‘In December…’

Jacqui holding up the pudding with string and foil in place, ready to go in the saucepan.

Preparing the pudding, Elizabeth Farm kitchen. Still from video © HHT

In December, the principal household duty lies in preparing for the creature comforts of those near and dear to us, so as to meet old Christmas with a happy face, a contented mind, and a full larder; and in stoning the plums, washing the currants, cutting the citron, beating the eggs, and mixing the pudding, a housewife is not unworthily greeting the genial season of all good things.

Isabella Beeton, Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861

Christmas Plum Pudding

While the ‘traditional’ turkey and cranberry sauce may have conceded to seafood and mangoes in many Australian households, plum puddings are still synonymous with Christmas, even in the Australian summertime. And, despite the prices we are charged in gourmet grocers, they are surprisingly simple to make.

For several years now I’ve hosted Christmas Pudding workshops in the colonial kitchen at Vaucluse House and after much testing of 19th century recipes, this Plum Pudding recipe won hands down! No sugar is added – the sweetness comes from the fruit – and no flour – breadcrumbs are used instead -  giving it a very light texture.

It’s taken from Mrs Beeton’s original 1861 edition, receipt number 1328, but I’ve modified it for modern convenience, substituting butter for suet and tailoring it for store-bought packets of mixed fruit.  It may be served with custard, but the ‘rich and excellent’ sauce Beeton recommends for it is extraordinarily decadent and, since Christmas is only once a year, I highly recommend you try it.

A Christmas plum pudding cut up, slices on plates and half eaten with plum pudding sauce being poured on.

Christmas plum pudding and sauce, enjoyed at Elizabeth Farm. Photo Alysha Buss © HHT

The laundry copper

Many families have memories of their mothers and grandmothers boiling puddings in the outdoor copper, stirring them around with a length of dowel. I’d always thought this was a very sensible way of keeping the kitchen cooler in summer, but if Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is any indicator, it was common practice in Britain as well.

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.

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

A labour of love

Family accounts from 1844 show that the Wentworths spent almost £4 on dried fruit – currants, raisins and peel – and spices in the month leading up to Christmas. Market records indicate that these were then between 6d and 9d per pound, so taking an average, they must have bought over 100 lbs of fruit (45 kgs). They purchased more modest quantities in January, so the pre-Christmas stores must have been put to good use!

The same ledger shows that they bought in mince pies, so it’s more than likely that they were making Christmas puddings – possibly as gifts for their workers as well as for family consumption. Making a pudding from scratch might seem a masterful feat, even for the domestic god(dess), but we are more than fortunate these days to have had most of the hard work done for us, as Elizabeth David so astutely pointed out in her superb book, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, first published in 1970:

Have you ever actually made Christmas pudding, in large quantities, by Old English methods? Have they for instance ever tried cleaning and skinning, flouring, shredding, chopping beef kidney suet straight off the hoof? Have they ever stoned bunch after bunch of raisins hardly yet dry on the stalk and each one as sticky as a piece of war toffee? And how long do they think it takes to bash up three pounds of bread-crumbs without an oven to in which they make could first dry the loaves? Come to that, what would they make of an attempt to boil, and to keep on the boil for nine or ten hours on two charcoal fires let into holes in the wall, some dozen large puddings?

Even more fortunate for us is that it would be unlikely that we’d be making ‘some dozen large puds’ as the kitchen staff at Vaucluse House must have been doing in 1844, working their way through 45 kilograms of fruit.

Video: making pudding in the Elizabeth Farm kitchen

Part 1: breadcrumbs, butter and eggs

Part 2: spices and the pudding bowl

Part 3: folding foil and tying string

Part 4: using skewers and cooking

Christmas plum pudding

Meal type Dessert
Occasion Christmas
Region British
From book Beeton's Book of Household management edited by Mrs Isabella Beeton

'On Christmas-day a sprig of holly is usually placed in the middle of the pudding, and about a wine-glassful of brandy poured round it, which, at the moment of serving, is lighted, and the pudding thus brought to table encircled in flame.'

So says Isabella Beeton in 1861, in her best-selling Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). I've adapted her 'Christmas plum pudding (very good)' for modern measurements, replaced suet with butter, and added some extra spice now synonymous with Christmas.


  • 2 x 375 g packs of good quality mixed dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon mixed spice
  • 1 heaped teaspoon extra nutmeg or cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sherry or fragrant black tea (optional) (e.g. Earl Grey, Lady Grey, orange pekoe)
  • 375 g unsliced white loaf of bread (left in a paper bag overnight )
  • 200 g butter (sliced into 4 'rods' and put into the freezer for a few hours)
  • 6 eggs (well beaten)
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • boiling water (to cook the pudding)
  • sprig of holly, fruit mince, chopped walnuts, extra brandy (optional, to serve) (to serve)
  • You will also need: a deep saucepan; two 1-litre pudding basins or equivalent smaller heatproof bowls; baking paper, cut to fit the diameter of the pudding basin or bowls; good quality foil; kitchen string; and wooden barbecue skewers.
  • extra brandy

Combine fruit and spices. If the fruit is very dry, soak it in the tea or sherry overnight, or for a few hours at least.

To make the breadcrumbs, remove and discard the crust, then tear the bread into pieces and put through a food processor. You should end up with about 250 g of crumbs. Place the breadcrumbs in a large bowl (see video: Part 1)

Using a chilled grater, grate the butter and distribute lightly through the breadcrumbs.

Add the fruit and spices, draining away excess soaking liquid if necessary.

Add the beaten eggs and brandy, and let everyone in the family stir the mixture (a traditional element).

Spoon the mixture into a 2-litre pudding basin or other heatproof bowl/s, filling just short of the rim, as the mixture may swell during cooking (see video: Part 2)

Cover the surface of the pudding with baking paper cut to size, then, using two pieces of foil pleated together in the centre, cover the bowl with enough foil to reach halfway down the basin (see Pleating the foil photos for details). The pleat in the foil is to allow for any expansion during cooking. Tie the foil around the bowl securely with string (see video: Part 3).

Bend two wooden barbecue skewers so they fit over the base of a deep saucepan.

Place the pudding basin on top of the skewers (this prevents the basin from touching the bottom of the pan). Fill the pan with enough boiling water to reach halfway up the side of the basin, creating a water bath (see video: Part 4).

Simmer steadily for six hours, topping up the water occasionally so it does not boil dry.

When done, remove the pudding basin from the saucepan, allow to cool, then refrigerate until required. To reheat, simmer again in a water bath until the pudding is heated through. Remove string, foil and paper, and invert the pudding onto a plate. The pudding should be a rich dark colour but have a very light texture. Top with a sprig of holly, or some homemade fruit mince mixed with chopped walnuts. Douse the pudding with brandy and set it alight just before serving, if desired.

Pour plum pudding sauce over and enjoy!

Use a fairly robust loaf of bread, as commercial white loaves containing 'stay fresh' additives won't dry out enough and you might end up with a wet and soggy pudding.

Chill the grater before grating the butter. If you put the grater in the freezer, make sure you wear rubber gloves when taking it out, to avoid giving your fingers a cold 'burn'. Alternatively, you could grate the butter in a food processor, first chilling the grating plate – it's messy and wasteful, but much easier!

Pleating the foil

Mrs Beeton’s original ‘receipt’, 1861

1328. INGREDIENTS – 1–1/2 lb. of raisins, 1/2 lb. of currants, 1/2 lb. of mixed peel, 3/4 lb. of bread crumbs, 3/4 lb. of suet, 8 eggs, 1 wineglassful of brandy.

Mode.—Stone and cut the raisins in halves, but do not chop them; wash, pick, and dry the currants, and mince the suet finely; cut the candied peel into thin slices, and grate down the bread into fine crumbs. When all these dry ingredients are prepared, mix them well together; then moisten the mixture with the eggs, which should be well beaten, and the brandy; stir well, that everything may be very thoroughly blended, and press the pudding into a buttered mould; tie it down tightly with a floured cloth, and boil for 5 or 6 hours. It may be boiled in a cloth without a mould, and will require the same time allowed for cooking.

As Christmas puddings are usually made a few days before they are required for table, when the pudding is taken out of the pot, hang it up immediately, and put a plate or saucer underneath to catch the water that may drain from it. The day it is to be eaten, plunge it into boiling water, and keep it boiling for at least 2 hours; then turn it out of the mould, and serve with brandy-sauce. On Christmas-day a sprig of holly is usually placed in the middle of the pudding, and about a wineglassful of brandy poured round it, which, at the moment of serving, is lighted, and the pudding thus brought to table encircled in flame.

Time.—5 or 6 hours the first time of boiling; 2 hours the day it is to be served.
Average cost, 4s.
Sufficient for a quart mould for 7 or 8 persons.
Seasonable on the 25th of December, and on various festive occasions till March.

Note.—Five or six of these puddings should be made at one time, as they will keep good for many weeks, and in cases where unexpected guests arrive, will be found an acceptable, and, as it only requires warming through, a quickly-prepared dish. Moulds of every shape and size are manufactured for these puddings, and may be purchased of Messrs. R. & J. Slack, 336, Strand.

An illustration of a plum pudding with holly on top, in Mrs Beeton's Beeton’s every-day cookery and housekeeping book, 1895.

Christmas plum pudding illustrated in Mrs Isabella Beeton, Beeton’s every-day cookery and housekeeping book, Ward, Lock & Co, London, 1895. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Historic Houses Trust

INGREDIENTS – 1 wineglassful of brandy, 2 oz. of very fresh butter, 1 glass of Madeira, pounded sugar to taste.

Mode.—Put the pounded sugar in a basin, with part of the brandy and the butter; let it stand by the side of the fire until it is warm and the sugar and butter are dissolved; then add the rest of the brandy, with the Madeira. Either pour it over the pudding, or serve in a tureen. This is a very rich and excellent sauce.

Average cost, 1s. 3d. for this quantity.
Sufficient for a pudding made for 6 persons.

To serve, Mrs Beeton instructs:

On Christmas-day a sprig of holly is usually placed in the middle of the pudding, and about a wineglassful of brandy poured round it, which, at the moment of serving, is lighted, and the pudding thus brought to table encircled in flame.

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  • Libby

    Hi there,
    I am interested in the make of the old wood stove in the kitchen at Elizabeth Farm. Do you know what it is?
    Many thanks,

  • The Curator

    Hi Libby,
    here’s your answer, and a bit of the kitchen’s background.
    Sir Edward Macarthur who inherited Elizabeth Farm, died in 1872, but left a life interest in the property to his wife Sarah. At that stage it was tenanted to Thomas Icely. From 1875 to 1881 – when the property was sold – it was leased by William Billyard. When he moved in he complained (and quite rightly we say!) that there was no cooking range in the kitchen. The range visitors see today, restored and functioning, may have been installed by the Swann family after they purchased Elizabeth Farm in 1904. It was manufactured by the Sydney firm Lassetter and Company. The Swann sisters continued to use the kitchen until 1968, when they sold the house to the Elizabeth Farm Museum Trust. The Elizabeth Farm kitchen is in its own freestanding building, which was a common precaution in colonial houses and for good reason – the original kitchen burnt down in 1805!
    You can see a photo of the range here and a close up here.

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  • Bluey Quilty

    I have been using the cloth method for many years. It is fussy. You need to get a recipe and measure it accurately, or it will fail in a sorry mess. I will try the bowl. I do not know what it takes to keep a pudding to cure for a month without getting mould on it. Is alcohol the solution?
    Speaking as an historian and heritage advocate who cooks, I thank you for the complete package. Bluey Quilty

    • The Cook

      HI Bluey, thank you for your compliment, and for taking the time to join the conversation. Please let us know how you fair using a pudding bowl – alcohol should certainly help the keeping quality but I’ve heard many complaints about mould on puddings – especially cloth-bound puds. And given our summer humidity it’s not surprising. I tend to keep my puddings in the fridge to be on the safe side. cheers, Jacqui

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