly just as in the picture above. My mother put her four children to work preparing the fruit and nuts every year. A collateral benefit for me was the tree we decorated in our back yard. We hung the leftover suet along with strands of popcorn and cranberries to feed the birds.

  4. How interesting, with the traditions that went with the preparing of the dish.

  5. I love articles on the history of food. Thanks for sharing, Maria!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.