The Proof Is in the Pudding

Nigella Lawson prepares a flaming Christmas Pudding.
Nigella Lawson prepares a flaming Christmas Pudding.

Wondering what to serve as a Christmas dessert? Martha Teichner knows the perfect solution, and even provides proof positive:

A Christmas pudding with a candied orange inside that trendy London chef Heston Blumenthal concocted for a supermarket chain is, believe it or not, the hottest holiday item in Britain this season.

"All the essential oils from the orange permeate the nuts and fruits. Pick up Heston's ready-made pudding in your local Waitrose," the advertisement says.

Except that you can't pick it up. All 25,000 of the puddings sold out almost instantly.

On eBay they're going for more than a thousand pounds - close to $1,700 - each.

All of which goes to show the difference between the British love for Christmas pudding and the American loathing for its cousin, the fruitcake.

That isn't to say that the British don't have fun with their puddings.

A week ago Saturday, we attended the 30th annual running of the great pudding race in London, to raise money for cancer research.

The oldest contestant was 81. A dead-ringer for the Queen presented the winners their trophy - pudding man in Plexiglass.

If you associate Christmas pudding with the 19th century Charles Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol," that may be because what is generally thought of as an English Christmas really didn't exist until Victorian times. Then, the rituals associated with making the Christmas pudding were loaded with symbolism.

"Any of you know what today is? It's a special day. It's stir-up Sunday, which is always the last Sunday before Advent, on that day that involves making the Christmas pudding," said Lisa D'Agostino.

Stir-up Sunday fell on November 21 this year, and was observed at Gunnersbury Park Museum, west of London.

"You know the three kings? They traveled from the Orient and that's why it is that we always stir the pudding from east to west," D'Agostino said.

The name has nothing to do with stirring. It's from the day's biblical reading in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: "Stir up we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people..."

"And then when it's ready to cook, what we will do is we will actually put it into a cloth bag, and then we will boil it up for about six hours," D'Agostino said.

Today, the faithful mainly leave the stirring and the steaming to professionals. Cole's Traditional Foods makes puddings for London's fancy department store, Harrod's. Christopher Cole started the company with his father in 1979.

"How many puddings do you do in a year?" Teichner asked.

"Over a million," Cole said.

Thirty million are made in the United Kingdom every year. (The total population is just over 60 million.) An estimated 90 percent will eat Christmas pudding over the holidays.

What's in pudding? In medieval times, it contained meat and was more like a soupy porridge. But more recently, buckets of fruit.

"One of the earliest forms of Christmas puddings that were ever made were made with figs in this country," Cole said.

"Now do all Christmas puddings have figs?" asked Teichner.

"No they don't. Most Christmas puddings don't have figs in it at all," Cole said.

What most Christmas puddings do have is an abundance of alcohol, which may be an important clue to their popularity.

Cookbook writer and Food Network star Nigella Lawson has her secret ingredient.

"For me, the sort of magic elixir is some sherry," Lawson said.

Lawson makes what we'll call pudding for procrastinators. Her recipe, from start to steamer, can be mixed up in minutes.

She disdains the moral superiority of pudding purists who dutifully make theirs weeks in advance.

"I'm always doing it slightly at the last minute, but actually it doesn't matter," Lawson said.

"Does it taste different if you do it at the last minute?" Teichner asked.

"I think as long as you steam a Christmas pudding for long enough - and it's always depressing to me the recipe that says, 'first steaming five hours,' but actually you're not doing anything."

There's the old saying - the proof of the pudding is in the eating. But a pretty high proof is being poured on it.

So maybe it's in the flaming.

"I have a fire extinguisher there," Lawson said.

"I'm convinced that the real reason why the English like Christmas puddings is the flaming, because it brings out the pyromaniac in people," Teichner said.

"Well, you're right. My mother would come in and just bear it aloft like that triumphantly. We'd all clap," Lawson recalled.

Nigella Lawson's Ultimate Christmas Pudding
Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Sponge Pudding for Pudding Haters

For more info:
"Nigella Kitchen" (Hyperion Books)
"Nigella Christmas" (Hyperion Books)
Annual Christmas Pudding Race for Cancer Research U.K.
Cole's Traditional Foods
Gunnersbury Park & Museum - Stir-Up Sunday
Fortnum & Mason
The Pudding Club