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christmas cooking

The secret to a perfect Christmas pudding is all in the fruit, explains Paul Gray, who is master cake-maker at Bettys, the famous bakery and tea shop in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

“Don’t use dried sultanas you’ve found at the back of the cupboard,” he says.

“Buy the freshest and best quality fruit you can afford.”

He should know – he’s made millions of cakes during his 20 years at Bettys.
“Today, I’m at their equally famous cookery school making my own Christmas pudding, along with other festive treats.

“We start the pudding at 10 a.m. – although the kitchen fairies have soaked the fruit in brandy overnight for us. Along the way we learn many tips, such as always juicing and zesting fruit that is at room temperature – this give you double the amount.

“Likewise, eggs should always be room temperature to prevent curdling (it’s the change in temperature that causes it).

“The day is a revelation, accompanied by friendly banter, good company and delicious treats for snacking – plus, you get to take home all your Christmas cooking.

“After five hours of steaming, the pudding is ready to cool and then be put away for at least four weeks (longer if possible) to mature before the big lunch.”

INGREDIENTS (6-8 serves)

  • 230g (8 oz) raisins
  • 50g (1 ¼ oz) currants
  • 75g (2 ½ oz) sultanas
  • 50g (1 ¾ oz) glace cherries
  • 15g (1/2 oz) flaked almonds
  • 100ml (3 ½ fl oz) brandy
  • Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
  • Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 orange and 1/2 lemon
  • 50g (1 ¾ oz) vegetable suet
  • 30g (1 oz) wholemeal breadcrumbs
  • 50g (1 ¾ oz) plain white flour
  • 90g (3 oz) light brown sugar
  • 2g (1/2 tsp) mixed spice
  • 1g (1/4 tsp) each of ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon, ground cloves
  • 5g (1 tsp) salt
  • 2 medium eggs, beaten
The secret to a perfect Christmas pudding is all in the fruit

The secret to a perfect Christmas pudding is all in the fruit


  1. The day before, place all the dried fruits and flaked almonds in a bowl. Pour over the brandy and add the lemon and orange zest and juice. Mix together lightly. Cover with clingfilm and leave overnight.
  2. Put all the remaining ingredients and the pre-soaked fruit in a large mixing bowl. Mix lightly with a wooden spoon, so as not to break up the fruit. Place a small disc of baking parchment in the base of a 1 ½ pt pudding basin and then fill it with the mixture. Smooth the top down evenly. Place another, larger disc of parchment on top. Cover the basin with foil and seal tightly.
  3. Stand the filled pudding basin on a strip of foil long enough to make a handle (to help you lift the pudding out of the pan once it is steamed). Place the basin on top of a trivet in a deep-sided pan. Pour hot water into the pan, so it comes halfway up the pudding basin. Place a lid on the pan and bring back to the boil. Lower the heat and keep the water at a steady simmer. Steam the pudding for 5 hours. Check the level of water in the saucepan during cooking and top up if necessary.
  4. Remove the pudding from the pan and allow it to cool completely. Remove the foil. Wrap the pudding basin in a piece of greaseproof and a layer of foil. Store in a cool, dark place for at least 1 month to mature. The longer the better.
  5. On Christmas Day, steam the pud for 2 hours in a pan of water, as before. Warm some brandy in a ladle until it ignites and pour over the pudding to flambe.

Max Clark from Leiths School of Food and Wine in UK is on hand to help ensure that your Christmas cooking runs smoothly.

Max Clark says: “My best piece of advice for the perfect, stress free celebration? Keep it simple.

“You are not the hired help, but part of the festivities! Quality should reign over quantity, and simple, beautifully presented food will be appreciated and enjoyed more than a complicated menu that doesn’t quite deliver.

“Prepare what you can before the big day, then relax and open your pressies.”

Ten tips from Leiths cooking school for a perfect Christmas dinner

Ten tips from Leiths cooking school for a perfect Christmas dinner

  1. Decadence is the order of the day, so start by beguiling your loved ones with a bubbly flourish of fantasy and romance. Fill glasses of pomegranate juice with icy Prosecco and float edible rose petals on top for a glamorous breakfast cocktail.
  2. Serve the cocktails with toasted panettone. Top with warm, roasted figs, pomegranate seeds and a drizzle of honey, and you’re off the starting blocks without even breaking into a sweat.
  3. Don’t bother with a formal starter. You’ve had a rich breakfast and you’ll be eating all day. Simply thread some fat, fresh tiger prawns onto skewers, interleaved with citrusy, kaffir lime leaves and marinade in a little oil, root ginger and red chilli. Bake in a hot oven (in a disposable aluminium tray) until pink and juicy and serve as a pre-lunch nibble with a glass of fino sherry.
  4. If lunch is just going to be for you and your partner (and perhaps the future in laws…), why not try something different, such as roast quail? Quail take 20 minutes to cook and lend themselves well to the traditional trimmings. After all, why spend hours battling with a bird that’s bigger than your dog, only to eat turkey curry for the next three days?
  5. Serve the quail with glazed cocktail sausages, bacon rolls and individual Christmas bubble and squeak cakes. Mix together cooked crushed potatoes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts and chestnuts, stir in a few cranberries and season to taste. Shape into patties and chill until required. They can be made up to two days in advance and are equally good baked or fried. You have just saved yourself an hour in the kitchen, with cheeks rosy enough to compete with Santa Claus.
  6. Now just add some seasonal leafy greens and baby carrots to bring the contemporary feast to life. Parboil and refresh the carrots after breakfast, ready to reheat in foaming, seasoned butter.
  7. A jar of cranberry sauce can be jazzed up with a grating of orange zest and a splash of port.
  8. Make your bread sauce on Christmas Eve, cool and refrigerate. Stir in a little cream and heat in the microwave when required.
  9. Good gravy can be the bane of the most experienced cooks’ lives, so practice it some other time. This isn’t the day for heroics. Buy a pouch of fresh, quality gravy and up the ante with a generous slurp of Madeira. Its rich, caramel flavor will add extra body and flavor, and a teaspoon of unsalted butter whisked in before serving will make it appear glossy in look.
  10. Swap hours of boiling a Christmas pudding (that you are too full to eat), for a clementine compote, fragrant with sultry spices. Make it up to 24 hours in advance, and serve well chilled with hot white chocolate sauce. Peel two clementines per serving, place in a bowl and pour over boiling water. Drain and scrape off the white pith. Add a cinnamon stick, star anise and a bay leaf to a pan of sugar syrup, laced with Cointreau and orange blossom water. Bring to the boil and cook until syrupy. Pour over the fruit, leave to cool and chill until needed. So, there you have it; all of the traditional courses and seasonal ingredients, in a fresh, stress free, and most importantly, calamity-free format. This will allow you plenty of time for fireside naps and maybe even some mulled wine; so sit back, relax, and enjoy a romantic and festive day with your loved ones.