Blame it all on Heston. Ever since he decided to bury a whole candied orange instead of a threepenny bit in a Christmas pudding, we have gone mad inventing new ways to tweak the festive dessert with which we enjoy a love-hate relationship. We may still clamour for the chef du jour to bring out the figgy pudding, but we prefer it with a nice surprise and a bit of light relief.
"Cooks have to battle the 'ball of stodge' syndrome," says Tom Kerridge, of the Hand and Flowers, Britain's only two-Michelin-star pub. He felt obliged to pull a traditional pud off his set Christmas lunch three years ago when he found punters were ordering a different dessert à la carte rather than tackle a hot, starchy helping of rich, dark fruits bound with suet after their turkey and stuffing.
"I love traditional Christmas pudding myself, but I could see the need to lighten it up and give diners the flavour without the density," says Kerridge, who is now combining a faithfully stirred and steamed pudding with crème anglaise and churning it into a Christmas pudding ice-cream.
Cold is the coolest thing in desserts this Christmas. The Hand and Flowers festive ice is not a million miles away from the Christmas pudding gelato Jacob Kennedy, of Bocca di Lupo, has created for his Soho ice-cream parlour Gelupo. That is a limited edition of 250, just as Heston's Hidden Orange became a rare collectible in 2010. Not to be caught out, Waitrose has ordered 11 times as many for this third year of the orange, but eBayers are already asking £100 for its successor, Heston's new Hidden Sauce Figgy Pudding.
The fact that this last is an actual figgy pudding, albeit one oozing toffee, suggests many of us cling perversely to a compulsion to steam basinfuls of dense, warm, sweet and sticky pud on a day when mountains of other calorific offerings often make us disinclined to actually consume it after the festive bird. This perversity is a tradition many are reluctant to abandon. "It's all about nostalgia in this big year for Britain," says Will Torrent, a pastry chef who consults on dessert development for Waitrose.
He believes the sweet, stodgy stalwart of the festive season is not going to be chased away anytime soon in the rush towards lighter, brighter desserts: "Heston helped reinvigorate the traditional segment by adding a fun element to allay the 'Oh God, we've got Christmas pudding coming' syndrome," Torrent says. "He took those people on a journey and gave us room to create true alternatives for the many people who are not keen on that rich fruity texture."
Thus for traditionalists in search of a twist, the Hidden Orange has spawned the Hidden Clementine mini-me and Sainsbury's robust riposte, the Hidden Cherry Centre Christmas Pudding. Lighter alternatives include the cherry and almond pud with edible glitter from Waitrose and the panettone-based pudding from M&S. Not to mention a whole host of frozen desserts with no Christmas flavours at all, such as Heston's baked Alaska (blowtorch recommended to finish it, needless to say) and the non-Heston Salted Caramel Chocolate Bombe from Waitrose.
Salted caramel, which refuses to loosen its grip on the British palate, is also flavouring pudding cream at Sainsbury's this year, in a range that includes cherry-brandy and champagne-cocktail variations, and in the dairy aisle you'll even find a Christmas pudding-flavoured yogurt from The Collective (a probiotic, low-fat alternative to the real thing, a boon for those prone to indigestion).
Selfridges' key cold treat this year is Gelupo's mince-pie-and-mulled-wine-flavour gelato, while M&S has also looked towards Italy in a bid to tweak the Christmas pud: "Italian flavours have been a big trend this year, so we've combined panettone with traditional pudding ingredients to create a lighter texture," the dessert developer Helen Brennan says.
She might be surprised to learn that adding sugar, vanilla and spices to the golden crumb and steaming it is the last thing Italians do with their panettone at Christmas. Paola Pignataro, a Carluccio's buyer, says her kinfolk take a slice of the fruit-studded bread absolutely plain with a glass of Prosecco at the end of their festive feast. It leaves room for other treats: "In Italy the Christmas spread is all about abundance and enjoyment, so the selection could also include panforte," she says of the gorgeously sticky Tuscan confection of dried fruit and nuts compressed into a flat, hard cake.
Those of us who feel the traditional Victorian steamed fruit pudding is just too dense and heavy for contemporary tastes could take a leaf out of Italy's book by embracing a simple British seasonal taste tradition that also takes us back to earlier times. "Orange for me is one of the five essential flavours of Christmas," says Torrent, for whom the others are fragrant spices. "I've never got over visiting American friends who infused their living room with the scent of clove-studded oranges placed on the radiators."
It's a tradition that has driven Kerridge to bring to his own Christmas table this year a spiced orange cake inspired by his friend Lawrence Keogh at the Wolseley: "Combining the aromatic oils of orange with cinnamon and ginger gives off the pure smell of Christmas – and reminds me of the orange that used to be in my stocking as a child." His fragrant confection of clementines boiled, then seeded and blitzed with eggs, sugar, ground almonds and spices, certainly seems an enticingly light conclusion to a modern Christmas feast compared with a ball of traditional dark, dense stodge – even a ball of stodge with a candied orange at its centre.
AND FOR THE LEFTOVERS...
Simon King of Restaurant 1861 delighted visitors to this year's Abergavenny Christmas Food Fair by incorporating Christmas pudding into a soufflé and creating a Christmas pudding parfait served with cranberry sorbet.
Christmas pudding is also good sliced, fried in butter and served with thick, liqueur-flavoured cream.
Stale panettone makes the world's best bread-and-butter pudding – even more so if you use the booze-soaked variation known as drunken panettone.
Paul A Young's Christmas pudding-flavoured brownie is going head to head with Heston's new Chocolate Christmas Cake – a brownie disguised as an iced Christmas pudding. Young is also fielding a brownie-topped mince pie.