By Jess Clevenger – “The pudding was out of the copper which smells like a washing-day. That was the cloth. 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-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
This holiday season in Gettysburg, we can see that scene, and more, come to life as the Majestic Theater presents Totem Pole Playhouse’s performance of “A Christmas Carol.” The scene above from Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale describes a traditional English Christmas feast of the nineteenth century – specifically the presentation of plum pudding. In the story, the Cratchit’s – the family of Ebenezer Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit – delight in the Christmas day meal that they share – complete with roasted goose, sage and onion stuffing, applesauce, mashed potatoes, spiced punch and of course, plum pudding.
I’d always been curious about plum pudding, always wondering what exactly it was and what it tasted like. So, inspired by “A Christmas Carol,” and by the Christmas day traditions of the Cratchit family, I went to the kitchen to find out.
Plum pudding, also commonly called Christmas pudding, has an interesting history dating back to medieval England. Curiously, traditional plum pudding contains no plums. From what I’ve read, dried fruit of any variety has been called “plums” since at least the seventeenth century in England. The “plums” in traditional plum pudding are typically raisins and currants. But wait – it isn’t really pudding, either. At least not the pudding that you’re thinking of – it’s not the sweet, creamy milk-based dessert that we think of in America today. The word pudding was, and still is, a synonym for dessert – any type of dessert – in England. The plum pudding that we see in this recipe is what we today might consider a fruit cake.
Some more interesting facts – traditional plum pudding contained suet, which is raw fat from beef or mutton. Suet would be combined with dried fruit and tons of spices, flour, sugar and nuts, citrus and a heavy dose of brandy. The mixture was formed into a ball and wrapped up in a cloth – like the one in Mrs. Cratchit’s kitchen – and was boiled for six or more hours. Because plum pudding was always prepared weeks ahead of Christmas, the pudding was then hung and left out to cure until the 25th of December – a process that supposedly enhanced the flavors. Plum pudding was considered a luxury because of the expensive ingredients, but it was also a cherished Christmas day tradition. It’s also said that while making the plum pudding, for luck, every member of the family was to take a turn stirring the batter – and to make a wish while doing so.
All that it takes is a quick Google search to see that plum pudding has been interpreted in many ways by many people in modern times. The recipe I’m showing you today is a little different from a traditional one like the Cratchit family enjoyed in “A Christmas Carol.” The suet is left out, and in addition to using raisins and dried currants, canned plums are used. Strictly from a baker’s perspective, the addition of plums adds a moistness to the cake that using just dried fruit would not. This recipe is modernized by using a gingerbread or spice cake mix instead of flour, sugar and spices, making it a fantastic recipe to try with
kids. This pudding isn’t boiled or steamed either, but rather, the batter is poured into a pudding mold or Bundt pan and baked like a cake. Although the recipe contains no alcohol, it could be easily added if you please. In addition to there being alcohol in the batter of a traditional plum pudding, the finished product would be doused with brandy and set on fire as it was being presented to the family. This recipe takes a safer route, with the finished dish being topped with a deliciously sweet plum sauce.
While the recipe I used is far from traditional, the idea is still the same. I may have left out the suet, didn’t wrap it in a cloth to be boiled for six hours, and didn’t hang it in my house for several weeks to cure, but you better believe that I made a wish while stirring the batter, that I believe making plum pudding is a great Christmas tradition and that it’s a dish to be shared with others during the most wonderful time of the year – a time of the year that Scrooge’s nephew Fred sums up perfectly – “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Celebrate Christmas like the characters of “A Christmas Carol” – gather the ones you love, tie up your aprons and give this plum pudding a try. It’ll be sure to get you in the holiday spirit, and maybe it’ll become a cherished Christmas tradition of your own. And before it’s too late, catch “A Christmas Carol” at Gettysburg’s Majestic Theater – performances take place Dec. 15, 17 and 18 at 2 p.m., and Dec. 15, 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. Mark your calendar now because “A Christmas Carol” will return to Gettysburg next year as well, with performances Dec. 9-17, 2017.
Mrs. Cratchit’s plum pudding is a recipe out of “A Christmas Carol Cookbook.” The cookbook features many wonderful recipes inspired by the classic Christmas show. The cookbook is available for purchase for $5 at the Majestic Theater during performances of “A Christmas Carol,” as well as at Totem Pole Playhouse’s administrative office, 9555 Golf Course Road, Fayetteville, Pa.
Mrs. Cratchit’s Plum Pudding (from “A Christmas Carol” Cookbook)
1 lb. can (2 cups) purple plums
1 box gingerbread mix
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup currants
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans
½ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Drain canned plums, reserving syrup for sauce. Cut pitted plums into pieces. Prepare gingerbread according to package directions, adding plum pieces, raisins, currants, nuts and salt. Stir well and transfer to a well-greased 8-cup pudding mold. Bake for 1 hour. Loosen edges and immediately unmold on serving plate. Meanwhile prepare the plum sauce.
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Add water to reserved plum syrup to make 1 ½ cups. Combine sugar and cornstarch in small sauce pan. Gradually add syrup. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick and boiling. Cook one minute. Add lemon juice. Serve warm over plum pudding. Flame with brandy if desired.
Note: I used a spice cake mix rather than a gingerbread cake mix, I used only ¼ teaspoon salt in the batter, and added 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and the zest from one orange to the batter. For the plum sauce, I added 1 tablespoon of orange juice as well. My cake only took 45 minutes to bake. Also, note that recipes for cake mixes may vary – mine called for 3 eggs, 1/3 cup butter and 1 cup milk (as you see in the video).
About the Author
As an Adams County transplant, Jess is continually exploring the area; slowly but surely becoming a local. When not working at Destination Gettysburg or in the office at Three Springs Fruit Farm, you can find Jess spending time with her family, hiking, gardening, cooking and taking care of her Aspers, Pa. home.