2012 is the year of Charles Dickens' 200th birthday. While theaters around the world are having commemorative performances of his iconic A Christmas Carol, let's look more closely at poor Mrs. Cratchit and her Christmas pudding. It sounds like the whole Christmas meal is riding on the success of that pudding. And for a hungry family like the Cratchits, a few expensive eggs were stretched with flour. Read the following excerpt from A Christmas Carol:

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding. 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.

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage.

Steam keeps the ingredients at a steady 212° Farenheit (100° C). That's why it's often recommended that you steam custards so they don't go above that temperature, but if you're cooking more than just eggs, it's difficult to get all the ingredients cooked. Eggs were expensive, and using flour as a thickener was much cheaper, so families like Tiny Tim's had to make do with flour-thickened puddings. But then if you think of cooking a flour-based, heavy, dense fruitcake-type of concoction at barely 212°, you can see how it might have gotten into hours and hours of baking/steaming/boiling.

Romans enjoyed custards—eggs cooked gently with milk and either sweetened with honey and fruit or savory with salt, cheese and herbs—but, as you may know, custard can be difficult without a double boiler, and baked custard usually requires a slow, steady oven and sometimes a water bath for the custard cups. Why? Because before the invention of the gas oven, cooks had to rely on unpredictable temperatures of wood or coal ovens.

So we don't know how long the stalwart Mrs. Cratchit has been boiling her pudding, but recipes from the 1860 Godey's Lady's Book give times from 4 to 6 hours. The "smell like washing day" and "the cloth" Dickens is referring to is the muslin bag puddings were—and are—cooked in. Previously, they were cooked in a piece of intestine or stomach, much like sausage. In fact the word "pudding" currently means any sweet or dessert course, in British countries. But the word pudding seems to come from a 13th century word for sausage: chopped up leftover bits of meat or other ingredients that might otherwise be wasted stuffed in a piece of intestine from a pig or cow.

A Christmas pudding c. Simone-Walsh, some rights reserved

A Christmas Carol was first published (at Dickens' personal expense) in 1843. Mrs. Cratchit couldn't have known that Birmingham, England resident Alfred Bird had been working on alternative ways to thicken puddings for his wife, who was allergic to eggs. Mrs. Cratchit would probably have been delighted to learn that cornstarch was developed (from New World maize)

in 1837 and marketed in 1843. (Although of course, at the wages Ebeneezer Scrooge was paying, it's doubtful the Cratchits would have been able to afford it!) "Bird's Custard," as a substitute for egg custard not as a substitute for pudding, became extremely popular in countries of the United Kingdom. It is Americans who call the sugar, cornstarch and milk mixture pudding.

But then, what about figgy pudding? "We wish you a Merry Christmas" (an expression that didn't catch on until Dickens had Scrooge say it), "and a Happy New Year" is all very well, but this next part:

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer

We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here!

Glad tidings we bring, et cetera...

I don't know about you, but refusing to leave until we get some sounds a little over-the-top. Figgy pudding made with fresh or reconstituted dried figs was another name for plum pudding, back when a "plum" meant any sweet fruit. Later, as raisins became cheaper, they replaced figs as the fruit in Christmas or plum pudding. Since "pudding" can mean any dessert, "plum pudding," "fig pudding" or "Christmas pudding" can all refer to a cooked dessert made with fruit, whether figs (think Fig Newtons if you're having trouble), raisins or "plums".)

"Traditionally in England," acflaming Christmas puddingcording to whatscookingAmerica.net, "small silver charms were baked in the plum pudding. A silver coin would bring wealth in the coming year; a tiny wishbone, good luck; a silver thimble, thrift; an anchor, safe harbor. By Victorian times, only the silver coin remained. In England these tiny charms can still be bought by families who make their own puddings. It is also traditional for every one who lives in the household to simultaneously hold onto the wooden spoon, help stir the batter for the pudding, and make a wish."

Epicurious.com gives a recipe containing 3 pounds of various dried fruits 12 eggs, a pound of suet, a pound of bread crumbs (instead of flour), lots of spices, sugar and cognac and sherry or port. Then steam it for 6 to 7 hours, then keep it for a year, then steam it for another 2 to 3 hours then you serve it with caramel sauce or hard sauce. Here is another recipe using beer instead, and which suggests using a silver sixpence (or 5 p. since the sixpence is no longer in circulation). Here is yet another recipe. The Vermont Country Store also sells Figgy Pudding and Christmas Pudding. And here is a genuine British newspaper article about Christmas puddings from London's Daily Telegraph.

Now in the part of Boston, Massachusetts, where I grew up, the local rock is called "pudding stone" because smaller discrete pieces of quartz, like big pebbles, are distributed throughout a larger more homogenous matrix of rock. I can't describe any more clearly than that, but apparently it reminded some English settlers of plum pudRoxbury puddingstone by ding because it is they who dubbed it "plum pudding stone" or now, just "puddingstone." This local puddingstone was quarried for several local landmarks, such as Boston's Old South Church.

I thought nobody would want to make these esoteric old-fashioned desserts any more, but like my fruitcakes, they seem to be beloved by a certain contingent of people. Recipes differ about which alcoholic beverage you should use, whether to use suet or butter, or how long you should age the pudding before serving (up to 13 or 14 months). But the part about dousing it with brandy, lighting it, sticking a bit of holly on top, and serving it is still the same. The English seem to feel about their Christmas puddings the same way Americans feel about fruitcakes: we either love it or we hate it, but it is a custom we are duty-bound to participate in. Me, I love fruitcake, but my husband's stories of hurling fruitcakes at the enemy are over thirty years old. It's all tradition.

Photographs: Christmas Pudding in thumbnail photo by Musical Linguist and Figgy Pudding with flaming brandy photo by Ted Kerwit, both available via Wikimedia Commons. Roxbury puddingstone picture by robotika from Flickr.