"Steamed pudding" sounds like an accident, like something that happened during one horrible moment of inattention in the kitchen. And the picture many people make to go with the words is equally unattractive -- a murky blob decorated with a bit of holly and then set on fire.
Those steamed puddings were an acquired taste. Getting used to the idea of suet, bread crumbs and little green pieces can take several lifetimes of acculturation.
But look again. Steamed puddings have changed. Gone are the suet and the hard green pieces -- unless you'd gotten used to them, in which case you can hang on to the old recipes -- and in their place are lighter textures and new flavors.
The good things stay, though. Steamed puddings make a dramatic finish to dinner whether they are sauced and flamed or not. They often are made in decorative molds, so they look composed and beautiful. And now that puddings come in colors other than brown, the presentation can be even more sparkling.
The basic idea of a steamed pudding is to cook a batter over boiling water rather than to bake it, dry, in the oven. The batter is usually quite thick, and steaming it slowly produces a moist end result. For some beautiful ideas about the possibilities, see the December issue of Gourmet magazine, or "The Great Dessert Book" by Christian Teubner and Sybil Grafin Schonfeldt (Hearst Book, 1983, $30). Some of the best ideas involve winter flavors like pumpkin, ginger, apple and pear.
To make steamed puddings all you really need is something to hold the batter and then something big enough to steam the pudding in. It is possible, if the batter is thick enough, simply to wrap it in muslin or several layers of cheesecloth, tie the ends together and suspend the package over boiling water.
But that's no fun. What you really want is an excuse to go out and buy a steamed-pudding mold in one of a number of distinguished shapes and sizes.
The regulation British pudding "basin" is simply a plain ceramic bowl with a rim. For a cover, you lay muslin across the top, then secure it by tying string around the bowl under the rim. These are serviceable, but they're pretty boring, too.
The most interesting molds are made of tinned steel, and come with their own tinned steel tops. The most common model is fairly tall, with a wreath of nubbins on top for decoration. Shorter, less dramatic versions are also available.
These come with tightly fitting tops, but the tight fit is not necessary to make a good pudding. All you need is something to help distribute the heat to the top of the pudding, and aluminum foil will do just fine.
The tinned steel molds are exactly the same weight as decorative cake pans and are useful for baking fairly substantial batters such as that for pound cake. By the same token you can use cake molds for steamed pudding, as well as metal ice cream molds, mixing bowls, or even individual dariole molds or custard cups if you want to make individual servings.
Most steamed puddings are cooked on top of the stove, so you'll need a big kettle with a rack and a top. Some puddings, particularly lighter, souffle'-like puddings, are baked in a water bath in the oven, so all you need there is a baking pan.
Tinned steel requires some special care. If you are making the type of fruitcake-like pudding that requires storage and steeping in spirits, don't store it in the mold. If the tin wash is thin in places, you'll get rusty spots and a rusty taste in your pudding. Tinned steel also needs to be dried thoroughly after it's washed to prevent rust peeking through any worn places.