Christmas Pudding is an essential part of my family’s Christmas feast. It’s simply non-negotiable. It took a little while for me to persuade the supposed dried fruit-haters of the family to try my homemade ones but one bowlful and the most staunch Christmas pudding opponents have been convinced of how delicious it is.
Assuming you have been thusly persuaded, I thought it would be helpful to write a little Christmas Pudding Troubleshooting Guide as I’d love to see more people making and enjoying their own as it really isn’t hard and it tastes so much better than anything you can buy.
Some Helpful Kit for Successful Pudding Making
Do I need to tell you how much I love my Instant Pot?! Whether you pressure or slow cook it, the IP will make light work of your Christmas Pudding:
For a small Christmas pudding, this Paul Hollywood pudding steamer is great. Just wrap the pud in greaseproof once cold and before storing it (see later in this post for why!):
I have quite a few ceramic pudding basins, and I have a place in my heart for them all. My Sophie Conran one is my favourite though – I love seeing it in my cupboard throughout the festive season:
Mini puddings can be made in darioles. I’ve had this set for years and years and they are so useful:
Finally, a digital thermometer is very handy to check a large pudding is cooked through, not to mention how much more relaxed you’ll be when you know your turkey is fully and safely cooked! Thermapen is the brand I always recommend:
Choosing a Recipe
There are three main ways to cook a Christmas pudding. Steamed, in a pan of water on the hob (stovetop); in a slow cooker or in a pressure cooker and I, of course, use my Instant Pot. Largely, it will depend on what equipment you have but it’s worth knowing that you can mostly interchange the methods without running into too many problems.
I’ll point out some things to bear in mind when veering away from a recipe as we go on. Slow cooking is the easiest and lowest method by far if you’re looking for the least faff, that’s the method I would choose (and it’s a recipe which gets rave reviews year after year :D).
Christmas Puddings are extremely rich so if you have never tried one, you’ll be surprised at how small it will seem. Serving sizes are meant to be small to account for the boozy richness but having leftovers for Boxing Day is never a bad thing so if in doubt, get the bigger sized pudding basin out!
Once you know how big a pud you need, have a look at the recipe ingredients and know that you don’t have to stick to the specific dried fruits an author will give you. You can follow them slavishly, but you don’t have to. Sultanas, raisins and currants are perhaps the most traditional but cranberries, dried apples or pears, glacé cherries, dried figs, even a few prunes (not too many!) can all be substituted in most recipes and still produce a successful pudding.
Candied peel is a bit of a love-hate ingredient for a lot of people so if you can’t stand it, what is good to do is adding the zests of a grated orange and lemon. You get a zingy citrus hit that way, without finding tough and hard little pieces of candied citrus peel in your pud. If you do buy it, it is one ingredient worth splurging on. The more pricey versions tend to be softer and much more fragrant and tend to be worth the extravagance.
Nuts are a crowd divider too but my parents love nutty things (good job, with me as their daughter!) so I sometimes add in some chopped almonds and pecans. I tend to add no more than 2 tbsp worth of nuts to any given recipe for a hint of nuttiness, but for a more full-on nut lover’s pudding, I would replace up to 50g worth of the dried fruit with roughly chopped nuts.
A Secret Ingredient!
I really believe, even just a few tablespoons of soft dried dates, chopped finely works absolute wonders on a Christmas Pudding. Please give them a go, even if you’re convinced you don’t like them. Once chopped and cooked, they almost melt into the pudding and give the most wonderfully moist and fudgy texture you can imagine. It is hard to point them out in the final product but they really do improve the texture quite significantly so no matter what other combination of dried fruits I use, I make sure to the first ingredient is a handful of dates.
Soaking Your Fruit – Booze or No Booze?
A lot of people ask me about the use of alcohol in my pudding recipes. I love using some and will vary which liqueur or spirit I use to keep things interesting and sometimes even to use up the last of a spirit or two that has been loitering too long in the cupboard!
It is wise to soak your fruit in the alcohol stated in the recipe until it has absorbed all the liquid – this is usually done in 24 hours but if your fruit is slightly older, you may need an extra splash and to leave it a day or two longer to plump up. If when you mix the batter up it looks stiff, you can always add a little more alcohol… it is Christmas, after all ;)
My favourite tipples to add to Christmas puddings are:
- Tia Maria (my number one favourite)
- Cointreau (often I use this in combination with the Amaretto)
- Dark Rum
- Glayva (a whisky spiced with almonds, honey, cinnamon and other festive flavours)
- Frangelico (a hazelnut liqueur)
- Todka (toffee vodka)
- Vanilla vodka
Brandy and whisky are the traditional spirits but I must admit I don’t like them. Use whichever you prefer to drink and I am sure you will enjoy your pudding.
If you don’t use alcohol then the next best thing to do is to soak the fruit in strong tea (two teabags in one cup of boiling water) and to up the spices (I would double the amount stated in the recipe). Or as most of my recipes ask you to use the zest of an orange and a lemon, you can simply squeeze the juice over your dried fruits.
If your kitchen is warm, steep them in the fruit juice in the fridge overnight and use within 48 hours (alcohol is a preservative, fruit juice is not). Also, increase the Mixed Spice to compensate for the loss of intensity and depth of flavour leaving the alcohol results in. Check out my Mixed Spice and Pumpkin Pie Spice recipes here.
Gluten Free Variations
A lot of traditional recipes use both wheat flour and breadcrumbs. The latter is added to actually lighten up the batter, and it works very well. Some recipes have higher proportions of these than others but in general, the dried fruit is present in a much higher amount than the flour and crumbs so you can substitute without too many problems.
I simply swap plain or self-raising wheat flour for readily available gluten-free versions (Doves Farm ones are perfectly acceptable here). For the breadcrumbs, as we don’t tend to have GF bread in, even at Christmas as Daddums can’t stand the texture, I’ve found ground almonds work superbly well. For both subs, simply replace with the exact same stated amounts as the original recipe calls for.
If you find yourself in need of catering for an unexpected coeliac on Christmas Day, try my single serving individual gluten-free Christmas pudding recipe. It’s perfect for a last minute pudding if you’ve been caught unawares and doesn’t need maturing!
Suet or No Suet?
Suet comes in vegetarian or animal-fat based varieties. Suet from beef or pigs is grated fat from around their internal organs. Sounds appetising right? Well, actually, it’s pretty darn tasty stuff (have you seen my Instant Pot Keema Pie?) and it is certainly very traditional. If you are cooking your pud on the stove or in the slow cooker, by all means, go ahead and replace the butter in the recipe with the same weight of suet.
If using a pressure cooker, repeated testing has shown me that you need to increase the cooking time significantly – often up to 2 hours instead of the 45 minutes pressure cooking time needed for butter-based puddings. It takes longer to break down when cooked under pressure so do test the pudding by inserting a skewer into the centre of the pudding (it should come out clean) or test with a digital thermometer; you’re looking for 75˚C as a minimum reading when it is fully cooked through.
What Sort of Basin Do I Need?
This is a really frequently asked question. The short answer is – whichever you have! You may use ceramic pudding basins, reusable plastic ones or even metal “steamers” will do the job. Even Pyrex bowls will work! I must admit, having made a lot of Christmas Puddings in my experimenting, using different cooking methods and lots of different basins, I haven’t found it makes a lot of difference with the exception of when using a pressure cooker.
You must make sure there is a minimum of an inch of space all around the basin or the pudding won’t cook as the steam and heat can’t circulate and cook the pudding. Also, if you have an usually thick ceramic basin or Pyrex bowl, add an extra 10-15 minutes to the pressure cooking time. Remember, it is hard to overcook a Christmas pudding, so if it isn’t done at the stated time in the recipe, don’t be afraid to put it back on for longer.
Making Individually Sized Puddings
Mini puddings are very cute and great to make as gifts. I found this great little site called Ryepac that is the best price I could find, have fast delivery and sell really gorgeous red plastic pudding basins in all sizes, suitable for steaming or pressure cooking puddings in. If you are keeping them, using darioles (small metal moulds suitable for making all manner of puddings and even pannacotta in) or even ramekins at a push will do.
When pressure cooking in the Instant Pot, I get approximately 6 mini puddings out of the single large pudding quantity and I still give them an initial 15 minutes on Steam but I reduce the cooking time to 30 minutes on Manual High, instead of 45 mins for one large pudding. You will have to stack them up so only the bottom three or four sit in the water but don’t worry – the ones on top will cook just the same.
To slow cook them, I would still give them 6-8 hours as this is a very gentle method and you want to be sure they are fully cooked. Pour in enough just-boiled water to come almost to the rim of the basin to give it a headstart.
On the stove, cook for a minimum of 3 hours simmering away standing in just boiled water up to an inch below the rim of the puddings (and be sure to top it up regularly so the pan doesn’t run dry). Again, check for doneness before removing from the water.
Storing and Maturing Your Puds
If you have made your pudding(s) in ceramic or plastic, simply replace the foil and greaseproof paper once cold and put in a cool dark cupboard until needed. This can be done a year in advance or as close as 3-4 weeks before Christmas. If you leave it much later, you will not have time to let the flavours mellow, mingle and mature, which would result in a disappointing pudding on the big day!
If you have used a metallic steamer to cook your pudding in, you are best advised to take it out of the mould, wrap first in greaseproof or waxed paper then in foil before storing. The sugar and fruit acids could start to react with the metal if you leave them for months on end to mature, which is not a good thing. Best thing is to take it out and wrap it up. Which is also acceptable if you will be needing your ceramic or plastic pudding basin again before Christmas Day in any case.
Stir Up Sunday is the last Sunday before Advent for the religious amongst us and tradition started back in the Victorian days tells us every family member should get a stir of the pudding mixture and that you should recite “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord” as you go. This year, it is Sunday 26th November 2017, should you wish to uphold tradition.
Reheating On Christmas Day
I find that these days, I usually make my puddings in the Instant Pot but come Christmas Day itself, I pull out one of the slow cookers Step Mum has and bung the pud in there before we sit down for the main event, as it can be left quietly cooking for several hours without any harm befalling it, and it is ready whenever you are. Which is usually after a lay down for an hour before there is any room to fit in a pudding!
To reheat on the stove top, again be sure to keep the partially covered pot topped up with water as it will evaporate as time goes by. This is why I don’t use this method anymore – both my slow cooker and Instant Pot can be left alone to do their thing unsupervised and I’d be devastated to burn the pudding if I got caught up serving lunch etc, only to find the pan ran dry an hour ago!
A steaming of at least 20 mins on Manual High then an NPR and allowing the pudding to remain on Keep Warm until needed is how I reheat my Christmas pudding in the Instant Pot.
You can also reheat Christmas puds using your microwave. The thing is, microwaves can be viciously hot and in years gone by, I’ve seen one burn the pudding as the fruit overheats if you reheat it for too long at too high a temperature. Individual puddings or single serving slices from a large pudding work well – I put them on a microwave-safe plate, cover loosely with cling film and zap on high power for 45-60 seconds. They are small enough to cope well!
Check they are piping hot throughout by inserting a metal skewer into the centre and carefully, touching it to check it is hot (be very cautious and try not to burn yourself!). For large puddings, tip onto a plate and I start by giving it 2 minutes on high then test it, perhaps needing another 2-3 minutes maximum to get it hot throughout. I think this is safer as it prevents overheating but if your microwave is very high power, do it on medium and be prepared to give it an extra minute or two. Once it is reheated, allow the same length of time for the pudding to stand before serving, so not to burn your guests’ mouths!
What to Serve My Pudding With?
For me, it has to be Rum Sauce, which is a simple little white sauce made with butter, cornflour, sugar, milk and of course, a good splosh of dark rum. Hungry Hubby is a custard man. A spoonful of brandy butter is a traditional accompaniment made by beating butter, icing sugar, sometimes ground almonds and then as much brandy as the butter will take without splitting but it’s too rich for me (yep – that is where I draw the richness line!). Pouring cream would be lovely for those who want an unsweetened accompaniment and I dare say if we brought out the ice cream, dear old Daddums would have a scoop of that as well! A lot of this is family tradition driven and deeply personal to each of us, so feel free to serve it how you like.
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