Want the perfect Christmas pudding? Let Margaret Fulton show you the way.

Sophie Hobbs
02 December, 2014

It’s Christmas pudding time! We get the low-down on the (arguably) most important element of the festive table from Margaret Fulton (plus a few other pros).

“Life is fraught with danger, but with danger comes fun.” That’s the word from Margaret Fulton, the go-to on matters festive in Australia, especially the time-honoured kind. Like Christmas pudding.

Margaret is all for a show when dessert comes around on Christmas day. Granddaughter Louise Fulton Keats knows this well: “The lights go out, the curtains are drawn and in walks a triumphant grandma with her Christmas pudding, complete with flaming brandy and homemade custard.” Just be careful, offers Margaret. “Sometimes the flame can come back on you.”

Margaret learned the rituals of the Christmas pud just as everyone in her family has. “It starts with helping your mother. It used to be a big thing, sitting around the table. I spent hours taking the seeds out of all the different fruits.”

Now, she says, all the seeds are being taken out by machines but she still sees a place for children in the kitchen. “It’s nice if the children can still be there and get involved. It draws the family together and can be a bit of fun.”

“It draws the family together and can be a bit of fun.”

Everyone in Margaret’s family has at least one piece of the pudding no matter how full they are “because they all want to find the hidden coins”. “The kids are inclined to take an extra slice and just scrape through it to find the thrippence.”

Any traditionalist worth their salt will know that there’s rarely a wrong time to think about the pudding. They’ll also know that a pudding made early December will have developed a lovely richness and depth come the 25th. Here's our wrap up of the questions to consider before you get cooking.

When to start

“I think it’s a good idea to make it well in advance,” says Margaret, recommending anywhere from two months to two weeks before the big day. “I used to make it as early as July or August [because] I think it lets the fruits meld, ripen and mature.”

Margaret also favours the tradition of children making a secret wish as they take their turn stirring the pudding. “This is meant to bring good luck,” she says.  “But, according to old English lore, the pudding should only be stirred clockwise because this is the direction in which the sun was presumed to move around the Earth. To stir in the opposite direction was supposed to invite disaster.”

While Stephanie Alexander doesn’t stipulate timing, she does say in The Cook’s Companion that she has successfully kept her puddings for a year in the fridge. “They were even more delicious the next year!”

Brandy vs. rum and sherry

I’m sure few of us need convincing to add a little liquor to the mix but aside from being an aromatic and flavoursome addition, it also serves a practical use. The alcohol works to preserve the pud in the weeks between making and devouring.

Margaret leaves the rum vs. brandy question open, but uses brandy and sherry in her own puddings “plus extra for flaming”. Her reasoning? “I like brandy because it’s more subtle.”

Margaret uses brandy and sherry in her own puddings “plus extra for flaming”.

Nigella Lawson puts vodka in her puddings and “sweet, dark sticky” Pedro Ximénez sherry. “With hints of liquorice, fig and treacle about it,” the sherry seems to do the heavy flavour lifting in this recipe, certainly it does the rehydrating of the dried fruits as they are “steeped in the magic liqueur” overnight or for up to a week.

Stephanie is in the rum camp. Her grandmother Emily Bell’s recipe (which she says is “the best in the world!”) calls for 100ml of brandy.

And Jamie Oliver’s Christmas pudding (or actually his nan’s) recommends the Italian dessert wine vin santo. Or brandy.

What’s best to zest

Margaret recommends mixed peel and orange rind; Nigella uses lemon and also throws in a peeled and grated apple; Stephanie uses candied peel and the zest of a lemon. Heston Blumenthal takes it to another level with a whole candied orange nestled in the centre of his classic pud. And Jamie’s nan’s pudding uses the zest of one orange.

Wrinkly fruit

Margaret and Stephanie: sultanas, currants and raisins.

Nigella prefers currants, raisins and prunes. And Jamie suggests mixed dried fruit such as cranberries, cherries, apricots, sultanas and raisins, in addition to dates and crystallised ginger.

Sugar, spice – and nuts

Margaret: almonds, light brown sugar, mixed spice and ginger.

Nigella: cinnamon, cloves, dark brown sugar and honey.

Stephanie: dark brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon.

Jamie: caster sugar, and a handful of chopped nuts such as pecans, Brazils or hazelnuts.

Butter vs. shortening vs. suet

Margaret thinks butter is best and Nigella likes vegetable shortening.
Stephanie calls for suet, which she says can be ordered from your butcher (“packet suet is already mixed with flour and will alter the proportions”). Of course, butter and vegetable shortening are vegetarian friendly – suet is not. Jamie is also in the suet camp.

And to serve

Like Margaret, Nigella is partial to setting her puddings ablaze.

Margaret: brandy sauce, brandied butter or vanilla egg custard are her go to toppings. “We used to scoff at some Australian friends who had ice-cream. We always have custard or a lovely sauce. But as I got older I can see the point,” says Margaret, adding that if someone put a spoon of ice-cream on her pudding now she would still eat it.

“We used to scoff at some Australian friends who had ice-cream. We always have custard or a lovely sauce. But as I got older I can see the point.”

Nigella: eggnog. Made with milk, cream, eggs, sugar and usually a little liquor (such as brandy, rum or bourbon) along with your usual holiday spices: cinnamon and nutmeg. Traditionally enjoyed by English aristocracy, and now also an American custom, “eggnog” is pretty much just another name for what many of us call brandy custard.

Stephanie recommends serving her pudding with custard or ice cream, “or flame the turned-out pudding with warmed brandy”.

Jamie drizzles his turned out pudding with a little golden syrup.

Not a pudding fan?

All is not lost. As Margaret writes in The 12 Days of Christmas: “While some people enjoy a rich, fruity, spicy plum pudding, others know that there are special desserts more suited to hot climates and as a finale to a rich meal.” She says trifles are perhaps a first choice (“a trifle can be as lavish and decorative as you wish”).

Or there’s always the pav: “Individual pavlova nests are a unique take on this classic, while summer pudding is a festive finish on a warm Christmas Day”. Or make a rolled pavlova into a log for an Australian version of the French Yule log made with chocolate.

And then there is always Nigella’s chocolate pudding for Christmas pudding haters with hot chocolate sauce. A decadent delight and forever a winner among the plum pudding deniers.

We would love to hear your thoughts on pudding. How many weeks ahead do you prep it? Do you use brandy or rum? How you do present it on the day? Take a snap and share it with us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #whaticooked.

Check out these great Margaret Fulton titles in the bookstore

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