5 alternative, free-from festive desserts that are just as indulgent as the real thing 

    Published: 13 November 2021. Written in by Tom Ward.

    From vegan delights to nut-free indulgences, these naughty but nice puddings will upgrade your family dinner – and your health – this holiday season.

    We all love a Christmas pudding. While all kinds of sweet treats can feel festive, we’re here to celebrate the real thing: the traditional, Dickensian half-dome of dried fruit and booze-soaked cake. The type of pudding you might find a penny baked into or delight your loved ones with by setting it ablaze. But as some of us opt for alcohol-free, gluten-free and plant-based bakes to satisfy our sweet tooth this year, it’s time for this traditional favourite to get an upgrade.

     With that in mind, we asked some of the best nutritionists and chefs around to put together a whole host of free-from, healthier Christmas puddings that are just as indulgent as the traditional version, but slightly sweeter in their nutritional benefits.

     From dark chocolate and orange options to new takes on traditional recipes, it’s time to pull up a chair and tie your napkin around your neck. After all, Christmas is a time for indulgence, and cutting down on certain ingredients for your health shouldn’t mean you miss out. Dig in!


    The vegan pud

    This boozy recipe tweak from Hillary ‘Nesse’ Cannon, co-founder of Barrefly, is sure to get your vegan friends salivating.

     ‘Although it’s not light on sugar or calories – after all, it’s still dessert – the simple swapping of traditional butter for plant-based butter means swapping saturated fats (well-known culprits for obesity and heart disease) for monounsaturated fats,’ explains Cannon, who also points out that avocado or olive oil-based spreads are best.

     According to Cannon, unlike their dastardly cousins, monounsaturated fats have been found to benefit heart health, blood sugar control and body weight. Meanwhile, she says the coconut sugar contains inulin – a type of soluble fibre – which can help control post-meal blood sugar spikes.


    You’ll need:

    125g dairy-free margarine

    375g dried figs

    75ml rum

    350g sultanas and raisins

    1 large apple, peeled, cored and grated

    85g coconut sugar

    85g dark brown soft sugar

    100g breadcrumbs

    100g self-raising flour

    ½ tbsp allspice


    What to do:

    1. Grease a 2-litre pudding bowl, then line it with baking parchment. Chop just under half of the figs and set them aside. 
    2. Whizz up the remaining figs, margarine and rum. Scrape into a bowl, add the fruit, sugars, breadcrumbs, flour and allspice. Mix and spoon into the bowl. 
    3. Lay a greased sheet of paper on top of a sheet of foil and wrap the pudding bowl in it. Lower the whole thing into a saucepan, adding balls of foil into the bottom so the bowl doesn’t touch the bottom of the saucepan. 
    4. To steam, half-fill the saucepan with boiling water and simmer for three hours. Keep an eye on the water level and leave to cool before serving.


    The gluten- and alcohol-free wonder

    ‘Christmas pudding is actually a very healthy dessert as far as desserts go,’ explains Jo Travers, AKA The London Nutritionist, and author of The Low-Fad Diet and The Bone-Strength Plan.

     ‘It’s very high in fibre and low in fat, and has very little added sugar per portion,’ Travers continues. ‘And, because it’s so filling, people only tend to eat a small amount of it, too!’ 

    Travers recommends making the pudding ahead of time and reheating for two hours on a low heat before serving.


    You’ll need:

    100g prunes, chopped

    100g currants

    100g raisins

    100g mixed candied citrus peel

    1 tsp mixed spice

    ½ tsp ground ginger

    3 clementines, zested and juiced 

    2 apples, peeled, cored and grated

    100g ground almonds

    1 tsp gluten-free baking powder

    100g gluten-free plain flour

    50g gluten-free breadcrumbs

    100g dark brown soft sugar

    2 eggs, beaten


    What to do:

    1. Mix the chopped prunes, currants, raisins and candied peel with the spices, clementine zest and juice. Cover and leave to infuse overnight. 
    2. The next day, add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Grease the pudding basin and line the bottom with baking paper. Tip the mixture into it. Cover the basin tightly with foil, securing it with string.
    3. To steam the pudding, half-fill a large pan with water and bring it to a simmer. Stand the pudding on an upside-down saucer in the pan so it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan. 
    4. Put a lid on the pan and simmer for six hours. Serve with cream or brandy butter.


    The traditional all-rounder

    Going traditional doesn’t necessarily mean overloading on the bad stuff. Using this classic vegetarian Waitrose recipe, Anna Mapson of Goodness Me Nutrition, an expert in treating IBS, is able to craft something timeless and healthy.

     ‘Dried fruits like cranberries and raisins are a good source of fibre, which can help to feed our gut microbes and keep bowel movements regular and healthy, and is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes,’ explains Mapson.

     What’s more, she explains that the polyphenol antioxidants from cherries and cranberries are associated with a healthy heart, reduced oxidative stress and good gut health.


    You’ll need:

    75g pack Waitrose Semi-dried Cherries

    2 x 75g packs of Waitrose Dried Cranberries

    150g raisins

    150g sultanas

    Finely grated zest and juice of 1 orange

    ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

    1 tsp ground cinnamon

    1 tsp ground mixed spice

    200ml stout, such as Mackeson Stout or Murphy’s Draught Stout

    2 tbsp brandy, rum or Madeira, plus 75-100ml for serving

    ½ x 250g pack Atora Light Vegetable Suet

    50g self-raising flour

    100g fresh breadcrumbs

    1 medium Bramley apple, peeled, cored and grated

    225g dark brown soft sugar

    2 large eggs, beaten


    What to do:

    1. Place the dried fruit, orange zest and juice, spices, stout and brandy, rum or Madeira in a large bowl. Mix well, then cover with a clean tea towel and leave to stand in a cool place for at least six hours or preferably overnight.
    2. Once the fruit has plumped up, stir in the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Transfer to a lightly greased 1.2-litre pudding basin or heatproof bowl, packing it down well to ensure it all fits and there are no gaps.
    3. Cut two squares of baking parchment, about 20cm wider than the basin, then cut a piece of foil about the same size. Place the parchment squares on top of the foil, then fold the three layers in half. Fold one side back, making a crease about 2cm from the first fold, to make a pleat. This allows room for the pudding to expand during cooking. Place on top of the basin, foil side up.
    4. Take a long length of string, fold it in half and wrap it around the basin to secure the parchment and foil. Thread the ends of the string through the loop, then pull tight and knot to secure. Use the excess string to make a handle across the centre of the bowl for lifting. Place a trivet or heatproof plate in the bottom of a large pan. 
    5. Place the pudding on top, then carefully pour boiling water into the pan to reach about halfway up the side of the basin. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and bring the water to the boil. Reduce the heat and steam for six hours.
    6. Check the water level regularly, topping up with boiling water as required. After six hours, turn off the heat and leave the pudding to cool completely. Use the string to lift it from the pan, then wipe down the outside of the bowl, undo the string and remove the foil and parchment. 
    7. Cover the basin with a new layer of baking parchment, foil and string, then store in a cool, dark place for up to two months until required.


    The reduced sugar option

    ‘December doesn’t have to be a blowout,’ says nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, author of The Science of Nutrition: Debunk the Diet Myths and Learn How to Eat Well for Health and Happiness.

     In order to make your pudding healthier, Lambert suggests substituting some sugar for fruit and using wholemeal flour instead of white to increase the fibre content. ‘Perhaps you could add in some more seeds and nuts, such as almonds as these are packed with fibre and antioxidants and are high in vitamin E, so far healthier than your common-or-garden Christmas pudding,’ she says.

     Instead of brandy butter, why not try swapping it for Greek yoghurt mixed with a dash of vanilla extract? ‘Greek yoghurt is high in protein and full of gut-loving bacteria. The vanilla will give it a delicate festive twist,’ advises Lambert.


    You’ll need:

    50g blanched and chopped almonds

    2 large cooking apples, peeled and cored

    ¾ of a whole nutmeg, grated

    1kg raisins

    500g sultanas

    140g wholemeal flour

    75g light muscovado sugar

    3 large eggs

    2 tbsp brandy or cognac

    250g butter


    What to do:

    1. Mix the almonds, apples, nutmeg, raisins, sultanas, flour, sugar, eggs and booze in a large bowl. Add a quarter of the butter, using the rest to grease two pudding bowls. 
    2. Line the bottoms of the bowls with circles of baking parchment. Add the mixture and cover the top with parchment. Tie it with string and steam as per one of the previous recipes. 
    3. Oven-steam for one hour before serving.


    The dark chocolate and orange nut-free Christmas cracker

    Allergies to nuts or dairy? Nutritional therapist Olivia Smart says nuts to that. ‘Why is this healthy?’ she asks. ‘Let me explain: cacao is high in magnesium and antioxidants. Coconut butter is wonderful for your immunity and has great antimicrobial properties; it can also help control your blood-sugar levels.

    ‘Eggs, meanwhile, are high in lots of amino acids and a great source of protein,’ says Smart, adding that ‘dark chocolate is a great source of antioxidants.’


    You’ll need:

    200g frozen cherries

    1 pear

    100g raisins

    100g sultanas

    100ml brandy

    100g bar dark chocolate

    50g unsalted butter

    50g coconut butter

    50g plain flour

    100g dark soft brown sugar

    1 tsp mixed spice

    1 tbsp cacao powder

    Zest of two oranges

    50g breadcrumbs

    2 large eggs


    What to do:

    1. Cut the cherries in half. Peel and grate the pear. Mix both with the raisins, sultanas and brandy. Cover with cling film and microwave for three minutes. 
    2. Add the chocolate and butters and stir until melted. Then sieve the flour, sugar, mixed spice and cacao onto the fruit mixture and sprinkle over the orange zest. 
    3. Add the breadcrumbs and beaten eggs. Tip into a pre-prepared bowl (use the same method as in previous recipes). 
    4. Steam the pudding for two and a half hours, using the method described above. Store as required. Steam for 30 minutes to reheat before serving.


    The extra indulgence

    One thing every good pudding deserves is some brandy butter. But if you’re trying to cut down on alcohol or simply want to update the recipe, we suggest trying this Biscoff butter sauce instead. We can’t pretend it’s amazingly healthy, but paired with one of the puds above you should have a good balance. It is Christmas, after all.


    You’ll need:

    175g unsalted butter, softened

    5 tbsp icing sugar

    3 tbsp Biscoff spread


    What to do:

    1. Cream the butter and the icing sugar. 
    2. Add in the Biscoff spread (without eating any – not as easy as it sounds!). 
    3. Slowly and gradually add hot water to encourage a sauce consistency if needed or leave as is for a buttery finish. This will keep for a week in the fridge, depending on your willpower.


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