I decided to make plum pudding. I’ve never made it before so I thought it would be a nice adventure. I’m excited about the prospect of bringing out a flaming dessert to the family after Christmas dinner even though probably no one but me and my father will actually eat it. I’ll make sure I have some seasonally appropriate ice cream in the freezer for the rest of the guests. Having made this decision, I had no idea what I was signing up for. Here follows the account of my adventures in making English-style plum pudding.
The first step was to find the right recipe. I was after authenticity; no deconstructed plum pudding with a smoked hard sauce foam and encapsulated cognac for me. I browsed my old cookbooks then turned to my old friend, Epicurious.com. Here I found a recipe for a “Superb Plum Pudding.” Not only was it old, published in House & Garden in 1963, but it was submitted by the great James Beard. On Epicurious, out of 54 reviewers, 92 per cent would make it again. That felt like a solid choice.
The day was Monday, Nov. 19. I wanted to have two puddings ready for Sunday, Nov. 25 for the final installment of School Nights 2012. The theme was “boozy puddings and fine wine.” The first instruction was “this pudding is really best made a year in advance and allowed to mellow.” Already, I was in trouble. I understand this trick from my mother’s Christmas fruit cake. She usually made it in September or October, but if she was really on the ball she would make it in February. Every month, she would take the fruit cakes out of her pantry, carefully unwrap them and douse them with more cognac to help them “mellow.”
One Christmas I received a gift of a plum pudding from a good friend, Harry Paine. Harry is a plumber, activist, Trotskyist, and folkie. But most importantly for me, Harry is a chef. Harry was the creative genius behind the original Folk Festival kitchen. He is the reason why the Winnipeg Folk Festival has a reputation for having the best food, and he is the reason I am the chef for the Folk Fest today. Harry is a champion of the old way of cooking. He was slow food before “slow food” was a thing. Harry is the only person I know who still cans whole chickens. Not because he has to, but because he wants to. Harry and I would spend a day picking wild plums and making jelly and dreaming about all the great uses for the jelly (FYI it’s great for glazing a turkey). So Harry hands me this plum pudding, all wrapped in cheesecloth and tin foil, and on a little piece of masking tape was the date. “This plum pudding is three years old!” I exclaimed in amazement. He told me that was nothing, he’s had plum puddings that were 10 years old.
I digress. I read the rest of the recipe, and realised that to make a proper plum pudding I need a minimum of five days: four days to macerate the dried fruit, and one day to cook it. After that, you’re supposed to let it age. Unfortunately, the folks at School Nights would have an un-aged plum pudding for Sunday night, but my Christmas pudding will have mellowed for a month. I decided to double the recipe to make four puddings: two for the bistro, one for Christmas dinner, and one to put away until next year.
First step was finding all the ingredients. A trip to Scoop n’ Weigh was in order. If you haven’t been, Scoop n’ Weigh is Winnipeg’s original bulk food store. Located on Taylor, this store has a wide range of dried fruits and nuts, beans and grains, chocolates and spices. Scoop n’ Weigh is also the best place to find obscure ingredients like Xanthum Gum and Sour Salt. When you go, you will spend at least half your time deciding what treats you want to procure for yourself. Is it salty jalapeno and cheddar sesame sticks or are you in the mood for chocolate covered chipotle almonds? When in doubt, there is always the island of Jelly Bellies. Buttered popcorn and mango anyone?
For two recipes, I needed 2 pounds seedless raisins, 2 pounds sultana raisins, 1 pound dried currant, 2 cups sliced citron, 2 cups candied peel and all the usual Christmas-y spices. That’s a lot of dried fruit and a lot of cash. I also needed a bottle of cognac and 2 pounds of suet. I love the old recipes; who cooks with suet anymore? All the fruit I got at Scoop, but I had to go to the supermarket for the suet. If you don’t know where to find it, it is in the freezer section between the chicken hearts and the lamb kidneys.
When I got home, I found the largest bowl I had. Into this bowl I combined all the fruit, the spices and the suet. I doused this mixture with ½ cup of the cognac; truth be told I splashed in a little extra. Then the mixture went to the basement fridge. Then every day for the rest of the week, I added another generous ½ cup of cognac and stirred. The old tradition is that everyone in the family would take a turn stirring. If you do the math, I should have used up only 2 cups of cognac by the fourth day. Somehow I managed to finish the bottle.
On the fifth day, we make the actual pudding. Scald 2 cups milk and soak 2 ½ pounds bread crumbs. Do you have any idea what 2 ½ pounds of bread crumbs looks like? Neither did I. I was about ½ a pound short, so I decide to add some rolled oats to make up the difference. Maybe my plum pudding would take on a Scottish flare. To this you are going to add 24 well beaten eggs, 2 cups sugar, salt and 2 cups sherry or port. I start drinking port as soon as the weather gets cold, so my bottle of Warres was almost empty. I had a little bottle of Manzanilla sherry tucked away so I combine the two. I still came up short. Rummaging around the wine fridge I found a half bottle of Vin Santo I had bought a few years back, so combining all three I came up with my 2 cups “sherry or port.”
For those of you following at home, so far we are at 1 bottle of cognac and 2 cups port.
Then you mix everything together. In the process of mixing I broke the handle of one measuring cup and one wooden spoon. You really have to dig down deep, cause all the yummy boozy fruit is sitting at the bottom of the bowl. I only had two molds, so I filled them, planning to do the other two the next day. Then the instructions tell you to steam the pudding for six to seven hours. They don’t tell you how. I decide to put the molds into a large roasting pan, put about two inches of water in the bottom of the pan, cover the whole mess with tin foil and put in my oven at 250 for seven hours. After seven hours, I had to uncover the puddings and bake an additional ½ hour. Remove from the oven and splash with more cognac. By this point, I was out of cognac, so I used my Quebec Maple Whisky. Cool. The next day I cooked the second batch, but I only had enough for one pudding. I would have to start again if I wanted to put one away for next year.
Now you should wrap your plum pudding with cheesecloth and tin foil. Put in a cool place like a basement pantry and let rest for a few weeks or a few years. When it comes time to serve, steam the pudding for another three hours. Unmold, sprinkle with sugar and pour heated cognac over the pudding. Ignite the cognac and serve the flaming plum pudding to your amazed and appreciative guests. Serve with hard sauce.
Plum pudding is a funny thing. It is neither plum nor pudding. Like the sugar plums from the poem, plum pudding contains no actual plums. The English tradition is that all dried fruit can be called “plums,” and all desserts are called “pudding.” But plum pudding is the antithesis of how we cook in the 21st century. While cookbooks teaching us how to make fabulous suppers in under 30 minutes are flying off bookstore shelves and people are buying ready made Mac & Cheese because the stuff in the boxes is too much work, plum pudding recipes ask us to make dessert a year in advance. Even the speediest version I could muster still took a week and monopolized my fridge space and my oven. This encouraged me to reflect on the process. Making plum pudding wasn’t about making dessert. It was about making connections. It connects you to history, to everyone who has ever put the effort in to make plum pudding. Making plum pudding connects you to the changing of the seasons and to the cycle of the years. Plum pudding is about permanence in a world that seems to change faster and faster. Putting plum pudding away for next year is saying “I will still be here next year, and I will have something to share with you.” And so I say to you, if you’ve never made plum pudding, try it. Rekindle an old tradition, but you need to start it today.
P.S. – The original recipe with 3 lbs dried fruit, 1 lb suet, 12 eggs and 2 cups cognac was intended to serve 12 people. And this is after a proper English Christmas dinner!
Alexander Svenne is the food writer for Spectator Tribune and chef at Bistro 7 1/4. Follow him on Twitter at @ChefAlex
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