Adapted from a recipe by Suzanne Gibbs. Photography and styling by Tanya Zouev.
I never used to get terribly excited about Christmas cake or Christmas pudding. Having come from an Eastern European background, the entire concept of a traditional Anglo-Saxon Christmas cake or pudding was completely foreign to me and not to my taste. As a kid I remember being given a piece of fruit cake at a Christmas function and being bitterly disappointed. I decided then and there that it didn’t taste anywhere near as nice as it looked and immediately placed an embargo on it. This continued for a very long time.
Over the ensuing thirty odd years my experiences of Christmas cakes and puddings were not much better. I always seemed to be the one who got the dry gritty piece and as for that thick white marzipan icing, what was that about? Was it even edible? Then there was the strange supermarket pudding which came in a tin you had to pry open with a can-opener. My mother occasionally bought it for Christmas and I was staying clear of that one as well.
But then an amazing thing happened which changed my mind about Christmas pudding forever. I was on a food shoot for Australian Table magazine (which became BBC Australian Good Food) and we were shooting a pudding for the cover of the Christmas 2006 issue (see pic below). The (then) food editor, Suzanne Gibbs had intended the recipe to be a lighter and more luscious version than its traditional counterpart. I tasted it, it was good, so good in fact I decided to make it that year for my own family Christmas dinner. I was converted.
(Photography by Tanya Zouev for Australian Table magazine)
The following recipe has adapted from Suzanne’s. My version is slightly different from hers and the main difference is that it’s gluten-free. The other difference is that I marinate the fruit in alcohol, quite a lot of it, and fruit is my main ingredient. My philosophy is if you’re going to eat Christmas pudding once a year, make it a good one. And if you’re going to add brandy to it then you might as well be able to taste it (and quite possibly feel a bit tiddly afterwards). The final pudding is deeply caramelised from the sugars and fruit and has a uniquely spiced butterscotch flavour.
An interesting tidbit of food history is that the Christmas pudding has its origins in medieval England and was originally a dish that had all sorts of leftovers thrown into it. We’re talkin’ vegetables, fruit, even meat. Gradually fruit became the main ingredient as we know it today. The Christmas pudding is sometimes known as plum pudding or plum duff and despite the name, the pudding contains no actual plums. It is in fact a pre-Victorian term for raisins.
Prior to the 19th century the pudding was wrapped in cloth and boiled as a round bundle, whereas during the Victorian era it became popular to use a pudding basin when making it. It was also common practice to include silver coins in the pudding mixture, which could be kept by the person whose serving included them. The coins were believed to bring wealth in the coming year.
Lastly I’d like to mention that making this Christmas pudding from scratch is so easy. Start the pudding a couple of days before you intend to cook it as you want the fruit to macerate as much as possible. I make the pudding at least a week before Christmas Day, stick it in the fridge and by the time the 25th rolls around the flavours are really well developed. You will be amazed at how easy the process is from beginning to end.
Go on then, wow your family and guests with this Christmas pudding. Whether or not you include silver coins is up to you. Just warn them not to drive after they eat it.
Prep time: approximately 1 hour (start the night before), cooking time: 5 and 1/2 hours. Serves 8.
2 cups milk
2/3 cup sago
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
a pinch of salt
1 ½ cups brown sugar or rapadura sugar
4 cups mixed dried fruit (I use a mixture of raisins, cranberries, figs, dates, candied orange and lemon peel and candied ginger)
1/3 cup brandy
1/3 cup vodka
1/3 cup Cointreau
2 cups gluten-free bread crumbs (light rye and oat breads also work well though they aren’t gluten-free)
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted (optional)
4 eggs lightly beaten
120 grams (1 cup) butter melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
extra 1/2 cup brandy for pouring over pudding when serving
1. Rinse the dried fruit in a sieve under cold running water to ensure there is no grit left in it. If your fruit is candied, there is no need to do this. Leave to drain.
Once fruit is drained of excess water place in a mixing bowl and add the alcohol to it. Mix through. Cover and leave in fridge to macerate at least 24 hours.
2. Bring milk to a boil in a small saucepan and pour over sago and mix through thoroughly to ensure none of your sago clumps together. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
3. The next day add bicarbonate of soda and a pinch of salt to the sago mixture, stir through. Then add the remaining ingredients and stir through. If using nuts in your pudding mixture toast your almonds in the oven or on a stove top until they are golden brown, then add and stir through.
4. Butter two four cup pudding basins (or one 8 cup basin). I find pudding basins are quite easy to come by at op-shops, I bought mine years ago at the Salvo’s. Place a circle of buttered baking paper in the bottom of your pudding basins and spoon in pudding mix making sure you pack it down. I always give the pudding basin a few good bangs on the counter to make sure any air bubbles are dislodged. Cover pudding with a circle of buttered baking paper and two sheets of foil and tie with a string.
5. Pour enough water into a large heavy based pan to come ½ way up side of the pudding basin, bring to boil and lower pudding into water. Cover and simmer for four hours checking every 30-45 minutes to make sure the water level stays at the half way mark on the basin. If water has evaporated add some more to the pan. Re-steam for two hours prior to serving.
* Photography and styling notes:
The surface is a beautiful Eastern European vintage linen tablecloth brought by my mum to this country in 1958 when she migrated from China. I was very lucky to receive it as a gift from her some years back. The vintage depression glass comport stand is from Vinnie’s as is the vintage WM Rogers wedding cake knife. My favourite little glass jug from the Salvo’s holds the custard in the background. The dessert plates are by Rosanna, the champagne glasses are by Luigi Bormioli and the feathered wreath was picked up at a car boot sale for five bucks. The only light used in this image is window light.