The Best Christmas Pudding Ever – Courtesy of Stephen Harris

Stephen Harris

After Stir-up Sunday in this week's On The Side, what else could I feature today?

I am both grateful to, and traumatised by, Stephen Harris of The Sportsman in Kent. For some years I have been making my own Christmas pud, using a recipe which appeared in The Telegraph some years ago. His recipe makes two puddings. At the time of my first attempt four or five years ago I had significantly less experience of puds and cakes than I do now. The current Mrs Johnston, baker extraordinaire, cast a beady eye over it. Odd looking recipe, she commented. But it seemed to go well enough.

The trauma? She came home from the Kirk and announced that she'd offered the spare to our pal, Jill K. Unusually, the latter's family were coming up for Christmas. We both knew, but L had forgotten, that Jill's son Richard is one of London's top chefs. Who was going to be eating my first attempt at Christmas pudding. Made using an odd looking recipe. Reader, I was alarmed, not to say **** scared.  Stir-up Sunday gave way in due course to Throw-up Christmas Eve. Anyway, we got a boozy phone call on Christmas Day to say best Christmas pud ever.  All's well...

Many of my recipes are adapted from other people's ideas. This, however, is copied word for word. I felt I couldn't share it without the great man's approval. He replied to my email within the hour to say yes. He also said that he was making the puds for his restaurant this weekend, that he had lost his recipe, and could I send him a copy. So mutual thanks. As Private Eye would say, trebles all round. If you plan to use the recipe remember that you have to put the fruit in the booze the day before.

Ingredients (makes 2 x 1 litre puddings)

300g raisins; 300g sultanas; 300ml brandy (please don't use the good stuff); 150g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing; 150g dark brown sugar; 100g plain flour (Stephen suggests using chestnut flour, which I don't have); 4 eggs; 200g ground almonds; 300g dried cranberries; ½ tsp grated nutmeg; 1 tsp baking powder; grated zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon; 200ml dark beer; 150ml Pedro Ximenes sherry; salt.

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Soak the raisins and sultanas in 150ml of the brandy and leave overnight. Grease two one litre pudding basins and put a circle of parchment paper in the bases. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. If you're sensible you'll use an electric mixer, in which case it'll take about five minutes. If you're using a wooden spoon, serves you right, and God knows how long it'll take you. It's time to add the eggs. Now I have a vivid recollection of screwing this up. Any experienced baker will tell you that if you add the eggs too fast, the mixture will split. The following step per Stephen's recipe will be to stir in the flour. The experienced Mrs J counsels breaking the eggs up a bit, adding some egg, then some flour and so on, till everything is incorporated. Thereafter stir in the ground almonds and two good pinches of salt.

Next, stir in the soaked dried fruit, cranberries, nutmeg, baking powder, citrus zest and juice, and the beer. (You will, of course, have bought a 330 or 500ml bottle to leave a cook's perk.) Divide the mixture between the two basins. Now for the only really fiddly bit, putting a lid on the basins. I tend to use two layers, foil first then greaseproof paper. Some use only foil. You need to make a pleat to allow for expansion. Then string (a) to tie it tight, and (b) to form a handle to allow you to lift it out of the steaming pan without incident. Click here to watch a man making it look ridiculously simple. I hate him.

You need a pan with a tight fitting lid large enough to hold the two basins and something to stop them touching the bottom of the pan. I find a group of upturned ramekins works quite well. Other recipes call for upturned plates. Put the basins on whatever base you're using and fill the pan with hot water to about two thirds of the way up the basins. Don't push your luck by pouring any water over the top of your lids. Bring the water to a gentle simmer, put the lid on tightly, and simmer for five hours. Keep an eye on the water level, and top up if necessary.

Take the puds out of the pan and allow to cool. Remove the lids, reserving the foil. With a skewer, make multiple holes in the top of each pudding. Mix together the remaining brandy and the sherry, and pour the mixture over the top. It will look like a lot of liquid but it does soak in. Loosely cover the puddings with the foil and store in a cool dry place. I feed mine every Sunday with a little drizzle of  brandy and sherry.

When it comes to Christmas Day, you can repeat the steaming process. I'm no fan of a slow cooker, but it's ideal for this, and frees up valuable space on the hob. In our house the pudding is variously served with custard, cream, milk (bleugh!) or, for the discerning diner, (guess who) brandy butter.

As I was told all these years ago, best Christmas pud ever.

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