How did the traditional Christmas pudding find its way to India?

Chef Vivek Tamhane, Senior Executive Chef at the BLVD Club, Bengaluru takes us through the history of and quest for the ultimate Christmas pudding

Chef Vivek Tamhane shows us his take on the traditional Christmas pudding

The proof of this delicacy’s popularity is in the Christmas pudding itself. Over the years, the dessert has carved its niche as the highlight of festive menus as well as traditional Christian tables.

With a journey beginning from Stir up Sunday, nearly four weeks ahead of Christmas, this is certainly no ordinary pudding. Most would describe it as a traditional English steamed cake-like dessert consisting of breadcrumbs, flour, suet, sugar, eggs, brandy, lemon zest, candied citrus peel, spices, and dried fruits (specifically raisins, currants, and golden raisins). 

Interestingly, the dish is as famous as it is misunderstood. Going by different names including plum or figgy pudding, here is a culinary feat that has seen massive evolution over centuries. It all began in the 14th century, when figgy pudding emerged as an earlier precursor of the Christmas pudding as we know it today. It looked and tasted very different then, more of a wet, sticky, thick porridge consisting of boiled figs, water, wine, ground almonds, raisins and honey. 

At some point, the dish also went on to incorporate ground meat and grains before finally emerging as the dessert we know it to be. As for the term ‘plum pudding’, that simply came from pre-Victorians referring to raisins and dried fruits in general as plums. There’s also the myth of people associating the 13 ingredients with Jesus and his 12 disciples. The initial versions of the Christmas pudding in fact possessed far fewer ingredients, only going on to amalgamate more with each makeover. 

There's traditions involved from preparation to consumption as far as traditional christmas puddings are concerned. One of them is the flambed serving at the table.
There’s traditions involved from preparation to consumption as far as traditional Christmas puddings are concerned. One of them is the dramatic flambed serving at the table.

What most people may not know is that the now celebrated labour of love was popularised thanks to a viral marketing campaign by the over zealous British empire in the mid-1920s. 

Like many Anglophilic culinary customs across India, rituals surrounding the preparation and consumption of Christmas puddings was a gift of the British colonists. Formerly dubbed as the Empire Pudding, this creation of the British empire was all about the rather obnoxious display of conquests from colonized countries. 

Such was the fervent need to establish the grandeur of the empire that apart from flour and beer, no other ingredients in the dish came from British soil. Women were encouraged to convert their traditional Christmas pudding recipes into Empire puddings and therefore boycott products that came outside of British colonies. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll also find racist undertones to the preparation, involving an Indian servant using his dhoti to steam the pudding whilst fearing his British master. 

Within the empire itself, there was an annual celebration which involved inviting dignitaries and other important members of the aristocracy. The elaborate ceremony saw the announcement of individual ingredients before they were added to one bowl, and then put away for maturing. So, no room for subtlety to say the least.

Over the years however, the bitter notes of colonization and trauma have found some redemption by way of intensely rich and bold flavours. Across India, chefs have sought to add their personal touches to the much loved Christmas staple, with the dish gaining increasing popularity with each passing year. 

For Chef Vivek Tamhane, Christmas puddings evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. There’s plenty of memories of families getting together to stir everything up, only to feed it consistently for weeks before finally waking up to the aroma of a steamed finished creation on 25th December. 

Suggested read: The fascinating story of fruit cake

Chef vivek tamhane of the blvd club, bengaluru shares his perfected recipe of the traditional christmas pudding
Chef Vivek Tamhane of the BLVD club, Bengaluru shares his perfected recipe of the traditional Christmas pudding

He also highlights a fun superstition around the dessert, one that involves young women placing a piece of the Christmas pudding under their pillow to hasten marriage. While the accuracy of that might be debatable, Chef Vivek is sure that adding equal parts flour and semolina to the dish for a softer pudding definitely isn’t.

What makes Christmas puddings such a significant part of the festivities is the ability to store a bit of that fun and flavour for a long time. If you get the alcohol and sugar content as well as storage method right, the pudding can keep for months and even a full year. 

It’s imperative that the pudding be wrapped very tightly and stored in a cool place that is fairly dry, but with enough humidity to keep it from drying out. While an ideal spot would be a basement or cellar, a balcony or sheltered area outside out of sunlight will work too. If the fridge is your only hope, tightly wrapping the pudding in two layers of plastic wrap and some aluminum foil should do the trick. 

It’s not often that one finds a recipe that requires the time, dedication, and resources that a Christmas pudding does. Imagine having to resist the inviting aromas for weeks before you can finally consume its deliciousness. However, try out this recipe by Chef Vivek and see for yourself why the payoff is so worth it. 

For a completely authentic and traditional experience, flambe the pudding with brandy while serving it tableside. 

Suggested read: Cordials, cocktails, and Christmas are in harmonious tandem at Perch

Christmas Pudding by Chef Vivek Tamhane

Since christmas puddings can rarely be oversteamed, it is often suggested to let it steam longer for a darker colour
Since Christmas puddings can rarely be oversteamed, it is often suggested to let it steam longer for a darker colour

Ingredients

  • 125 gm semolina
  • 20 gm flour
  • 200 gm soft brown sugar
  • ½ a wine glass each of brandy and honey
  • 60 gm candied peel
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 125 gm butter
  • 125 gm raisins
  • 125 gm sultanas
  • 60 gm currants (make up a mix with available varieties)
  • 50 gm glace cherries
  • 1 tsp each cardamom, cinnamon, clove powder
  • Half a nutmeg, grated

Method

  • Chop all the fruit and nuts by hand. Soak it in the brandy and honey for 24 hours.
  • Add all spices, followed by more brandy if needed.
  • Beat the sugar and butter in a bowl until fully combined. Whip in the egg yolks and some semolina.
  • Add the pre-soaked fruit and nut mix to the bowl, stir and pour into a well-lined pudding mould.
  • Cover with butter paper and tie a cloth on the top.
  • Cook the pudding in a water bath in the oven at 180℃ for 45 min (depending on the quantity).
  • Once cool enough, demould the pudding. Serve with any brandy sauce or vanilla custard.
  • If stored properly, it can last for up to 6 months in a refrigerator.

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