My family didn't have a lot of food traditions. I've already mentioned the omnipresent roast beef at any gathering of more than five people at our home--never a ham! For years we catered to one crochety older relative who loved creamed onions and mashed turnips, but those disappeared from our lives when he did. My New York grandmother kept us supplied with wonderful cakes and cookies, so we didn't bake much for the holidays. The one constant exception was steamed pudding.
This really is a throwback recipe, harking to old English custom. If you read descriptions from the day, it sounds rather disgusting. I checked my Williamsburg Art of Cookery (1742), where the recommendation for plum pudding was to combine pounds of raisins, orange and lemon peel, walnuts, suet, breadcrumbs, salt, sugar and flour--plus one teaspoon cinnamon and one-quarter teaspon each of nutmeg, mace, ginger and cloves (ten pounds of ingredients and a grand total of two teaspoons of spices? Talk about blah!). Then pour it into molds, "tie down with a clean scalded cloth and boil gently for ten hours." Yes, ten hours.
Another options was to put your pudding into a floured bag and boil for a few hours--I have to hope that the flour created a crust, or the thing would be one soggy mess. Or maybe that's what they were aiming for.
The "modern" version is not limited to the fruit and nuts variety. When I say modern, I'm referring to the Boston Cooking School Cookbook (aka "Fanny Farmer"), the 1947 edition--my family's Bible for basic cooking. For as long as I can remember, we had Steamed Chocolate Pudding for Christmas dinner. As you can see, it shows penciled edits by my mother, my sister and me, added over the years.
Steamed Chocolate Pudding
3 Tblsp butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1 cup milk
2 1/4 cups flour (we preferred cake flour because it gives a finer texture)
4 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 squares unsweetened chocolate
1/4 tsp salt
Cream the butter, then add sugar gradually, then the egg. Sift the flour with the baking pwder and salt, and add alternately with the milk to the butter-sugar mixture.
Melt the chocolate (Fannie et al. did this over boiling water, but they hadn't invented microwave ovens in her day) and add the to mixture.
Turn into a buttered mold. Steam for 1 3/4 hours. Serve with whipped cream.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? The challenges are (1) to find a steamed pudding mold (I have three, the rather plain family heirloom, and a couple of fancier ones I bought for myself) and (2) steaming the thing. The instructions say, fill your mold no more than 2/3 full (this will expand!), cover it (place a layer of buttered wax paper beneath the cover so it won't stick), place the mold on a trivet in a kettle containing enough boiling water to come halfway up the mold. Keep the level steady, adding more boiling water as needed.
It had never occurred to me that the effect here is cooking it at precisely boiling temperature, 212 degrees F. Baking it in a low oven would not create the same affect. On the plus side, you can do this on the stovetop, if your oven is occupies with a turkey/goose/roast. On the minus side, you can't tell how it's doing, all sealed up in there, and you have to take the timing on faith.
A couple of comments, gleaned over the many years:
--The blinking thing floats! You really have to find a way to weight it down so that the lower part stays both level and consistently submerged, or you'll end up with an unevenly cooked cake that tilts to one side.
--Butter everything well, or some part will stick somewhere. It'll still taste good, but it won't be a pretty presentation for guests.
--If you use unsweetened chocolate, the pudding will not be very sweet (you can compensate by sweetening the whipped cream). You might prefer semi-sweet chocolate.
Ah, but when it works, it's a delightful smooth and light cake that melts in your mouth. It's worth the trouble!
One last note: the 1947 cookbook offers pages of alternatives, involving cranberries, blueberries, carrots (!), figs, mixed fruit, ginger and orange cream, plus, of course the traditional plum and suet puddings.
Have a happy New Year!