How to Light a Christmas Pudding on Fire (Because Why Not?)

A classic British dessert that you can start one year—or one day—in advance.

October 14, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

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.

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 studded with dried fruit—three kinds of raisins, plus prunes—along with chopped fresh apples and almonds, bread crumbs, 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.

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“years ago my mother was given a family Christmas (plum) pudding recipe by a British ex-pat. She made it all the years I was growing up, and every Christmas my father would set it aflame. It was a great tradition, along with the reading of A Child's Christmas in Wales. I still have Mom's pudding molds. ”
— kaferlily

The instructions call for mixing the dry ingredients with 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.

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

How to Make Christmas Pudding on Fire

Tips for Making It at Home

The recipe calls for steaming the pudding for 4 to 5 hours before storing, 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 to 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 certainly can, too. Ultimately, you may start your pudding from one day to one year ahead.

How to (Safely) Light Your Christmas Pudding on Fire

  1. Okay, so your Christmas pudding is all set to serve—now it's time for the big reveal. Start by unmolding the pudding onto a warmed serving platter (see below for more details).
  2. Don't forget to peel and discard the paper liner before moving on to the next step.
  3. Kill the lights to create a bit of drama, and make sure you can really see those flames.
  4. Warm 2 to 3 tablespoons of brandy in a small saucepan (if it has a long handle, that's helpful). Make sure the brandy is nice and hot before flaming it.
  5. Then, carefully set the brandy on fire with a lit match and pour it over the pudding before entering the dining room. Proudly (and again, carefully!) set your masterpiece on the table and watch in awe as the flames fizzle out before serving.

What to Serve Your Christmas Pudding in

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 for pudding basins and you will find them. They make useful mixing bowls in general and they are also perfect for Summer Pudding. You will need size #24 for this pudding, which serves 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.

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

About Those 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 atilt, flipping leftover slices of pudding on the griddle.

More Showstopping Holiday Desserts

3-Tiered Gingerbread Bundt Cake

Not one, not two, but three (yes, three!) tender gingerbread Bundt cakes star in this stunning layered dessert. As if this tower of confections weren't enough, the whole thing gets drizzled in a silky eggnog glaze and dotted with gemlike candied cranberries for some extra holiday flair. Oh, and to answer your question—yes, it does taste as good as it looks.

Tipsy Apple-Parsnip Cake

Another Bundt beaut, this apple-parsnip number really lets the design of your cake mold shine. As for the flavor, it's warmly spiced cinnamon, nutmeg, dark rum, apples, golden raisins, and parsnip. Glaze the whole thing in boiled-down apple cider for a finishing touch that's just right for winter.

Epic Single Crust Apple Pie

This epic apple pie is almost too pretty to eat—almost. To make the roselike design, thinly sliced apples are carefully arranged in a tight spiral, which has the benefit of not only looking beautiful, but also leaving the edges of the apples every-so-slightly crisp after baking.

Have you ever set a holiday dessert ablaze? Let us know how it went in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • kaferlily
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    Chocolate Be
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!).


kaferlily October 18, 2020
60 years ago my mother was given a family Christmas (plum) pudding recipe by a British ex-pat. She made it all the years I was growing up, and every Christmas my father would set it aflame. It was a great tradition, along with the reading of A Child's Christmas in Wales. I still have Mom's pudding molds.
AntoniaJames October 15, 2020
Leftover plum pudding can also be repurposed by baking in a custard - Devonshire pudding. ;o)
LeBec F. 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.