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Stir-up Sunday: Get Ready for the British Baking Day With Plum Pudding and Fruitcake

I always know that the holidays are quickly approaching when the fruitcake display goes up at my local Costco. This prompts me to think about preparations for my own holiday baking and to look up the date of Stir-up Sunday, the traditional day in Britain when families gather to make their plum pudding, aka Christmas pudding. This year it lands on November 22, 2015, approximately five weeks before the holiday, allowing just enough time for those fruit and liquor-laden desserts to properly age before being served at Christmas dinner.

Christmas pudding and other desserts to flambé, from Mrs. Beeton’s Family Cookery (1923).

While some Americans may not be familiar with Stir-up Sunday, it is an important day in British cultural history. Like most traditions, it is laced with rituals and rewards for those who participate. The main event of the day is the making and steaming of the Christmas pudding. Traditionally, the batter consisted of 13 ingredients representing Christ and his 12 apostles. Silver charms were often added as prizes or puns, as described in Mrs. Beeton’s famous 1923 cookbook:

It was usual to add things to the mixture, a silver three-penny bit or a silver sixpence were most common, but some also added a ring, a button and a thimble; the person who received the ring in their portion would be married before the year was out (somewhat of a short period!), the button finder would die an old bachelor, the recipient of the thimble would die an old maid and the finder of the sixpence would have good luck for the next year.

Stirring the Christmas Pudding, by Henry Woods (1881).

After the mixture was assembled, each family member (including the servants) took their turn stirring the batter in a clockwise direction; this was to honor the Magi who traveled east to west on their way to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. A silent wish for the New Year by each participant added mystery to the ritual. Steamed for 4–6 hours and stored for five weeks, the pudding would be decorated with a sprig of variegated holly to ward off witches, doused with liquor and brought flaming to the table. It was believed that all those who ate Christmas pudding made on Stir-up Sunday would receive God’s blessing.

Introduced in Britain during Roman times, the first plum puddings were savory concoctions containing meat. As dried fruit became available in the 16th century, prunes were introduced (thus the name plum pudding) and the meat omitted. Suet (a form of animal fat) was common in many recipes until modern cooks substituted butter. The most famous Christmas pudding in history was immortalized by Charles Dickens in his Victorian-era story, A Christmas Carol, in 1843:

In half a minute 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-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Most family recipes are passed down from mother to daughter, so luckily we have my great-grandmother’s plum pudding recipe written in her own hand. Sadly, by the 1960s it was not part of my family’s holiday cooking traditions. My first taste of plum pudding was in 1978, when a family friend prepared it using a recipe from Bon Appétit magazine. As in the British tradition, the pudding was ignited and brought flaming to the table — so much so that it was difficult to put out the flame! The first bite told us why: the proportion of brandy in the recipe was much too high, later confirmed when the magazine posted a correction. The “plum pudding brandy bomb” makes for a great family story to this day.

Handwritten plum pudding recipe from my great-grandmother, Bertha Shewell Dunn, circa 1920.

Modern cooks have updated and improved plum pudding recipes to suit our evolving tastes. If you are ready to add the delicious plum pudding (pictured at the top) to your family feast, I highly recommend Heather Sheire’s recipe. She boasts that plum pudding is a “super delicious, super impressive and super easy dessert,” and she provides step-by-step directions and a bit of humor on her fabulous food blog Livin’ the Pie Life.

The kissin’ cousin to plum pudding is fruitcake. Most Americans cringe when they hear that word. Late-night comedian Johnny Carson joked, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep passing it around.” Sadly, the fruitcake that us Yanks know today has evolved so far beyond its British origins that it is almost unrecognizable. Post-war recipes started to incorporate candied fruit, including those day-glow red and green cherries that look like nuclear fallout. This was the fruitcake that I was introduced to during my 1960s childhood in California. Dense, dark and gooey, it had little flavor and a lot of sugar. We ate it anyway! We were kids. We didn’t know any better!

Betty Crocker advertisement for Christmas fruitcake circa 1951.

While U.S. cooks created no-bake fruitcake recipes full of candied fruit, the British seem to have kept their traditions (and wits) intact. In 1947, the most famous fruitcake in history was made for the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (now Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh). The official wedding cake was four tiers and stood 9 feet high. Wowza! Weighing in at a hefty 500 pounds, the cake was nicknamed “the 10,000-mile wedding cake” because many of its ingredients were donated by the Australian Girl Guides, and the rum and brandy came from South Africa. A slice of the 68-year-old cake sold at auction for 560 pounds. I doubt very much that it contained any candied cherries!

I am rather fond of traditional-style fruitcake, so I reached out to KCTS 9's Paula Nemzek, who generously agreed to provide a fruitcake recipe that she assures “won’t be re-gifted or used as a doorstop!” Paula and I may be the only two people in the U.S. who not only love a good fruitcake, but are brave enough to say so publicly! Find her recipe here.

Paula Nemzek’s fruitcake straight out of the oven.

“Because it is a fruitcake, in year one you may have to offer just a slice to fruitcake haters, to demonstrate that fruitcake can be delicious,” says Paula. “I like mine toasted, with a spread of lightly sweetened, whipped mascarpone.”

Do you make plum pudding or fruitcake for the holidays? If so, please share your family memories here with fellow KCTS 9 readers in the comment section below. If not, I hope this inspires you to start the tradition of Stir-up Sunday in your home this year with these two fabulous British holiday dessert recipes.

SUPPORTED BY

Laurel Ann Nattress

Writer, blogger, and editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Laurel Ann Nattress is a champion of Georgian civility, British culture and Masterpiece PBS. Visit her at Austenprose.com and follow her on twitter as @Austenprose

More stories by Laurel Ann Nattress

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This was so interesting! I just read Penelope Swan's new book, "Mr. Darcy's Christmas Wish," and it had me thinking about plum pudding traditions, as well as how it would taste!! Now I have to find a way to enjoy some this holiday season!

Wonderful post. When I was very young, my late mother used to spend several nights preparing the Christmas pudding. By the time it got to Stir-up Sunday, it was a raw fermenting mixture of the usual fruit ingredients and spices, but laced with heavy amounts of dark ale and brandy added. Then followed endless hours of steaming with the kitchen windows all fogged up (England in the 1950's). My sister and I would wait in line for our turn to "stir and wish". After that it was weeks of anticipation until the pudding was served flaming at Christmas dinner. And then the surprise: which of us would discover the silver "thruppeny bit" in our serving? It was such a thrill to bite on that hard metal and be one of the winners. Imagine if the coins were all left undiscovered in the un-served portion - my mother would have been devastated. She came from a poor widow's family, not much joy or money in her upbringing, but she was a great reader and by the time she was married with her own home, husband and children, she produced for us all the quintessential Christmas, creating our dreams and fulfilling hers. Wonderful memories. Now I have to confess, I buy my pudding at the gourmet food store, a single serving as none of my circle can stand the taste.

For several years our Sunday School had Stir-up-Sunday on Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in Pentecost. The cakes were made and eaten on the Feast of the Epiphany. The tradition ended when our Sunday School Superintendent retired.
My Norwegian mother would make 25 - 30 pounds of a dark fruit cake for my Scottish father. They were lovingly made by the two of them and liberally doused in brandy and port. Plum or fig pudding was always the dessert for Christmas Day with plenty of brandied hard sauce.
We always laughed because my mother could not stand either fruit cake or plum pudding but it was always a part of our Christmas, even after my father died.
One of my brothers and I are the only ones to keep the tradition of both fruit cake and plum pudding. For Christmas we always make both the Scottish and Norwegian delicacies and are sharing them with my grandchildren.

So interesting, Laurel Ann! Thanks so much. Sad to say I will not be stirring up a plum pudding, as I would be the only person in my family to eat it. So I cheated and bought one from World Market after reading your blog. Fruitcake lovers unite!

I'm a Canadian with no British blood but when my family was young I would bake two fruitcakes, which, to my thinking, are not the same as plum pudding.  I would make a large dark fruitcake, loaded with fruits and nuts and splashed with brandy, and I would make a white fruitcake, also large.  We would all stir the batter, including any of the neighbour children who happened to be in my kitchen.  After hours o baking, we let it cool and wrapped it firmly, placed in an airtight container in a cool place.  After several weeks it could be cut and eaten.  Often we would eat fruitcake in the middle of summer; it kept very well.The pudding, which I called Christmas pudding was slightly different, usually had grated carrots, fruits, nuts and was steamed for hours.  Also stored for weeks.  To serve, I would heat it up, make a hard sauce and a buttery caramel sauce for pouring. Sadly I do neither any more, Christmas dinners are now at my daughter's who has created her own delicious traditions.         

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