A CHRISTMAS (PUDDING) STORY

Say the word “pudding” and most Americans think of the chocolate or vanilla custard-like stuff mom made for you when you behaved (as you may imagine, I rarely enjoyed pudding as a youngster!). But those variations are just part of the diverse world of puddings.

Pudding has a rich history dating back to medieval times. Puddings both savory and sweet were ways to preserve meats, fruits and vegetables. It is said that the dried fruits and spices actually helped preserve the meats. For the pudding enthusiasts of the world, there are books dedicated to the subject containing every variation imaginable in their pages.

Pudding is found in all kinds of books, here is an excerpt from one of my favorite holiday stories, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:

“Mrs Cratchit left the room alone – too nervous to bear witnesses -to take the pudding up and bring it in… Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper which smells like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

I love food and food history. Food that has lined the bellies of many generations, hold a special place for me. One such recipe is a good old-fashioned Mrs. Cratchit-style Charles Dickens Christmas Pudding – which is talked about in the excerpt above.

If you’re not familiar with Christmas pudding, just think of a very moist, dense fruitcake, but much more flavorful and steeped in a rich tradition. Typically, presentation of Christmas pudding involved it being set ablaze with ignited brandy and served with clotted cream or heavy cream.

In the 1660’s, the Puritans considered it the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon… and it’s rich ingredients made it forbidden. Any dish with those reputed origins has my vote for a must-try dish!

Thankfully, pudding and its customs came back into popularity during the reign of George I. George I was known in some regions as the “Pudding King.” He requested that plum pudding be served as part of his royal Christmas feast in 1714 – looks like we all owe old George a proper thank you!

Christmas pudding can also be called “plum pudding.” Plum pudding is a bit of a misnomer since it doesn’t really contain any plum. The name comes from the pre-Victorian term of “plumming ” raisins by soaking them in ale and spirits. Old time recipes call for raisins to be stoned or pitted and cut in half, something we don’t have to deal with today.

It is said that Christmas puddings should be made by the 25th Sunday after Trinity (or the last Sunday prior to Advent, also known as “Stir-Up Sunday”), and often prepared with 13 ingredients, said to represent Jesus and His 12 disciples. Every member of the family should take turns stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon from east to west (in honor of the Three Kings), while making a wish at the same time.

Another fun fact is that this pudding was traditionally garnished with a sprig of arbutus with a red berry on it. It was stuck in the middle of the pudding and a twig of variegated holly with berries was placed on each side. According to a 19th century food dictionary, this was done to keep away witches (God forbid witches show up uninvited to your Christmas gathering!).

Although the ingredients vary, the core of the recipe for this pudding has not changed in centuries. Suet, flour, sugar, treacle or molasses, bread crumbs, milk, eggs, raisins, candied lemon and citron, currants, bitter almonds and sweet almonds, and sweet spices, the most notable being nutmeg. Stout, Ale and brandy are often times added, but a teetotaler’s version is also popular. More savory versions of pudding were stuffed into an animal stomach and boiled, much like sausage. Following that, puddings were wrapped in a cloth, buttered and/or floured and steamed, and dried out on this cloth and steamed again at the time of service. This has given way to the buttered basin used today.

All of the ingredients we used to make our own Christmas Pudding.

There are no written records that refer to this recipe during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s not until the early 20th century that a recipe surfaces – the same recipe used here. Later publications (including the 1929 book Puddings, Pastries, and Sweet Dishes, by May Byron [1929]) provide different versions of this pudding, and several claim to be the “original” Royal Plum pudding recipe.

Dark Christmas Pudding

10 oz currants
10 oz raisins
4 oz plain flour
1 level teaspoon each salt, ground ginger, grated nutmeg mixed spice
8 oz shredded suet
4 oz white breadcrumbs
4 oz demerera sugar
2 oz glace cherries
2 oz blanched almonds
1 oz chopped peel
Finely grated rind of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Juice of 1 orange
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
6 level tablespoons black tracle
1/4 pint stout
1 tablespoon gravy browning

Wash and pick over fruit and dry thoroughly. Sift flour, salt and spices into large mixing bowl. Stir in suet, bread crumbs and sugar.

Chop raisins, cherries and almonds. Mix currants, raisins, cherries, mixed peel, orange and lemon rinds and stir into dry ingredients.

Beat orange juice with eggs and vanilla essence and pour into bowl. Add treacle, gravy browning and stout and mix thoroughly. Turn into greased 3 pint basin.

Cook for 7 to 8 hours, less if in pressure cooker. To serve, heat for at least 4 hours.

Cherished family recipes are important in the preservation of food and family history; Christmas pudding recipes are often times handed from one generation to the next. Here is a little story from Rachel Formaro, my sister-in-law, about our pudding experiment for this year:

Christmas Pudding making (and eating) is one of my favorite Christmas memories. Because my mum’s birthday is roughly a month before Christmas, that’s when she would typically make the pudding. Everyone in my family would take a turn at stirring the ingredients in the mixing bowl, being sure to make a wish.

My brother Tom and his daughter Ella stirring and wishing

This recipe in particular is my grandfather’s, my mum’s dad. It is called a dark Christmas pudding – I’m not sure if that’s because a dark stout is used in the recipe, or just because of the dark color of the pudding! We always had the pudding on Christmas Day, after a traditional turkey dinner. My mum, dad and sisters (and any visiting relatives from the UK) would be wearing silly paper crowns that were contained in Christmas crackers (not the edible kind) that we opened at the start of the meal. Then mum or dad would pour a bit of brandy over the pudding and set it aflame – a very brief blue flame mind you, but enough to get an “oohh” and “ahhh” from anyone. Dessert dishes of pudding would be served with some Cornish or Double Devon cream. I would often get caught trying to get every last bit of cream out of the jar it had come in, well after everyone had left the table.

Rachel taking her turn

While this is the first year I’ve actually made the pudding, I have never gone a Christmas without a pudding.  I usually get a Matthew Walker Christmas pudding. Thank goodness for Amazon, as it would be hard for me to get my hands on one locally (or so I’ve found in the years that I’ve been in the United States). Now that I’ve married an Italian-American, our Christmas dinner is a fun mix of traditions. We have an interesting combination of Christmas lasagna followed by Christmas pudding all while wearing silly paper crowns of course!

Unveiling the finished product

 

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