The origins of Christmas pudding

By Caroline Young

If you are not a fan of those foods made with dried and candied fruits, fragrant spices and marzipan, please do not read any further because I am talking about our traditional Christmas treats – Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake. Stir-Up Sunday is traditionally the day they should be made, five weeks before the Day. You may have just missed this but there is still time to catch up, get the whole family stirring the rich mixtures and all making a wish (which must be kept secret).

Both the pudding and the cake started off as a very basic plain porridge, often containing meat, that was eaten on Christmas Eve after a period of fasting. Solid and comforting, it was meant to fill an empty stomach. In the 16th century the oatmeal was replaced by butter, eggs and flour but Oliver Cromwell banned the eating of this rich mixture in the 17th century as it was thought to be a pagan celebration to mark  the end of the winter solstice. What a killjoy! However, as more kitchens came to have ovens, which replaced cooking in a pot over an open fire, the rich fruity mixture was baked and so became a cake.

The pudding version continued, with the mixture wrapped in a cloth and boiled for many hours. Traditionally it was supposed to have at least thirteen ingredients to represent Christ and his disciples, and the fragrant spices represented the Three Kings and their gifts to the baby. When coins were made of silver they were stirred into the mixture before boiling. Whoever found one in their portion would receive great wealth, happiness and good health in the coming year. Perhaps it would be wiser now to slip a well washed coin on to the edge of each portion as it is served! The flaming of the pudding represents the passion of Christ.

The Victorians, headed by Prince Albert, are credited with the introduction of  the  richly iced cake and the flaming pudding as we know them today, so we really are eating a slice of our history when we enjoy our Christmas cake and pudding.

If you have some pudding left over for another day, try grilling thick slices and serving them topped with brandy butter or ice cream. Or crumble cold pudding, moisten it with a little alcohol of your choice and fold into softened vanilla ice cream. Pop back into the freezer to firm up. Well wrapped the cake will stay fresh for several weeks but if you freeze it the marzipan and royal icing tends to part company with the cake.