Flavors come together in Christmas pudding, a tradition at English holiday tables

November 17, 1993|By Geoffrey W. Fielding | Geoffrey W. Fielding,Contributing Writer

Ask the average Englishman to name the foods of Christmas and he'll come up with mincemeat, Christmas cake, and Christmas pudding. The first is for mince pies and tarts, eaten with a bit of nippy cheese for tea or supper. The second, a fruitcake all iced and decorated, is served with afternoon tea.

Only Christmas pudding is part of the main meal, Christmas dinner. When all the turkey or goose, the mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, gravy, et al. have been cleared away, the Christmas pudding is borne to the dinner table, a blazing triumph.

As far back as medieval times, it was a traditional dish for Christmas Eve, but then it was called a frumenty, a porridge-like dish of hulled wheat and milk. By the Middle Ages it had evolved into a frumenty of wheat with beef or mutton broth, thickened with oatmeal and flavored with eggs, currants, dried plums and spices.

The Tudor cooks used bread crumbs instead of oatmeal and added suet, plus ale and wine. It was still a semi-liquid to spoon up, but within a 100 years the meat broth had gone. This made it drier so it could be boiled in a cloth. Its name changed to plum pudding.

Victorian influence

It was those classic gourmands, the Victorians, who brought the pudding to its fullest glory. They kept the currants, but replaced the plums with raisins, sultanas (golden raisins) and candied or mixed peel. At that point it became the Christmas pudding of today, but it was still cooked in a cloth and came to the table as a huge, steaming cannonball.

". . . a speckled cannonball" says Charles Dickens, "so hard and firm, blazing in half a quartern [ 1/4 pint] of ignited brandy and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."

Not much has changed since "A Christmas Carol" was written in 1843, except spices are used in greater abundance and the modern pressure cooker has cut the steaming time from eight hours to one.

After that the pudding is stored until the day it's served, when it gets another 50 minutes or so in the pressure cooker. Also, today it is usual to cook the pudding in a rimmed basin over which a cloth is tied, rather than making it ball-shaped, though some English cooks have returned to that style. If this is done with a pressure cooker the pudding can sit in a mixing bowl to keep its round shape while it cooks.

With a sprig of holly on the top, the pudding is served hot and flaming. To do this, a 2-ounce shot of brandy is heated and poured over the pudding, then lighted just before it goes to the table. It is also served with either a hard or white sauce. In England it is traditional to wrap small silver charms for the children in waxed paper and stuff them into the pudding before it's served.

The choice of sauce on the pudding is a matter of taste. Americans prefer the hard sauce, made from butter, brown sugar and brandy, while the English seem to like the contrast of flavors between the sweetness of the pudding and the blandness of a white sauce, made from cornstarch, butter and milk, with just a touch of sugar and brandy for flavor.

Tastes need time to blend

Christmas puddings are best made well in advance of Christmas. This allows the flavors to meld. In the Episcopal Church, shades of England, the Sunday before Advent -- Nov. 21 this year -- was known as "stir-up Sunday," from the prayer of the day, which began "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people . . ." It was considered the day to get cracking on the Christmas pudding, when every member of the family would take a turn to stir the mixture in an east-west direction as a tribute to the Three Kings. Thenew prayer book no longer has this prayer.

A lot of trouble can be saved if several puddings are made at one time. It's easy to cook and store them on an open shelf during the cold months of winter after Christmas so the flavors will blend. After that, they are transferred to the freezer. By early November a pudding can be taken out, thawed and allowed to mature some more before its final cooking for Christmas dinner.

Four puddings made from the following recipe currently sit in my freezer. They are part of a batch of six made in January 1991. When the 1993 pudding comes from the freezer, a shot of brandy will be poured over the top after it thaws, to help reconstitute the fruit.

Family Christmas pudding

1 pound brown sugar

1 1/2 pounds seedless raisins

1 1/2 pounds currants

3/4 pounds golden raisins (sultanas)

3/4 pounds chopped mixed peel

2 ounces chopped blanched almonds

1/2 grated fresh nutmeg

1 teaspoon mixed spice (ground allspice, cloves, ginger, nutmeg) (Don't confuse with allspice.)

3/4 pounds fine bread crumbs

3/4 pounds all-purpose flour

1 pound shredded beef suet (get hard fat from the kidneys)

pinch of salt

juice and grated rind of 1 lemon

juice and grated rind of 1 orange

1 tablespoon black molasses

8 eggs

10 ounces ale

1 wine glass sherry

1 wine glass port

Mix all the dry ingredients, then stir in the beaten eggs and other liquids and mix well. If too thick add a little milk.

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