Kitchen Adventures: The Christmas Pudding Tales, Part I: My God, What Have I Gotten Myself Into

This is Part One of a mega-epic undertaking to make a real Christmas pudding. Also check out Part Two, in which the pud is cured, and Part Three, in which the pud is lit on fire and devoured.

Move over, The Canterbury Tales, and get that weak stuff outta here, Beowulf: from now on whenever I get a hankering for a real Medieval epic I will look no further than today’s recipe for Christmas Pudding. One Thousand and One Nights? How about one thousand and one different kinds of dried and candied fruit? Hey-ohhhhhhh, thank you I’ll be here all month.


Now listen up, sonny, because this ain’t your Bill Cosby’s pudding. Christmas Pudding, or “Pud” to its friends, is a dense cake-like ball of dried fruit, sugar and breadcrumbs, bound with eggs, beer and beef fat, then lovingly bathed in alcohol for days, months, even years before being set alight, engulfed in a bright-blue fireball, and served with a side of brandy-laced butter called “Hard Sauce.” Don’t adjust your computer screen, you read all that right. Beef fat… liquor… fire… is this Christmas or Ozzfest? Despite the pious and innocent name, this just may be the MOST METAL RECIPE OF ALL TIME! And probably the booziest ever presented in the e-hallowed e-halls of Simple Good & Tasty. Not so much simple, but definitely good and tasty, and what more can we ask of a Kitchen Adventure? It doesn't get more DIY than this, folks. 


Today’s recipe originates from a Medieval harvest custom where meat would be chopped up, mixed with dried fruit and then baked in pastry shell to help it last through the winter, thereby making Christmas Pudding arguably the best meat-preservative-inspired dessert of all time. Arguably. Over time, generations of pudding eaters gradually reduced the meat, increased the fruit, and padded the recipe with all manner of spices, liquors and religious symbolism until it reached its current, definitive form in Victorian times when it was immortalized in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as “a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quatern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Bedight indeed. Despite annual Grandpa-mandated viewings of the 1951 Alistair Sim film version of A Christmas Carol, I had never actually heard of Christmas pud until my friend Sean mentioned it to me a few months ago. “If you really want a recipe with booze,” he said, “check this one out.”

Christmas pudding has been around for so long that there are probably thousands of different ways to prepare it. You can read George Orwell’s recipe here and here, or the U.S. Army’s here. But Sean, it turned out, just happened to have an old hand-written recipe that had come into his family by way of an English boarding school, and that’s definitive enough for me. Heck, for all I know Oliver Twist may have asked for seconds of this very pudding. The prospect of a dessert made with liquor and beef fat was enough to entice a few more friends into signing on, and so it was that two weeks ago a pretty well-staffed kitchen stood ready to learn the true meaning of Christmas.

The following recipe makes 2 puddings. Why two? Well, if, hypothetically, you are making your pudding from a friend’s old family recipe then the first is for eating and the second is a gift – royalties for the use of the recipe. Or, if you’re making this at home, then one is to eat this Christmas, and one is for keeping until next Christmas. Or I just didn’t feel like halving the recipe. Who knows.


Christmas Pudding

(makes 2 puddings)


Ye Olde Ingredientes:

8 oz. shredded beef suet 

1 tsp. “mixed spice”

·      Also known as “pudding spice”, this bafflingly vague Anglicism refers to a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice. We confused it with plain allspice, which I have since learned is HERESY, so BE THEE WARNED, gentle pudding maker, and get thee to the spice aisle of thine supermarket. Wherein you shall find it under the New World name of Pumpkin Pie Spice.


½ of a nutmeg, grated

¼ tsp. cinnamon

4 oz. self-rising flour

·      Yes, this is different from plain old flour, and I’d never heard of it either. Major brands, like Gold Medal, make self-rising flour, but it isn’t always easy to find. If necessary you can make it yourself: 1 cup all purpose flour + 1½ tsp baking powder + 1/8 tsp salt = 1 cup self-rising flour.

1 lb. soft brown sugar

8 oz. white breadcrumbs

8 oz. sultanas

·      That’s “golden raisins” to all you non-Brits.

8 oz. dark raisins

20 oz. currants

2 oz. almonds, chopped

2 oz. mixed candied peel

·      We used fruitcake mix.

2 oz. candied citron peel

Grated peel of 1 orange and 1 lemon

½ apple, peeled and finely chopped

1 carrot, grated

·      No, really.

4 eggs

4 Tbsp dark rum

5 oz. stout, such as Guinness

5 oz. barley wine

·      Or 5 more ounces of stout if you cannot find barley wine.



Wow, this is really a long list. Some traditional recipes limit the number of ingredients to thirteen, or one each for Jesus and the 12 Apostles. This one clocks in at an even 20, thereby including all 7 dwarfs as well. Alright, back to work…


Tools Ye Shall Also Need:


Your biggest mixing bowl

Two ~9” dia. heatproof bowls

Two large pasta pots with lids

Two dish towels

Parchment or wax paper



A bottle of brandy

A wooden spoon

A cool, dark place


Instructions: Mixing, Cooking, Curing


The recipe we used begins with a warning to “start early in morning.” Truer words have never been written about Christmas Pudding: the first day of preparation, from start to finish, takes at least 10 hours. Not being a bunch of morning people, we got off to a rather late start and tried to make up for it with the tactical brilliance of our division of labor: four people chopping and stirring, one mixing drinks. Did you know a proper Old Fashioned involves 5 minutes of stirring? That’s a fulltime job! I cannot recommend this arrangement enough.


Before I start with the directions, here’s a quick note on what is probably the most exotic ingredient in this recipe: Suet is the fat from around a cow’s kidneys, and while you may not find it on a supermarket shelf, most butcher shops are more than happy to get rid of it. They may even give it to you for free, and can usually grind it for you in-house. I say “usually” because, as if this recipe weren’t already Medieval enough, we happened to pick up our suet on a day when the meat grinder was broken and wound up having to chop everything by hand. Christmas Pud Pro Tip #23: If this happens to you, refrigerate your suet before dicing. It hardens and is easier to cut. Also make sure to ditch any leftover bits of meat.




1. When you’ve finally collected everything, combine the dry ingredients (suet, flour, breadcrumbs, sugar and spices) in your largest mixing bowl. Mix. Add peel, fruit and nuts.


At this point the directions say to “mix well again”, but chances are you’ll now be starring in awe at the giant mound of ingredients that dwarfs your original mixing bowl, a veritable Krakatoa of holiday cheer that threatens to crush your entire party in a deadly avalanche of currants and beef fat. You won’t know whether to stir it, or sacrifice a virgin to keep it happy. There really is a lot of stuff in the recipe; we just dumped the whole thing in a deep stock pot and moved on to the booze.


2. Combine all wet ingredients (stout, barley wine, rum, eggs) and beat together, then add to the dry ingredients in your mixing bowl/pot, grab the wooden spoon and get ready to stir.


3. Stirring is such an integral part of the Christmas pud ritual that in Victorian England the day traditionally reserved for making pudding was known as Stir-Up Sunday, and was even accompanied by a verse in the Anglican prayer book that reads “stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” It was also a chance to incorporate some charmingly Dickensian child-labor, as all the kids in the household would be rounded set to work stirring the batter once for every loved one they wished well in the holidays. We humbly suggest updating the recipe for the twenty-first century by cracking open your laptop and stirring once for every Facebook friend. The batter gradually gets darker, damper, and more fragrant, until it reaches what our recipe calls “a good dropping consistency.” Picture the cafeteria lady slopping potatoes onto your lunch tray.


4. When the batter is finally ready, grease the two bowls, (with your leftover suet if you want to continue kicking it old-school) and divide the pudding into them evenly.




Now it gets weirder: Christmas pudding isn’t baked, it isn’t broiled, and it isn’t fried. It’s steamed for eight hours (EIGHT HOURS?!), which, it turns out, requires some forethought and engineering.


1. Start by placing a plate upside down in the bottom of each pot, then add 1 to 2 inches of water and heat to a simmer.


2. Meanwhile, cover each bowl of pudding batter with a layer of wax paper or parchment, then foil, then a dish towel. You are going to set the bowl inside the pot, on top of the plate, above the simmering water, but first check if your pot is wide enough to fit two oven-mitted hands plus the bowl. If so, congrats: drop it in and set your 8-hour timer. If the bowl is a tight fit (and this is usually the case), then congrats as well: you’re about to channel your inner MacGuyver. Loop your string a few times around the rim of the bowl to cinch the towel on tight, then make your self a handle by taking another length of string and tying to the loop at two opposite places on the rim of the bowl. Then lower the whole contraption into the steaming pot, cover and… I don’t know… watch a movie. Have band practice. Put in a full day’s work down at the office. Read a book. War and Peace, maybe. Heck, write a book… Just know that you’re going to be hanging around for a long time.


3. Keep a hot kettle on the stove and refill your pots with boiling water as needed every 30 minutes or so.


4. After eight hours (again: EIGHT HOURS?!) turn the stove off and let the puddings cool overnight.


5. In the morning change the paper, foil and towel, and store in a cool dark place for a looooong time. Mine is currently hidden in a dark pillow case and shoved into the back of a little-used kitchen cabinet. Just how long the pudding sits is up to you; one recipe I found online helpfully suggested a range from 1 day to 2 years. Great, thanks a lot, Saveur. I’m told the longer the wait, the better the pudding. In England the pudding was traditionally started on “the Sunday next before Advent”, or 4 to 5 weeks before Christmas, and in any case, after all this work it seems like a shame to let the thing set for any less than a month.




BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! Your Christmas pudding may get to sit still for a month, but you don’t. Check on the pud every week or so to make sure it isn’t drying out or sobering up. If it starts to feel dry to the touch, pour a tablespoon or so of brandy over it before sticking it back in the dark. These weeks, months, or even years of curing blend the collection of wildly different ingredients and textures into… well, I don’t really know. It certainly smells good – complex, spicy and unplaceable – but I won’t find out how the thing tastes for another three weeks.


I was serious, by the way, when I said I’d “be here all month.” Any recipe that includes directions to “let sit for between 1 day and 2 years” deserves more than a single post. So between now and Christmas I’ll be checking back in to keep you informed, first about the curing process, and finally about just how delicious this fiery, boozy monstrosity winds up tasting. Fingers crossed.


The saga continues next Monday.




Jonathan Bensick hails originally from Oakland, California, has also lived in St. Louis, MO and Florence, Italy, and now resides in a two-bit Southern California burg named El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de la Reina de Los Angeles del Rio de Porcuincula where, at the risk of jinxing himself, he is 38% of the way to being a licensed Architect. His latest post for us was A Passage to Indian Food, or an Indian-ventory of Spices.