“Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy.”
Christmas Pudding time looms. This year I’ve done a few in the usual pudding basins but also one in a cloth to achieve that wonderful properly-round cannonball pudding shape. The whole Charles Dickens / Victoriana / Christmas card look which Mrs Cratchit was so right to be proud of.
This really is ye-olde-fashionede method of steaming a pudding. Or almost. Even more olde-fashionede would be to use an animal intestine or stomach lining as the casing. Like with a haggis. Go on, I dare you to tell the family that this year you’ll be making the christmas pudding in a lamb’s stomach…
The cloth itself should ideally be muslin. That is going to give the best ‘look’ and will be what the pudding cloths are made of which some cooking shops sell (but really quite few so don’t get your hopes up). If you’re buying a stretch of muslin from a fabric shop remember to choose uncoloured, because you don’t want the colour leaking out into the cooking pot or, rather more crucially, the pudding. You could use a super-clean 100% cotton sheet or pillowcase. Or a tea-towel, in a pinch.
Its traditionality might be reason enough for you to choose this way of steaming but bear in mind that it is a method which comes in pretty handy if you have left buying your pudding basins until too late and can’t find any for love nor money. There will always be a pillowcase.
When cutting the cloth think about the size of the pudding you want to end up with and bear in mind that you need to use cloth a good bit bigger than that so that you can tie it up.
Don’t start these next stages of preparing the cloth until the pudding mixture is ready, as you need to move a bit swiftly.
1. No matter how scrupulously clean your cloth is, boil it in water for a couple of minutes before you use it. Then really wring the water out (rubber gloves essential).
2. Lay the cloth out and put a thin layer of plain flour all over it, and then a little more in the centre. The idea is that the light flour coating will seal the cloth and help stop any liquid oozing out through the fabric; and it also gives the pudding a bit of a skin.
3. Spoon your pudding mixture into the centre trying as you do so to give it the lovely round shape you want. Get stuck in and use your hands. But be warned – the mixture won’t really want to form a firm ball.
4. Bring up the opposite corners of the fabric to meet at the top of the pudding and twist the fabric ends around each other. As you do this you need to be going around the outside of the pudding with your hands and moulding to how you want it. The cloth should be tight all around the pudding to keep the shape. It might feel like the mixture wants to leak out of the fabric but keep the faith.
6. For this method your pudding needs to be immersed in the boiling water right through its cooking time. Which I suppose technically makes this more boiling than steaming. The pudding must not sit on the base of the pan or it will stick. So put a saucer on the bottom of the pan, the pudding goes on top of that and pour boiling water over to immerse up to the base of its neck. As it cooks, top up the water if you need to. The cooking time will be the same as whatever your recipe says for if it’s being done in a normal basin.
7. Take it out and dry off with a tea towel. The pudding then needs to hango somewhere to cool completely and so that the air can circulate freely around it. If you have meat hooks in your kitchen, one of those should do the job. I tie a long piece of string to the ‘neck’ of mine, then make a loop and hang it from a door handle. Hanging will also help it achieve the round ball shape you’re after. Give your pudding a friendly squeeze now and then to help the shape.
8. After a few days, carefully unwrap the pudding and change the cloth for a fresh one prepared in exactly the same way. Then leave it to hang somewhere cool and dark (not the fridge – too cold) and you’ll be all ready for whenever you want to do its last stage of cooking and eat it.
Re-steam the pudding before serving – and this time I really do mean steam. As you would when steaming a pudding basin, so not immersing it in the water.
Once done, carefully cut the pudding free of the cloth, turn it onto a serving dish, slug over the brandy, set it alight, and proudly watch the boozy blue flames perfectly envelope your pudding in festive glory.