Friday 24 December 2010

A Steamed Christmas Pudding - My Christmas tradition, in Three Acts

"Oh! All that steam! The pudding had just been taken out of the cauldron. Oh! That smell! The same as the one which prevailed on washing day! It is that of the cloth which wraps the pudding. Now, one would imagine oneself in a restaurant and in a confectioner's at the same time, with a laundry next door. Thirty seconds later, Mrs. Cratchit entered, her face crimson, but smiling proudly, with the pudding resembling a cannon ball, all speckled, very firm, sprinkled with brandy in flames, and decorated with a sprig of holly stuck in the centre. Oh! The marvelous pudding!"   - Charles Dickens, 'A Christmas Carol'

This Christmas, I bought myself an early present: a new Christmas Pudding mould. Every year for the past decade or so, I've been making a traditional English Christmas Pudding, in the same mould every year. Last year, for the first time, I made the pudding out in Clarke's Beach, and this year, when I went pulling supplies together for the pudding making, I found that I'd left the mould out around the Bay. So off to Living Rooms I went on Christmas Eve Day, and got myself a new mould (above).

A steamed pudding was not something I grew up with at Christmas time, but I love it, and have made the annual making of the pudding my contribution to Christmas dinner. It is thick, sweet, heavy, and probably terrible for you, but that is what the best traditions are all about anyway.

My pudding recipe varies slightly from year to year, depending on what I have in the kitchen, and on my mood. The rough recipe is as follow:

Act One - The Fruit of Spain

Flour of England, fruit of Spain, 
Met together in a shower of rain; 
Put in a bag tied round with a string; 
If you'll tell me this riddle, I'll give you a ring.

The answer, of course, is a pudding, which was often steamed in a bag. 

Dark raisins - 2 cup
Currants - 1 cup
Glazed Cherries - 1/2 cup
Cut mixed peel - 1/2 cup
Chopped Pineapple  - 1/2 cup
Shredded coconut - 1/2 cup
Ground almonds - 1/2 cup
White flour - 1/2 cup

Mix it all together in a large bowl, stirring well to cover the fruit with the flour. The exact mix of fruit can vary. This year, for example, I didn't have currants or coconut, or almonds for that matter. So I used more cherries, some ground walnuts, and a handful of trail mix. As long as you have about 4 1/2 cups of fruit and a 1/2 cup of flour you are fine. It should look something like this when it is done:

The mixing bowl I'm using is one I borrowed from "Aunty" Paula MacDonald. Last year, I interviewed Aunty Paula as part of the Here[Say] narrative cartography project for Water Street. She told about her memories of S.O. Steele's, which was THE place to buy china years ago. You can listen to her story here.   Remembering her tale of the bowl, I asked to borrow it for the mixing this year and it worked wonderfully!

Act Two - Suet and More Mixing

The key ingredient for a good pudding is suet. Suet is fat. That's it, plain and simple, just fat, usually beef, but sometimes mutton. I suspect there is some kind of vegetarian alternative for suet, but I can't imagine using anything else in a Christmas pudding. I've used coarse chopped and fine grated suet in my puddings, and I have to say I like the coarse ground suet better. I like the final texture it gives the pudding, more airy and with more nooks and crannies to soak up custard.

Chopped Beef Suet - 1 cup
Dry bread crumbs - 1 1/2 cups
Baking powder - 2 teaspoons
Baking soda - 1/2 teaspoon
Salt - 1 teaspoon
Ground cinnamon - 1 teaspoon
Ground nutmeg - 1 teaspoon
Ground ginger - 1/2 teaspoon
Flour - 3/4 cups

Mix it all together with the fruit. I sort of play this stage by ear as well, and I'm generous with the suet and the spices. A little bit extra suet doesn't matter, and I like a strong tasting pudding. Sometimes I'll use a bit more flour in the first stage, to cover the fruit, and then a bit less in the second half.

Then, beat together 3 eggs and 3/4 cup of milk. Add that to the mix and stir it up.

Grease your pudding mould. I've got two this year, my new one, and a smaller ramekin with a little individual pudding for Aunty Paula.  Here are the puddings, in their basins, ready to be covered and steamed:

Act Three - The Steaming

If your pudding pan or mould doesn't have a snap on lid like mine does, you can use a cloth or double thickness greased foil, and tie it down with string. Put it in a pot with boiling water 2/3 up the way of the pudding and boil for 3 hours, adding water as needed.

For the past couple years, I've used a Westinghouse two-tier vegetable steamer, which has a removable middle tray to accommodate the height of my pudding mould. It is a lot easier than watching a boiling pot. It has a 60 minute timer, so I just top it up with water and let it steam for an hour and then repeat for 3 hours.

As I write, my Christmas pudding is steaming merrily away. It will be served tomorrow as the grande finale of Christmas dinner. I've got half a flask of St. Remy Napoleon Brandy saved for the flaming, which looks great. Heat the brandy in a pan still it starts to steam a little, pop the pudding out of its mould, onto a plate with a bit of a lip. Pour the hot brandy over it, light it on fire, turn off the lights and carry it to the table amidst oohs and ahhhs.  A fine bit of drama to end your dinner!  I always serve it with custard, but you can serve it however you like.

If you are hungry to know about the history of puddings, you can read the Wikipedia article on Christmas Pudding or check out The Tradition of Christmas Pudding.

Merry Christmas!