Our judges are given a plum assignment: to find Christmas puds that really bowl them over.
It is one of the hardest Christmas taste tests Good Food has ever devised. Not only do judges have to sniff, assess, taste and ruminate over a dozen highly respected puddings, they have to work out which one most embraces the true aroma and flavour of Christmas.
Six of Australia's best palates are assembled around a table at Paul Wilson's South Yarra restaurant Wilson and Market. The English-born chef outlines the history of the Christmas pudding.
"The classic plum pudding cooked in a cloth is closely related to the haggis in culinary terms," Wilson says, the scent of spices wafting from the kitchen as the puddings quietly steam away. "The Christmas pudding is a uniquely English tradition," he continues, "with its roots going back centuries."
Its early predecessor was a medieval Christmas dish like a porridge enriched with meat, fat, fruit and spices. By the late 16th century this was thickened with stale breadcrumbs, eggs and enhanced with spirits and ale and made with dried plums. Banned by the Puritans but reinstated by King George as a Christmas dish, the pudding as a dish for everyman was a Victorian-era phenomenon.
While the dense, moist cloth-bound pudding is still popular in the north of England and in rural areas, lighter puddings made with raising agent are a more recent tradition common in London and the cities. And Australia.
We grow up with a certain type of pudding and that is what we know as being the ‘right’ pudding.
"There is no benchmark for a Christmas pudding," says Neil Hargreaves, who works with the Australian Food Awards. "No one goes around trying different Christmas puddings. We grow up with a certain type of pudding and that is what we know as being the 'right' pudding." Kirsten Tibballs, owner of Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School, says, "In every family there is always someone, a nana, an aunt, who is known for the Christmas pudding."
To which Good Food Guide restaurant critic Michael Harden adds, "or dreaded. If you grow up with a great Christmas pudding, a beautifully made one then that is your benchmark. If your aunt made one with stale spices and cheap vine fruit then that is what a Christmas pudding is to you."
Good Food sought out the best puddings in the country, along with everyday puddings available from supermarkets. We ended up with 15 puddings in all.
The judges agree they are seeking a pudding that looks good on the table. It needs to have a pleasing aroma and a texture that holds together when served. The fruit should be of good quality and feel good in the mouth. Sharp shards of badly chopped citrus peel or nuts are unpleasant and will be marked down. The butter or suet has to taste fresh and have a pleasing texture.
Whether the pudding is a dense and moist version or a lighter, more cake-like leavened pudding, it should still have a really good mouth feel – dryness will be marked down. Spices should be balanced and fresh-smelling, alcohol should be of good quality but never overpowering. Most importantly, the pudding has to have the ability to evoke memories of Christmases past.
Those puddings that did not meet these criteria were knocked out of the race. One of those is made with suet and leaves a rancid taste in the mouth. Another has an unusual aroma of old dusty spices with large pieces of fruit that felt odd to chew. Another pudding was way to sharp and acidic. It is interesting to note that across the board a lot of the puddings were quite wet, meaning there was a noticeable amount of syrup created when the puddings were reheated in their plastic bowls or heavy-duty vacuum-packed plastic bags as per the instructions on the label. This leads to discussion that traditional puddings are wrapped in cloth and "breathe" as they mature, losing moisture to the atmosphere.
So, after much debate, deliberation, tasting, sniffing and chewing, the judges scored the puddings with professional objectivity, leaving us
with the Twelve Puddings of Christmas, which are ranked here in order. The results were not what we expected.
Aldi Specially Selected Vintage Christmas Pudding
It arrives at the table, a traditional cloth pudding, steaming hot but slightly puckered "as if it is holding its breath", says Michael Harden. To the nose it has a good punch of citrus and alcohol with a dark toasted aroma. When sliced, it reveals a pudding packed with a mass of vine fruit melded perfectly with a dense but not stodgy cake-like pudding. With its pleasing cloud of mixed spice and fruity aroma, the judges comment that this is the one that most reminds them of their family Christmases. It was made for Aldi by Hunter Heritage Gourmet Foods in Newcastle using 45 per cent Australian dried fruit, free-range eggs, and Australian brandy and rum, giving it a big 4.6 millilitres of alcohol per 100 grams. "This ticks all the boxes for me," says Good Food Guide co-editor Roslyn Grundy. "A great well-rounded pudding," says Kirsten Tibballs.
700g $13.99 ($19.99 a kg) aldi.com.au
Coles Finest Luxury Pudding
"It's either regal and glorious with that crown of fruit and nuts on top or the Carmen Miranda of puddings," Paul Wilson says when this incredibly decorative pudding is served. Although his chef declined to dust it with the bag of gold icing included, this over-the-top New Zealand-made pudding wowed the judges with its spicy aroma and hits of French brandy. Despite some judges noting that it is overwhelmed in treacly syrup and is slightly too sweet, they feel this is balanced with the natural acidity of whole fruit.
900g $10 ($11.10 a kg) coles.com.au
Stephen's Fine Foods Traditional Rich Christmas Pudding
With its even dome shape and deep tan colour, this pudding pleases the judges who grew up with the tradition of a lighter pudding, this one aerated with baking powder. English-born chef Howard Stamp from The Lincoln says, "there is a lovely waft of spice at the forefront followed by a good boozy note – like mulled wine". This pudding is made in Mansfield in Victoria's High Country by commercial chef Stephen Morrice to a family recipe and although lighter in colour and texture than the traditional dark plum pud, it really puts a smile on the face of judges.
Various sizes ($45 a kg) stephensfinefoods.com.au
Silver Penny Puddings Traditional Christmas Pudding
The beautifully designed, whimsical decorative tin this pudding is packed in evokes childhood memories of Christmas before the pudding is even reheated. But the judges saw none of that. Just a fat pudding on a white plate that looks "cute", says Michael Harden. "A shiny and happy pudding." "Warm and fragrant like a hug from your nan," says Wilson. Rich and slightly sticky with plump fruit, it resonates strongly with the judges as being "old-fashioned – in a good way". The most expensive of the puddings, it is made with suet and stout in central Victoria by the same people responsible for the Four Pillars Gin Pudding. The perfect gift pudding.
900g $47 ($52.20 a kg) silverpennypuddings.com
Woolworths Matured Fruit Pudding
Imported from Britain, this dome-shaped pudding has the aroma of freshly baked cake and alcohol with hits of sweet fruit and hints of spice. Dark and slightly brooding it is very dense and sticky, filling the mouth with pieces of fruit and the nose with aromas of toasted nut and muscatels. The judges are less than impressed with the final note, an aroma they describe as "rum essence". That said, a few comment that they would consider a second helping.
700g $7 ($10 a kg) woolworths.com.au
Mandi's Kitchen Christmas Pudding
A traditional cloth pudding large enough to feed a big family and made in Bayside Melbourne, it includes dates, which may explain the rich dark flavours that intermingle with a "superb spice profile". This pudding sits on the lighter textured side of the fence that had English-born Howard Stamp saying, "It's just like me mum's."
1kg $45 mandiskitchen.com.au
Pud For All Seasons Traditional Plum Pudding
If you like dark puddings, then you will love this traditionally shaped bowl pudding that brings up the terms "treacle and fruit" from the judges. As well as words such as "nostalgia" and "classic". Made in central Victoria, it is not overly spiced and, as Neil Hargreaves comments, "will work perfectly when drowned with brandy butter and custard".
800g $28 ($35 a kg) pudforallseasons.com.au
Pudding Lane Classic Pudding
This cloth-bound pudding comes from Newcastle's award-winning Pudding Lane and is noted by Hargreaves as "best texture of the day". Tibballs notes it has a large quantity of good quality fruit but perhaps too much alcohol. Other judges agree that the alcohol overpowers the spice. But it rates well as it appears very authentic, old-school and homemade.
1kg $45 puddinglane.com.au
Louisa Morris Cakes Christmas Pudding
Made with Rutherglen muscat, this pudding combines vine fruit with dates and prunes. It is not a heavy, dense, moist pudding; instead, it is more acceptable for those who prefer a more cake-like offering.
1kg $42 louisamorriscakescakes.com.au
David Jones Handmade Christmas Pudding
With its powerful and predominant orange aroma and flavour, there was no other pudding like this one from David Jones. Described as being sponge-like and light compared with the others, it was the least dense of the 12 puddings.
800g $34.95 ($43.70 a kg) davidjones.com.au
Frank Food and Me Nutty Gran's Christmas Pudding
Tan-coloured and enveloped in a pleasant cloud of powdered ginger aroma and caramelised fruit, this is a pudding suitable for the smaller family. It has a dense cake-like texture dotted with almonds – whole and in pieces – and would be made complete with all the sweet trimmings.
800g $36 ($45 a kg) farmhousedirect.com.au
Barossa Farm Abbotsford Country House Christmas Pudding
A great big cloth pudding packed with organic vine fruit with lovely flavours of quality fruit. The fruit dominates the texture, making the pudding quite crumbly. It is moist and has the full-flavoured tang of beef suet from the Barossa angus cattle raised on the property where the kitchen is situated. Made with SA stout and local brandy, this a great pudding for fruit lovers.
1kg $45 xmaspudding.com.au
Many thanks to the judges: Michael Harden, senior reviewer Good Food Guide; Neil Hargreaves, Australian Food Awards and N.B. Food Consultancy; Roslyn Grundy, Good Food Guide co-editor; Howard Stamp chef, The Lincoln; Kirsten Tibballs, Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School; Paul Wilson, chef and owner Wilson and Market.
The judging process
This was a blind judging process. The judges had no idea where the pudding they were tasting came from or who made it. They assessed each pudding on its appearance, aroma, texture and taste, and against their own professional experience. Judging was done mostly silently with no comments allowed on the pudding being judged so as not to skew assessment.
The judges were given 20 points for each of: appearance, aroma, texture and flavour. And they were given 20 points for X-factor in which they were to ask themselves the questions, "Does this remind me in a good way of a quality pudding I have had in the past? Does it evoke the feeling of Christmas?" The scores were totalled to give a score out of 100. These were then averaged out. Discussion was allowed once the puddings had been judged.
Paul Wilson's Rutherglen muscat butter recipe
While brandy butter is the normal pudding sauce on Christmas Day, along with custard, brandy sauce, cream and, perhaps, ice-cream I have made a delicious butter made with a truly Australian ingredient – Rutherglen muscat. It is known around the world and loved by critics such as Robert Parker. With a little hint of coffee as a back note, this Rutherglen muscat butter melts beautifully into the pudding, is perfect with a glass of, well, Rutherglen muscat or ready for the segue into coffee and after-dinner titbits.
150g best unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
175g icing sugar
160ml Rutherglen muscat
1 shot of chilled espresso coffee
Place the butter and icing sugar in a mixer and blend until light and fluffy. Add muscat and coffee until mixed through. Chill. Serve a good spoonful on top of hot slices of pudding.