Holiday Entertaining

Light This Christmas Pudding on Fire (On Purpose)

December 14, 2015

To an American palate, Christmas pudding may taste like a yummy, gooey, extra rich fruitcake (in a good way) that's slathered with hard sauce (which ensures that you will like it even if you don’t care for fruitcake) and eaten with a spoon.

Photo by James Ransom

This is one family’s version of a traditional English Christmas pudding, famously carried to the table in flames with a sprig of holly on top. It's rich with dried fruit—three kinds of raisins, plus prunes—along with chopped fresh apples and almonds, breadcrumbs, grated suet (raw beef fat), stout, and brandy. A little flour and a couple of eggs hold it all together.

The recipe was written out by hand, with illustrations and copious side notes and explanations, by my great friend, London artist and jewelry designer Frances Bendixson.

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I tasted the pudding in Paris at her table in 1972 (when we were both living there) and I begged for the recipe after starting my dessert shop, Cocolat, not long after. Customers were wild for it.

Photo by James Ransom

The instructions call for mixing the dry ingredients, including the suet, and letting them stand overnight before adding the wet stuff. I have always done this dutifully, but I have it on good authority that you can skip the overnight step and proceed full steam ahead.

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Top Comment:
“alice, is 1/4 TEASPOON stout correct? is it necessary for some chemical reaction that nothing else could provide? thx much for a lifetime of inspiration!”
— LE B.

And I should probably mention that suet is the traditional fat, but some recipes that call for grated butter instead and I see no reason why you shouldn’t make that substitution if suet is not acceptable.

About the timing:

The recipe calls for steaming the pudding 4 to 5 hours before storing, and then steaming it again for another 4 to 5 hours before serving. Frances says you can do it all in one go if you steam it for a very long time, 9 or 10 hours. Other sources say that you can steam for 8 hours the first time and only 1 hour just before serving. I interpret all of this to mean that you can do whatever suits your schedule so long as the pudding is steamed for a total of 8 to 10 hours.

Meanwhile, common wisdom and my experience say that making puddings ahead, even a few days or a week, is a good idea because puddings always improve with age. I also understand that some subscribe to the “rule” that says puddings must be made at least one month ahead.

But I’ve broken that rule…and you must also break it you plan to serve this pudding before New Year’s Eve this year! Ultimately, you may start your pudding from one day to a year ahead.

Cranberry-Molasses Pudding in a traditional pudding dish. Photo by Sarah Shatz, Sarah Shatz

About the vessel:

The traditional pudding basin is a sturdy and good-looking ceramic bowl with a thick rim that allows you to tie on a cloth cover—or a foil one. Search pudding basins and you will find them—they make useful mixing bowls in general and they are also perfect for Summer Pudding, too. You will need size #24 for this pudding serving 8 to 10, but you might as well buy a smaller size #30, as well—you will love having both your kitchen.

Otherwise, improvise with a 2-quart Pyrex or other heatproof bowl for this pudding. A stainless steel bowl will do in a pinch, but it lacks the authentic aesthetic and tends to float in the steamer unless you lower the water level, and that means you must replenish the water more frequently.

As for leftovers...

An old British nursery rhyme describes the Queen making a pudding such as this for King Arthur. It finishes with “and what they did not eat that night, the Queen next morning fried!” I’ve microwaved leftovers with very good results but have not tried frying them.

I do love imagining a disheveled queen standing barefoot at the stove, crown a-tilt, flipping leftover slices of pudding on the griddle.

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    Sarah Jampel
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


LE B. December 15, 2015
alice, is 1/4 TEASPOON stout correct? is it necessary for some chemical reaction that nothing else could provide? thx much for a lifetime of inspiration!
Sarah J. December 15, 2015
It should be 1/4 cup! Thank you for noticing that!
Samantha W. December 14, 2015
The story with this is just beautiful! Thanks for sharing, Alice.
Chocolate B. December 13, 2015
Thanks so much for giving us the ingredients in WEIGHT instead of volume! Makes success in baking so much more likely.