I wanted to make mom cry. I wanted to evoke her childhood so intensely she’d her raise finger to her eyes and dab a stray tear. I wanted to do something kind that would touch her deeply. And food memories reach into the heart. Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, my mom talked about her mom’s Johnny Bull pudding. It’s been more than 50 years since she’s had the old English dessert that requires suet (which is why it’s also known as suet pudding). This year was going to be different. I was going to tackle the memorable dish she enjoyed in a small, coal-town Pennsylvania kitchen. My first challenge was finding a recipe. The Internet should make that easy. It didn’t.
As I searched online, I discovered that “pudding” is British reference to a steamed “cake.” It made sense, as my grandmother’s people came to the United States from Great Britain, where Christmas puddings have been evolving for centuries.
Christmas pudding, with its unusual use of beef fat, has deeper roots in medieval English sausages that combined fat, spices, fruits, and meats. At some point in the 16th century, a creative chef transformed the savory to sweet. As the pudding evolved, cultural influencers—much like Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol—documented it as a Christmas tradition. As for the name, John Bull is the personification of England much like Uncle Sam is the personification of the United States. So basically, I sought a recipe for English Christmas cake.
Of the many online recipes, two variations existed. The first was a rich fruitcake-like recipe, while the second was more of a spice cake. Both used suet for fat and were steamed in a coffee can or cloth for 2 to 3 hours.
By necessity and philosophy, I wanted to localize the pudding. I called Nate Fagnilli, butcher and owner of Na*Kyrsie Meats in Geneva and chef at Crosswinds Grill in Geneva-on-the-Lake, to discuss baking with suet. He hadn’t heard of Johnny Bull pudding, but we talked through the first recipe and agreed it was logical. If I could use lard—specifically pig fat—in piecrust, why couldn’t I use suet, or beef fat, in cake? I collected ingredients, including suet from local, grass-fed cows that is sold by Na*Kyrsie Meats.
Once home, I opened the plastic bag and removed white- and pink-tinged pieces of fat that had surrounded the animal’s kidneys. It looked like fat trimmed from a raw steak, but in irregular chunks the size of my fist. As I chopped the frozen fat into tiny cubes, I removed filmy tissue and anything remotely solid. The reason for the fat, I learned, is that suet’s high melting point allows small air bubbles to form in the steaming pudding, resulting in a light texture. Hmmm, I wonder if it makes a flakier piecrust?
With ingredients in place, I followed the standard from-scratch cake recipe until it was time to steam in a clean pillowcase, cheesecloth, or coffee can for 2 ½ to 3 hours. I decided to modernize the recipe. Despite a YouTube video showing me how to steam pudding in a bowl, I baked my version in a water bath by nesting a square glass baking dish in a larger one and pouring water into the bottom dish until it was halfway up the side. Periodically, I checked and added more water.
The moment of truth came Christmas morning when I arrived at my parent’s Hambden Township home with a square pan of Johnny Bull Pudding. I couldn’t wait to share.
Mom didn’t cry. The fruitcake version was wrong. I should have realized her financially challenged family of 10 would have had the spice cake version without expensive nuts and glazed fruit.
That launched a new mission. My second attempt was the spice cake version. It was a dense, flat fail. Mom pronounced it closer, but requiring much more spice. Still, it took her back in time, and she shared yet another stream of memories. Among them, I learned about the generosity of my grandparents. Already struggling to raise eight children on a coal miner’s paycheck, they took in one more mouth—mom’s maternal grandfather (my great-grandfather)—when no one else wanted him. He lived with the family for three years. The Johnny Bull pudding was his request.
While there were no tears, the attempt to recreate Johnny Bull pudding evoked warm memories of Christmases past. Of course, perfectionist that I am, I will continue to tweak the pudding recipe by doubling up on cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and cloves, then steaming for this year’s version. And I just might try something new to release more family memories. Dandelion wine, anyone?