Here’s a quandary: Why would anyone use suet for baking, even at Christmas, when there are other so much more palatable fats to be had?
Americans, in particular, blanch at the thought of meat fat being part of a pie or cake, as it is in mince pies or Christmas puddings, a sort of cake in that it has flour in it (although very little compared to the rest of the ingredients, also generally anathema to Americans. The other abhorred ingredients? Dried fruit, glace citrus peel, raisins…)
However, there is a reason for using suet. It offers properties no other fat offers. Suet has a high melting point. Because of that, it remains intact well through the slow steaming of the pudding so that hundreds of tiny air holes remain, making the dish light and smooth. Using butter or margarine instead is thought to make the pudding heavy and greasy.
It would seem, though, that there should be ways to overcome that problem, for those who love — or would like to try — a traditional home-made Christmas Pudding.
The Hairy Bakers Make Pudding Lighter
Two of England’s well-loved chefs, The Hairy Bikers (also known as The Hairy Bakers, depending), offer a recipe that contains no suet, but copious amounts of stout instead. Reacting with the flour, the stout — Guinness is suggested — would tend to puff the pudding up and create air holes, limiting the greasiness. Other recipes use self-rising flour, depending on the bicarbonate of soda included in the flour to make the pudding light and not greasy.
Here’s a variation of a traditional recipe, using butter rather than suet. (The Hairy Bakers use sunflower oil, making their cake suitable for vegans, also.)
HINT: With any recipe that depends mostly on a mix of solid ingredients — raisins, glace cherries, etc. — feel free to substitute more of something you do like and leave out what you don’t, as long as the same amount overall is included, and as long as you are careful not to go overboard on one flavor that might overpower the dish.
A Traditional Christmas Pudding
- 1 c. flour (whole wheat, unbleached white or a combination)
- 1 c. fresh breadcrumbs
- 1 c. unsalted butter, softened
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 eating apple, grated
- Scant ¾ c. dark brown sugar (not brownulated)
- ½ to ¾ c. chopped almonds
- ½ c. chopped walnuts (or pecans, which are sweeter and often used in my puddings)
- 1/3 c. preserved stem ginger in syrup, drained and chopped, or 1/3 c. chopped crystallized ginger*
- ½ c. glace cherries
- ½ c. plus or minus sultanas (in the US, large plump raisins)**
- ¾ c. scant mixed fruit peel, chopped
- 4 plums, chopped (stones removed first)
- Juice and zest of one lemon
- 1 ½ tsp. mixed spice (In the US, substitute pumpkin pie spice; you can add a tiny bit of cayenne, often added to commercial mixtures in the UK. Do not confuse Mixes Spice for Allspice, which is a separate spice often included in mixed spice as one of five or more “brown” spices)
- 3/4 tsp. baking powder
- ½ c. ale or stout or even beer in a pinch, but not light beer
- In a large bowl, combine all ingredients, beginning at the top and ending at the bottom. (It is traditional in England to have each family member take a turn at stirring.)
- Turn batter into two large pudding basins, leaving room for expansion, or filling about 7/8 full.***
- Cover each well with greased parchment paper, then aluminum foil, tightly secured under the lip of the basin with string.
- Put each pudding onto a trivet into a large pot of water; water should reach halfway up sides of pudding basin.
- Steam each pudding over medium-low heat for ten hours, adding water to pan as needed.
- Remove wrappings to test that the pudding is firm and set, and if not, continue a bit longer.
- When finished, remove wrappings, cook completely and cover with fresh parchment paper and then foil. If you are eating it a week or so later, baste once or twice with a few spoonsful of rum or brandy until a few days before it is to be served.
- Store in cool dry place, whether basting or not.
- Serve with brandy butter, brandy cream, lemon sauce, hard sauce or whipped cream.
* If you cannot obtain either one, use up to one tsp. ground ginger, and a couple TBSP extra brown sugar.
** In the US, little distinction is made between various sorts of dried grape. Currants are noticeably smaller than raisins. Sultanas have more or less disappeared as a separate group. But you can mix up the total amount of dried-grape products between raisins, currants and golden raisins, which tend to be softer than brown raisins, but sometimes a little less sweet.
***You can buy pudding basins online. Or you can use any heatproof ceramic/porcelain/glass bowls that will allow you to unmold the pudding into a nice mounded shape.