Just desserts

For a pudding to remember, avoid the shops and make your own

Christmas pudding is a dish that, like sprouts, we may eat out of superstitious caution rather than affection. It is a "tradition": we dare not stray from it. We ooh and aah as the pudding enters the room aflame with brandy, but do we face with relish the prospect of eating it? We - if we are carnivores - have just consumed turkey or goose, gravy, bread sauce, two types of stuffing, roast potatoes, carrots, and, of course, sprouts. A sharp lemon mousse might hit the spot; but not a dense, sticky, suety mound, served with cream or that vile concoction, brandy butter.

Ready-made puddings, which are the choice of all but small numbers of enthusiasts, dampen the appetite further. Most of them have adhesive textures and lingering, acrid aftertastes. But these qualities are not inseparable from the dish. They were entirely absent from the best version I ever ate, a home-made one. I love the idea of Christmas pudding: a preparation for midwinter in a northern climate, with good things that have been preserved and imbued with spicy warmth. So, this year, I have made my own.

A Christmas pudding is a plum pudding. Perhaps that is widely known; but I did not know it until I consulted Laura Mason and Catherine Brown's Taste of Britain (HarperPress), a vibrant and inspirational survey of regional foods. "Plum" in this context once meant prune, and came to be any dried fruit. The plum pudding may have been a 17th-century development, following the invention of the pudding cloth. It "is one of the most distinctive British foods, a guaranteed marker of nationality. The French, for example, cannot accept the idea of using suet in the way it is deployed in a plum pudding." Originally, plum porridges and plum puddings contained meat, for which the suet was a replacement.

I found two recipes. One was in a Reader's Digest book called Classic Favourites, a slim volume that never fails me when I have a standard dish to look up; but it gave quantities for three puddings. So I used the one in Good Housekeeping: the New Cookery Encyclopedia. It is rather dry, with only a little lemon juice, treacle and brandy as moistening agents. (I did not have any barley wine, and I was too mean to open a bottle of beer for the sake of 65ml.)

I get nervous about any recipe I prepare for the first time. What worried me in this case was the challenge of insulating a pudding bowl for a six-hour steaming. I wrapped it in kitchen paper, and then in three layers of foil; I think that I should have tied it up with string as well. When I unwrapped it, water poured out of the folds. But the pudding seemed fine, though it did not look very appetising, I must say. I hope the flavour will be good. It might be, if we leave out the brandy butter.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007