Like the Christmas Cake, Christmas Pudding is a once-a-year family event, an English classic. Grandma often makes both at the same time because they have similar ingredients, full of raisins, currants and candied fruits, backed up by mellow spices like cinnamon and allspice. The Pudding is held together with breadcrumbs and steamed for hours in a sloping-sided pottery bowl, then stored in a cool place to mellow for at least a month, often several months, along with the Christmas Cake. For serving, the Pudding is steamed again to serve very hot, with a bold flambé of Cognac, lit by Grandma and carried from the kitchen flickering with flame. Competition to be the carrier is fierce. Hard sauce laced with more Cognac is the final touch, or vanilla ice cream for the children.
1 lb/450 g sliced white loaf of bread
2 cups/10 oz golden raisins
2 cups/10 oz currants
1 ½ cups/7 oz raisins
1 ½ cups/7 oz mixed chopped candied peel
1 cup/200 g slivered almonds
2 cups/250 g flour
10 oz/300 g ground beef suet
2 teaspoons grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups/400 g dark brown sugar
½ cup/125 ml milk
3-4 tablespoons Cognac
For the Hard Sauce:
1 cup/250 g butter
1 cup/200 g sugar
¾ cup/175 ml Cognac, more for flambéing
Sprig of holly (for decoration)
3 qt/3 liter ceramic pudding bowl; cheesecloth
1. To make fresh white breadcrumbs from a loaf: discard end slices and leave the remaining slices out to dry overnight. The next day, cut the bread in large cubes, spread the cubes on an oven tray and freeze until hard, 1-2 hours. Pulse the frozen cubes to crumbs in a food processor, working in several batches
2. Butter the pudding bowl and line with double thicknesses of cheesecloth, allowing a generous drape over the sides. Set up a large deep saucepan with a steamer attachment or 3 ramekins in the base to support the pudding bowl. Add 2-3 inches/8-10 cm water, cover and bring to a boil.
3. For the pudding: In a very large bowl mix the golden raisins, currants, raisins, candied peel and almonds. Add 3-4 tablespoons of the flour and toss with your fingers so the fruits and peel are coated. Stir in the suet. In another large bowl mix the remaining flour, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, sugar and breadcrumbs. Stir in the fruit mixture and make a well in the center. Whisk the eggs until frothy and pour into the well with the milk and Cognac. Stir the pudding ingredients with your hand or a large spoon, gradually drawing in the fruits and flour to make sticky crumbs. Pour the mixture into the lined bowl, pressing it down with your hands to exclude any air bubbles.
4. Cover the bowl with a generous double layer of cheesecloth, pleating it in the middle to allow for expansion, and letting it fall to the counter on each side. Tie a string under the rim of the bowl to secure the cheesecloth and knot the trailing ends on top so you can lift the bowl easily. Set the bowl in the steam and cover the pan. Steam the pudding over medium heat, adding water as necessary to keep the steam going, for 6-7 hours. The pudding should be somewhat risen, and a metal skewer inserted in the center should be hot to the touch when withdrawn.
5. Let the pudding cool to room temperature, then wrap tightly (leaving the cheesecloth wrapping) and store in a cool dry place (not the refrigerator) for at least a month, and up to a year. The flavor will mellow with storage.
6. To finish: set up the same steamer arrangement and steam the pudding for 2 hours more until it has again risen slightly and is very hot in the center. Meanwhile make the hard sauce: cream the butter, add the sugar and beat until soft and the color lightens, 3-5 minutes in an electric mixer. Gradually beat in about half the Cognac, reserving the rest for flambéing. Pile the sauce in spoonful’s in a bowl for serving and serve chilled.
7. Lift the pudding out of the bowl, unwrap the steaming hot pudding and set it upside down on a sturdy platter. Decorate it with a sprig of holly and keep it warm. Just before serving, heat the remaining Cognac, set the hot pudding alight and carry to the table at once — it will continue to flame. Serve the hard sauce separately.