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Put the dates, raisins, milk and brandy or rum in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 mins until the fruit is soft and the liquid has been absorbed – don’t worry if it looks a little curdled. Leave to cool. Meanwhile, generously butter a 1.2-litre pudding basin.
To prepare your steamer, place a snugly fitting upturned bowl or saucer in the base of a large, deep saucepan, big enough to hold your pudding basin. Cut out a large circle of baking parchment and one of foil, both 5cm wider than the rim of your pudding basin. Make a sharp pleat down the centre of both, then butter one side of the parchment – this will be your lid. Set aside. Boil the kettle for the steamer.
In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric whisk until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, beating again until well combined. Finally, add the flour, mixed spice, orange zest, date mixture and a pinch of salt, and stir everything well with a spatula until there are no visible lumps of flour. Tip the cake mixture into your pudding basin. Cover the bowl with the parchment, butter-side down and pleat on top, then the foil. Push the sides of the lid down, then tie a piece of string securely under the lip of the basin. Use any overhanging string to create a handle to help you lift the pudding.
Stand the pudding basin on top of the upturned bowl or saucer in the saucepan and fill the pan with enough boiling water to come halfway up the side of the basin. Bring to a gentle simmer, then cover the pan with a lid and leave to steam for 2½ hrs, topping up with boiling water if the level gets low. Check the pudding is cooked by inserting a skewer into the centre. If the skewer has any uncooked mixture on it, return it to the pan to steam for another 15 mins, then check again. Once cooked, you can cover the pudding with clean baking parchment and foil and keep for up to a week. Re-steam the pudding for 1 hr before serving.