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Christmas Pudding

By amy • • Dec 20th, 2009 • Category: Columns, Prepared Foods, Sweets

Holiday necessity or Victorian monstrosity? Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen – and found Canadians divided on the topic of plum pudding. Many of us – especially those of British descent – love this fugly-looking and mystifyingly delicious olde worlde relic (one scion of Upper Canada says: “It’s pure ambrosia. When you cook it, an irresistible aroma of cloves and fruit pervades the whole house.”). On the other hand, large swathes of our population – especially those who have no cultural acclimatisation to plum pudding at all – dread the moment when it arrives on the table (“It looks blobby and sinister”). Shelf Life takes the long view. If nothing else, this wonderfully loaded mound deserves serious respect. For starters, plum pudding is wily (it hasn’t got plums in it per se – the ‘plum’ refers to dried fruit in general and now-vestigial prunes in particular); it has equal if not more heritage credibility than anything else on the Christmas dinner menu; and its classic recipe is not for slackers or dieters, especially the suet part.

Today, a typical Christmas pudding is a mixture of raisins, currants, sultanas, chopped cherries, chopped almonds, various fruit peel and rind, breadcrumbs, spices, flour, eggs, shortening (or suet) and alcohol – usually stout or brandy – all of which is pressed into a ceramic bowl, covered, and slow–cooked (very slow-cooked). It is often served doused in brandy and set aflame, and eaten with hot custard, cream, or hard sauce (a sort of rock-like vanilla icing). Before the late seventeenth century plum pudding was a mess of pottage (a savoury thick stew or soup); before that it was a runny, Monty Pythonesque mixture of mutton and root vegetables. It was the Victorians who eliminated the last bits of hoof and stumps of parsnip, doubled up on the sweet ingredients, placed it firmly beside the Christmas hearth, and gave the world Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Dickens loved writing about food, especially family meals. His work is full of vivid descriptions of bustling kitchens and ruddy, warmly-lit families at the dinner table, downing tripe and eels with gustatory glee. In A Christmas Carol, a plum pudding takes centre stage. In a passage that could melt the hard hearts of pudding haters everywhere, the author makes clear that this once-a-year treat is tremendously exciting for a humble household like the Cratchits. Here is Dickens’ description of Mrs. Cratchit’s Yuletide piece de resistance:

She entered the room, flushed “but smiling proudly; with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in a half-a-quartern of ignited brandy and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”.

Right there, right then, Shelf Life is willing to bet that these people wouldn’t have traded their Christmas pudding for, say, a round of probiotic yoghurts or dabs of wasabi-coconut foam. Nope: like a lot of us, they understood that when the festive, flaming chunk of fat and sugar at last descends on the table, there really is peace on earth.

Channeling their inner Victorian are this week’s expert judges: Elizabeth Baird, executive food editor, Canadian Living magazine, and author of the award winning “The Complete Canadian Living Baking Book”; Donna Dooher: chef, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen; and Malcolm Jolley, editor, Good Food Revolution, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every product in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between zero and five stars. Each plum pudding was cooked in a microwave oven to package specifications (and was not served flambee).

Brand One

Cottage Delight
Brandy,Port & Walnut Christmas Pudding
450 g, $36.00

available at fine food stores
for more information visit

Elizabeth: It’s not wonderful, but it’s not terrible either. There are lots of raisins here but few of the other ingredients you might expect. However the classic British recipe might be as simple as this, whereas in North America things may have evolved differently. Perhaps over the years we’ve added nuts and cherries and lots of frou-frous.

Donna: You’re right – the original recipe may be less varied than we think. Over here our instinct is to load in the extras, because we have so much and eat so much. I’m getting an interesting, nostalgic aroma from Brand One, very homey, almost like the smell of ironing. I really like the way it looks, but it tastes bland, with a slight smell of plastic.

Malcolm: The deep dark colour looks great, and so does the shine; Brand One is very pudding-like. There’s a bit of lemon-citrus smell, so I’m expecting some tartness in the taste. But no – what I thought was lemon tastes like Neo-Citran.

Brand One Total SIX AND A HALF STARS ******1/2

Brand Two

Guinness Christmas Pudding
450g, $29.99

available at Whole Foods and other fine food stores
for more information visit

Elizabeth: This one tastes festive, almost like the raisins have been soaked in booze. It reminds me a bit of Jamaican holiday cakes, where they start soaking the fruit in alcohol in July. Nice traditional appearance, super-moist texture, with raisins an integral part of the whole. It doesn’t feel like a raisin pudding but a pudding with raisins in it.

Donna: Terrific holiday appearance, but I’m finding something odd about the texture. To me, it’s drier on the inside and wetter on the outside. The outer bits also taste of booze – maybe they brushed it with alcohol. And it does give off a whiff of plastic like the others. I think this is a pudding that would definitely work better if you had the time to steam it.

Malcolm: Elizabeth said she wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve this one, and I agree with her. To me the taste is raisiny, fruity, and sweet, with some spice right up in the aroma. And I like the texture – I don’t mind a bit of dry; together with the moist bits it all balances out.

Brand Two ELEVEN STARS ***********

Brand Three

Plum Pudding with Rum flavoured sauce
700g, $9.99

available at Metro and affiliated stores
for more information visit

Elizabeth: Brand Three is caramel-coloured and a little rough on top. It sticks to my teeth in a gummy, gluey way. On the positive side there are big pieces of nuts and other ingredients, so there is some sense of occasion. The package includes sauce, which is –yuk! – gloopy and not worth the calories.

Donna: I don’t mind the gnarly top, it makes it look less manufactured and more authentic. Granted, the sauce is not the best. But the pudding contains the right ingredients – which I can actually taste – lots of currants and nuts and chunks of candied fruit. So I say: pretty good.

Malcolm: The appearance is slightly yellow and cake-like – I was expecting something darker – but it really does deliver the fruit and nuts. And I agree the texture could be less sticky and gummy, but that’s not a big problem for me. It tastes pleasantly tart, but where did that strange aroma come from?

Brand Three Total ELEVEN STARS ***********

Brand Four

Crosse and Blackwell
Plum Pudding
397g, $10.49

widely available
for more information visit

Elizabeth: One of the interesting things about genuine Victorian recipe Christmas puddings – the ones with suet in them, which by the way are fabulous – is that you can’t eat them cold, so you really have to stuff yourself the first time around. Brand Four is not fabulous. It tastes like raisins and dough, and the texture is too crumbly.

Donna: This is like raisin pie. I think Brand Four is the cheap option. Here’s my motto: never serve cheap food! Not even to cheap people. The whole Walmart super-inexpensive food thing drives me crazy. Instead of serving big pieces of junk, give ‘em smaller portions of really good food.

Malcolm: I promise I’m not obsessed by smells, but Brand Four has an aroma like vinegar. The texture is spongy, and the taste is sweet and bland. All you can really see are raisins – and raisins are what you get.

Brand Four TWO STARS **

Results: Cheers to the pudding from Metro stores – when their own Irresistibles brand came down the chimney it looked pale and daft but tasted surprisingly festive. Judges equally enjoyed Coles brand Guinness Plum Pudding, imported from the UK, which tied for first place. The other import, Cottage Delight, put us back $36.00 (from Holt Renfrew), but scored firmly in the take-it-or-leave-it range. As for the lowest performing brand, Crosse and Blackwell, we were bummed by the glum plum.

Off The Menu: Shelf Life didn’t have the time or the facilities to steam-heat these puddings, so we opted to prepare them the high-tech way (ie, by following their microwave instructions). In retrospect, we wish we’d had the opportunity to use the old-fashioned method, because the stove might have given them an indefinable extra something – a certain culinary gravitas, maybe. But be warned: puddings of this size take on average one and a half hours to steam heat (partially immersed in boiling water, with constant topping-up as the water evaporates). For those of you who have room for more sweets check out our review of this season’s hit treat – the organic candy cane.

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