I've been reading some Charles Dickens lately, specifically "David Copperfield." With the holiday season upon us, I can't help but ponder that mainstay of the Dickensian Christmas table, the plum pudding. Chef Jerry Pellegrino will tell you this is the kind of evocative treat that most folks think must be extremely complicated to prepare. But in fact, if you can add a heaping spoonful of patience, it's amazingly easy.
Plum pudding is not unlike a dome shaped fruit cake, but with a less dense cake to it. Two elements of the recipe may be unfamiliar to a lot of American cooks: cooking with suet, or equivalent, and steaming the pudding.
Suet, or more properly, shredded suet serves the same function as butter does in pie dough. It holds a place in the dough, and as it melts, it leaves behind a sort of hole that contributes to a flaky, light texture. Fresh suet, which comes from the fat around the kidneys in sheep and cattle, is a high grade fat, and when it is fresh, it contributes a pleasant flavor to the dish. Of course rancid suet should never, ever be used. Shortening is an acceptable substitute, as is high quality lard.
For purists, high quality shredded suet is easy to find on the Internet. Just look for Atora brand shredded suet, available in 7 ounce packages for just $6 or so.
Steaming is a gentle unhurried way of cooking a pudding. Tight fitting containers and the occasional top-off with boiling water are all that is required.
The batter is a very easy affair. Here's the recipe.
CLASSIC PLUM PUDDING
1 cup blackstrap molasses
3/4 cup melted butter
1 cup warm milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour (whole wheat flour is equally acceptable)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp each: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ground cloves, mace
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 /2cup dried currants
1/2 cup mixed candied fruits
shot of rum
1 lb. shredded suet
Equipment: a large metal bowl, 10" wide at least 4" deep to act as a mold, large deep sauce pan, big enough to hold the bowl.
1. Combine molasses, butter, milk, eggs in a bowl, and beat until well mixed.
2. Whisk in the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Beat well.
3. Toss the fruit in a little flour to keep them from sticking. Add to the batter
and stir it in thoroughly. Add the rum and stir it in evenly.
3. Grease the bowl with butter and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Pour the batter into the bowl and smooth it on the top.
4. Cut a circle of wax paper to cover the top of the pudding. Place it and then cover the bowl with tinfoil. Get about 30" of string, make a loop, and tie it under the lip of the bowl, securing the tinfoil. With the remainder of the string, run it opposite the knot and tie it to the string to make a little handle. Make sure everything is tight.
5. In a large, deep saucepan, place a ramekin upside down in the bottom to elevate the pudding mold from the bottom of the pan. Place the mold and add boiling water about halfway up the side of the mold.
6. Place the saucepan on the stove, and set the heat to keep the water simmering. Place a tight fitting lid on the saucepan, and steam cook the pudding for about 5 hours. You will have to top off the water with more boiling water from time to time.
7. When you are finished, use the string handle to carefully lift the pudding mold out of the saucepan. Let it cool a while before turning it out onto a serving dish.
The traditional accompaniment to plum pudding is hard sauce, which is very easy to whip up in advance.
1 stick of softened butter
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
a wee drop of rum
a dash of vanilla
Blend the butter and sugar thoroughly in a bowl. Stir in the rum and vanilla.
Smooth the sauce, then refrigerate.