Christmas Desserts GREAT BRITISH FOOD HOME Special Occasions

Proof Of The Pudding

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating!” is a well-used phrase which we often shorten to ‘proof of the pudding’. This simply means that you can’t tell if anything is good or not, until it has been tried out properly. The phrase itself is an old one, dating back to 16051, but at that stage , the ‘pudding’ in question would have been a sausage-y savoury thing, similar to today’s black pudding or haggis.

These days, aside from our black pudding, steak-and-kidney pudding and Yorkshire pudding, we now mostly think of puddings as a sweet dish. In fact, the word ‘pudding’ (or, in Britain, “pud”) is often interchangeable with the word dessert, especially if the pudding contains fruit, is hot, or served with cream or custard.

The Christmas pudding is a bit special, though. A Christmas dinner would not be complete without one even though, frankly, many people do admit they don’t like it that much. We certainly don’t like it enough to eat it at other times of the year. What we do like, however, is the drama. Pouring brandy over it and setting it on fire, so it comes to the table as a burning blue-flamed ball; then pulling your portion apart in order to see if you have the lucky coin hidden inside it…that’s all jolly good fun. But when it comes to eating it…well, we’re all a bit full, really, and quite possibly already looking at the tin of Quality Street chocolates.

There’s a great story about Oliver Cromwell, the ultimate 17th century party-pooper2, making Christmas Pudding illegal, but it seems this is not quite true. Yes, the Puritans did think it was a marvellous idea to make Christmas a fast day instead of a feast day, and even tried to push this through Parliament, but generally people in England felt that dry bread and water for their Christmas lunch was a bloody rubbish idea being forced on them by religious killjoys3, and so it never took hold. And even the Quakers4 started shouting that Christmas Pudding was the “invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon”…(I mean…steady on, Quakers5) so it must have come as some relief to the festive party-loving English when George I insisted on having Christmas Pudding on his Christmas Table in 1714. In fact, they were all so happy about it being officially accepted, that they called him the “Pudding King” forever after. So, all in all, thank goodness for the Germans.

The Victorians loved it too. They often called it ‘plum pudding’ or ‘figgy pudding’, too (the Victorians called raisins ‘plums’, and we don’t know why). And look how Charles Dickens so lovingly describes the pudding scene in A Christmas Carol

“Mrs Cratchit left the room alone – too nervous to bear witnesses – to take the pudding up and bring it in… Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell 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-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”6

Stir up Sunday

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded.”

Stir-Up Sunday is named after a prayer said in the Anglican Church on the final Sunday before Advent, and is the day that the Christmas Pudding is traditionally made. It is supposed to be one big jolly activity for all the family, but in my experience it’s usually the mother who does all the work, and the family only join in with the fun bit, where they get to stir it, drop a coin in the middle, and make their wish, after which they disappear again and leave you to clear up. But it’s not so bad. Preparing a Christmas Pudding also provides plenty of opportunity for swigging from the brandy bottle. #usefultip

As with mince pies, these days, everyone has their own version of it. Several well-known chefs produce all manner of strange flavoured ones for the supermarket. We do rather feel that this is cheating, (and who wants a whole orange stuffed in the middle, or pine dusting? Too, too much) so we like to stick to the tradition on this one.

[We know we have promised you a very traditional one, from Queen Anne’s table, no less, but it is currently such a family secret that we are still doing a little extra persuading. In the meantime, I am sure you won’t be upset with a Mary Berry, the nation’s favourite.]



  • 75g (3 oz) butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
  • 450g (1 lb) dried fruit (use a mixture of sultanas, raisins and snipped apricots)
  • 1 small cooking apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped (about 175g/6 oz)
  • finely grated rind and juice of 1 orange
  • 50ml (2 fl oz) brandy or rum, plus extra for feeding and flaming
  • 100g (4 oz) light muscovado sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 100g (4 oz) self-raising flour
  • 1 level teaspoon ground mixed spice
  • 40g (1½ oz) fresh white breadcrumbs
  • 40g (1½ oz) whole shelled almonds, roughly chopped


  1. Lightly butter a 1.4 litre (2½ pint) pudding basin. Cut a small square of foil and press into the base of the basin.
  2. Measure the sultanas, raisins, apricots and apple into a bowl with the orange juice. Add the brandy or rum to marinate for about one hour.
  3. Put the butter, sugar and grated orange rind into a large bowl and cream together with a wooden spoon or hand-held electric whisk until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs, adding a little flour if the mixture starts to curdle.
  4. Sift together the flour and mixed spice, then fold into the creamed mixture with the breadcrumbs and the nuts. Add the dried fruits, apple and liquid and stir well.
  5. Spoon into the prepared pudding basin, pressing the mixture down, and level the top with the back of a spoon. Cover the pudding with a layer of greaseproof paper and foil, both pleated across the middle to allow for expansion. Tie securely with string and trim off excess paper and foil with scissors.
  6. To steam, put the pudding in the top of a steamer filled with simmering water, cover with a lid and steam for about eight hours, topping up the water as necessary. To boil the pudding, put a metal jam-jar lid into the base of a large pan to act as a trivet. Put the pudding on to this and pour in enough boiling water to come one-third of the way up the bowl. Cover with a lid, bring the water back to the boil, then simmer for about seven hours, until the pudding is a glorious deep brown colour, topping up the water as necessary.
  7. Remove the pudding and cool completely. Make holes in the pudding with a fine skewer and pour in a little more brandy or rum to feed. Discard the paper and foil and replace with fresh. Store in a cool, dry place.
  8. On Christmas Day, steam or boil the pudding for about an hour to reheat. Turn the pudding on to a serving plate. To flame, warm 3–4 tablespoons brandy or rum in a small pan, pour it overthe hot pudding and set light to it. Serve with rum sauce, brandy cream or brandy butter.

1. William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine, (London 1605): “All the proof of a pudding is in the eating.”

2. party-pooper – someone who spoils everyone else’s fun by being wet, or boring, or sticking to the rules.

3 killjoys – see party-pooper!

4 Quakers – a dissenting Protestant religious group which broke away from the Church of England in the 17th century. Quakers went on to found several large financial institutions and firms, including Lloyds, Barclays, Cadbury’s and Clarks Shoes.

5 “Steady on!” – “Calm down!” in a “Don’t exaggerate” sense

6 Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, (London 2015) Wiseman Publications 

7 Extracted from MARY BERRY’S CHRISTMAS COLLECTION published by Headline Publishing Group. Copyright © 2013 Mary Berry

© 2016 Kayte & Nicer Kate – authors assert moral rights


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