The days are sharp, short and cold now.
I find myself looking at the weather radar screen for the striations of pale blue that tell me that snow is on its way. Yes. I want snow at this time of year. And Toronto tends to have a force field around it that pushes snow in every direction but inward.
Yes that was a taunting jab at the gods.
Canadians are completely bonkers about this. A White Christmas is more than a movie – it’s a national rite. I get a little thrill from seeing catalogues of sweaters, slippers, and snow sliders. I buy apple cider by the jug. I can’t do anything about a fireplace without setting off the smoke alarms, as we don’t have a fireplace.
I know what it is. I’m looking forward to Christmas – for the sense of festivity, for the food.
And an important ritual has just passed. Mum has finished making her Christmas puddings. And she’s written down the recipe for the first time in her 85 years. (Okay I give her a waiver for the first decade…maybe two.)
If you like Christmas fruitcake (I know, I know I’m talking to a select audience)…are partial to the deep scent of allspice, cloves and sweetness…and you haven’t tried Christmas pudding…it’s kind of a combination of naughty and nice. And maybe, just maybe, an acquired taste.
I still remember one Christmas…when I was about 9 – back when we dressed up for Christmas dinner – ladies in long dresses, men in suits and ties, when the ritual of the Christmas pudding hit its stride. The pudding was always brought on a platter from the kitchen to the dining room in a kind of procession like a birthday cake…the lights went dim, then in came a flaming mound of pudding – the blue alcohol-ho-ho-ho-lic flames tickling the entire pudding – right down to the plate. There was a plentiful supply of brandy. And there were cheers all round.
And I hated it. I loved the cream and the custard that went with it…but the pudding. Yuck. Everyone was so happy to see the platter come in. And I burst into tears. Sobbing, needy tears. “Why – sob - can’t – sob - I – sob – like – sob - Christmas pudding? What’s wrong with me?”
I got cuddled and calmed and given a bowl of peaches to have with my cream…but I still felt the indignation of not being a part of it, and not ‘getting’ it.
But I wasn't alone. The Christmas pudding world is split decisively and irrevocably between those who love and those who hate it.
As it turns out I grew up to LOVE it – especially my Mum’s – and am now making up for some seriously lost time.
Of course, I found out that the majority of the people in my world would choose the canned peaches and cream over anything like Christmas pudding.
Which is fine. More for us right?
Delia Smith suggests 6-8 weeks and no more). That said - Mum told me her aunt found an old Christmas pudding in the larder that had been put there during the war and forgotten. About five years later they discovered it during a larder excavation and decided to give it a go in the steamer. She said it was delicious - although you could only stomach a small slice as it was so rich...and in a time of such deprivation...rich is as good as it gets.
This is a mashup of Mum’s various recipes and experience with Delia Smith’s recipe…the best kind of mashup.
My Mum’s Christmas Pudding (adapted from Delia Smith’s Christmas) and how it looked on Christmas night
Makes 2 - 1 pint puds
4 oz. suet, shredded (if you’re a vegetarian, this is not for you. I find suet in the freezer section of the market, usually next to the tubes of sausage meat)
2 oz. flour
4 oz. breadcrumbs
1 tsp. ground mixed spice
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
“a good pinch” of ground cinnamon
8 oz. dark brown sugar
4 oz. sultanas
4 oz. raisins
10 oz. currants
(the recipe does call for 1 oz. candied peel, but I draw the line at candied peel…ugh…so we add a little more of the other dried fruit, or add dried cranberries.)
1 oz. chopped almonds
1 small apple, peeled, cored, finely chopped
Zest of ½ large orange
Zest of ½ large lemon
2½ oz. barley wine (Mum has never used any of these liquors in her pudding…)
2½ oz. stout
2 tbsp. rum
Mum always uses brandy or cognac, and used the rum for the first time this year. Use any malt liquor, she says. She’s used rye and/or whisky. She has also topped up with apple juice if she doesn’t have quite enough.
The day before: Take a large mixing bowl, mix together the suet, flour, breadcrumbs, spices and sugar.
Gradually mix in all the dried fruit and nuts. Add the apple and orange and lemon zest.
In a smaller bowl mix the liquor, then add the eggs and beat thoroughly.
Here comes the muscle part: add this liquid concoction to the other ingredients and mix thoroughly.
I love this part in Delia Smith’s recipe: “It’s now traditional to gather all the family round, especially the children, and invite everyone to have a really good stir and make a wish…”
It should be sloppy. Cover the bowl and leave overnight.
Next day, prepare two lightly-greased pudding basins. Split the mixture between them. Cover them with a double sheet of wax paper and a sheet of foil and tie it securely with string. (Another gem from Delia: “…it’s also a good idea to tie a piece of string across the top to make a handle.”)
Put the pudding basin in a steamer, over a pot of simmering water and steam it for 8 hours (steam both puddings for the same length of time - even if in two separate steamers). Keep an eye on the water level and keep adding boiling water from the kettle when it’s getting low.
When it’s done, let it cool. Replace the wax paper and foil with fresh ones.
Keep it in a dark, cool place until Christmas Day.
To reheat it fill a pot with water and bring it to the boil. Put a steamer on top, turn the heat down to a simmer. Put the pudding in the steamer, cover, and let it steam for approximately two hours. Keep an eye on the water level - we've all made the mistake of letting it boil dry…
To serve it slide a knife or spatula around the outer edge of the pudding, place a plate upside down on the top of the pudding bowl, then quickly turn it over. If you’ve loosened the pudding well enough, you should be able to pull the pudding bowl off and reveal a beautiful Christmas pudding all ready to go on the plate. Except for one thing...
The flaming cognac!
Heat a ladle full of brandy or cognac on the stove…suspend it over the pudding and get someone to light a match and bring it close to the ladel – please watch your arms and assorted body parts at this point. Once the brandy is alight, pour it over the pudding – Delia says to do this at the table…not sure how you walk from the kitchen to the table with a flaming ladle of brandy…but…since my kitchen and dining room are one, I can pour the flaming brandy directly onto the pudding and bring the plate with flaming pudding to the table…still pretty spectacular.
And wayyyyyy better than canned peaches. Seriously.
Serve with whipped cream or rum butter or custard…and may whatever you and your family wished for come true...