Festive Preparations: Stir-up Sunday

  17 Nov '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn
Photo by Jan Rutherford

Family traditions surrounding the preparation of festive dishes abound, with treasured recipes handed down from generation to generation. The transmission may not always be straightforward as cooks tend to use a shorthand for recipes, or never even write them down. Spills, smudges or handwriting may also make for an interpretative puzzle. Nonetheless, we make do and this Sunday will see the mixing of Christmas puddings and cakes across the country, in the tradition known as ‘Stir-up Sunday’.

Its name comes from the happy coincidence of the church calendar with the need for making fruit puddings and cakes in advance for their flavour to mature. They are given a helping hand, of course, being ‘fed’ with brandy as the weeks unfold toward Christmas. But ‘Stir-up Sunday’ isn’t just about stirring your batter. The words come from the Book of Common Prayer, where the collect for the Sunday before Advent is: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” The prayer, an injunction to steadfastness and good works, with a good side-helping of plenty and fruit, served as a reminder to get started on the festive preparations. Stirring up that heavy fruit batter required many hands, so people would gather to take turns and make a wish as they did so.

So what were the particularly Scottish Christmas baking traditions? F. Marian McNeil’s The Scots Kitchen contains a calendar of ‘Old Scottish Festival Cakes’, known as ‘Gudebreads’, advising that many of the cakes traditionally served on holy days are “lineally descended from cakes used sacrificially or sacramentally in pagan times”. Like the Christmas pudding with its stirring and charms, there are traditions attached to many of these cakes about how to make or eat them, and they often bear sacred symbols. The holly on the top of your pudding, for example, either symbolises Christ’s Crown of Thorns, or is there to ward off witches. Or both. Take your pick, and most importantly, make sure it doesn’t go up in smoke as your plum duff is served in its brandy inferno.

Christmas pudding as we know it evolved over the centuries from a celebratory savoury oat gruel, richened with the meat and fat of an ox shin for Christmas and known as Yule-brose. In the middle-ages, with the arrival of dried fruit and spices, this meaty gruel became known as ‘Plum Porridge’ and, during the eighteenth-century it lost its beefy ingredients and solidified into plum pudding.

Our own Sue Lawrence writes, however, that in some areas, cloutie dumpling was the festive cake for all occasions. Her recipe has its own tale of transmission:

“In my Dundee family, it was made on birthdays instead of cake, and served on special occasions such as Christmas Day. My Auntie Muriel was the one, after my Granny Anderson died, to make a cloutie dumpling for members of the family on their birthdays. When I ask her for the recipe, she always says she couldn’t possibly write it down, for she tells me there’s a ‘ticky of this and a ticky of that . . .’: No-one ever wrote cloutie dumpling recipes down, they just made them. But I managed to pin her down and the following recipe is based on the one my family used to enjoy, with a few added extras, such as the black treacle to give it a rich dark flavour.

Cloot or clout is Scots for cloth, and so the name cloutie dumpling refers to the cloth in which the dumpling is boiled. Unlike any other dumplings or steamed puddings, it forms a characteristic ‘skin’, made by sprinkling flour and sugar into the cloth before filling with the mixture. Beware clouties without skin, as they are not authentic. The skin must be dried off before serving and this is done nowadays in the oven. As the youngest child, my mother’s task was to dry off the dumpling in front of the open fireplace. She would sit there on a stool for 15–20 minutes, turning the dumpling round and round until it was dried off and ready to eat. Since it was made only for special occasions such as birthdays (in which case there were silver threepennies hidden inside, similar to charms in a Christmas pudding), this was a chore worth doing well. The dumpling would then be eaten with custard, but is now also served with cream or ice-cream. Next day, any leftovers would be served for breakfast, sliced and fried in rendered suet and eaten with bacon.”

Sue Lawrence, Scottish Baking

Here is Auntie Muriel’s recipe, with Sue’s variations:

Cloutie Dumpling

Serves 12 (from Scottish Baking, by Sue Lawrence)

  • 450g/1lb self-raising flour, sifted
  • 200 g/7oz golden caster sugar
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 150 g/5½oz shredded suet
  • 450g/1lb mixed dried fruit (sultanas, currants, raisins)
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 heaped tbsp black treacle
  • approx. 450ml/16fl oz full cream milk (or single cream mixed with skimmed milk)
  • flour and caster sugar, to sprinkle
  1. Mix the first seven ingredients together in a bowl with a pinch of salt, then drizzle over the treacle. Add enough milk to make a soft mixture of a stiff yet dropping consistency.
  2. Dip a pudding cloth (or large tea-towel) into boiling water to scald, then drain well (I use rubber gloves to squeeze it dry) and lay out flat on a board. Sprinkle with flour and then sugar (I use my flour and sugar shakers): you want an even – but not thick – sprinkling. (This forms the characteristic skin.)
  3. Now spoon the mixture into the middle of the cloth in a heap, then draw together the corners of the cloth and tie up securely with string, allowing a little room for expansion. Place the cloutie on a heatproof plate in the bottom of a large saucepan. Top up with boiling water to just about cover the pudding (it must come at least three-quarters of the way up the side), cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 3.–4 hours, until it feels firm. Check the water level regularly and top up if necessary. You should continually hear the reassuring, gentle shuddering sound of the plate on the bottom of the pan for the entire duration of cooking.)
  4. Wearing rubber gloves, remove the pudding from the pan and dip briefly into a bowl of cold water (no more than 10 seconds) so the skin does not stick to the cloth. Cut the string, untie the cloth and invert the dumpling onto a warmed ovenproof plate.
  5. Place in the oven (180C/350F/Gas 4) for 10–15 minutes to dry off the skin – it should feel a little less sticky – then sprinkle with caster sugar and serve hot with custard.

NB – there is a vegan recipe for ‘Clootie Dumpling with Orange Marmalade’ in The Scottish Vegan Cookbook by Jackie Jones.

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