Serving Up Hot Plum Pudding
The Bolton, formerly known as The Eagle Hotel (opened 1812), was renamed and enlarged in the 1860s when it was taken under the ownership of the Bolton family in Harrisburg, PA. The hotel was demolished in 1990 to accommodate the more modern Hilton Harrisburg which still stands in the city today.
Many well-known people stayed at The Bolton– Charles Dickens being one of them, during his 1842 trip across North America. In Dickens’ American Notes , he described his host as “the most obliging, considerate, and gentlemanly person [he] ever dealt with.”
The menu for New Year’s Day at The Bolton included many English comfort food dishes. Guests could dine on consomme, roast turkey with giblet dressing and cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, home-made mince pie, and most importantly, English plum pudding.
English plum pudding is a traditional dish served during the holidays, which explains its presence on the New Year’s Day menu. Every plum pudding, also known as Christmas pudding, typically consists of dried fruit, spices, bread crumbs, and most importantly, animal fat. More traditional recipes call for suet; today’s recipes substitute suet for lard or shortening.
According to History.com , Plum pudding first appeared in the 15th century when it was more of a savory dish, loaded with meats and vegetables. Then, dried fruits became more abundant in England and the switch from savory to sweet began. The plum pudding has its origins in Roman Catholicism and Paganism which is why it was associated with Christmas time. Because of this, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan associates, banned plum puddings along with anything Christmas-related in 1647. Cromwell believed the Catholic’s celebration of Christmas was impure with lots of drinking and little relation to the bible.
Eventually, Cromwell died, his associates were thrown out of power, and Christmas traditions were restored. The new leader, George I , was nick-named the “Pudding King” after being served his first ever plum pudding during his reign. Thus, plum puddings became even more of an essential part of Christmas time. Organizations even helped women save up money to buy ingredients for puddings during Christmas time.
People commemorated a “Stir-Up Sunday” as the day when families prepare puddings in time for Christmas. It was on the last Sunday before Advent. Every family member was to take a turn stirring the batter clockwise with their eyes closed while they made a wish.
This brings us to the famous pudding dish in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol .
The cooking of plum puddings is no easy task. They take anywhere from 8-10 hours to boil. Dickens tells of the scene of the presentation of the plum pudding and the anticipation of it’s readiness:
“Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose—a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding!”
Plum puddings can be stored for up to a year which was very important for British soldiers who needed a taste of home. They held deep traditional meanings which explains why people dining at The Bolton consumed them on the first day of a brand new year.
Alas, we get to the interesting part. My creation of an English plum pudding from scratch. I am going off the recipe from The Rumford Complete Cookbook because the recipe is from 1908–the year of the New Year’s Day celebration at The Bolton.
I tried to stay as close to the ingredients as possible; with the currants being the only thing missing. I substituted the currants with prunes. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on some suet from a local butcher shop who were willing to set some aside for me from the new cow they received the following day. Instead of steaming the pudding for 8 hours, I reduced the steaming time to 2 hours by placing it in a pressure cooker. I did not have a pudding mould so instead used a greased, stainless steel bowl, which explains the shape of my plum pudding. The plum pudding came out surprisingly decent. A lot of these older recipes have measurements in pounds so to be quite honest, I eyeballed a lot of ingredients and trusted my gut. Nonetheless, it worked out in my favor. The hard and brandy sauce was made out of butter, sugar, a pinch of salt, brandy, and some vanilla extract. I should also note that the recipe from the 1908 cookbook was very vague for a person who has never cooked a plum pudding before so I watched a youtube video to help me through the process while still sticking to this specific recipe.
If I’m feeling brave enough to make English plum pudding again, I would probably loosen up on the amount of raisins and prunes I use and try the traditional method of boiling the pudding in a cloth bag for 8 hours.
All together, making the pudding took me about 4 hours. I was fortunate enough to have a pressure cooker but the same can not be said for the cooks at The Bolton at the time. Thus, cooking a plum pudding in the early 1900s required a lot more energy and patience.