The past month has been full of food and wonderful memories, but unfortunately not much writing here at Too Many Chefs. The Critic and I made a traditional English Christmas dinner for over 30 family members and friends at my mother's house in Illinois. In addition to the usual turkey, stuffing, ham, sausages, bacon and vegetables, the Critic made his spectacular mince pies and I prepared three massive Christmas puddings. I also rediscovered my grandmother's recipe for lentil soup and read a few good books about food. The baby discovered a few new taste sensations, including pureed roasted potatoes and Cheerios. The Toddler discovered licorice laces, candy necklaces and goldfish crackers. It was quite a good month for food, all in all.
So one of my new year's resolutions is to document some of the recipes, despite the fact that the holidays are over and no one will be searching for a Christmas pudding recipe until December 2008. I've been making our own Christmas puddings for three years now and each year in the rush to the holidays I neglect to post the recipe in time. So here it is, 11 months early...
The first year I made a Christmas pudding, there was a misconception and a load of mistrust to be overcome. The Critic had been telling me for years that a true Christmas pudding needed to be prepared 4-6 weeks before Christmas and involved frequent dosing with alcohol. When I finally came to research the recipe, however, I could find no mention of this practice. All the recipes seemed pretty straightforward and at most included instructions on reheating the pudding on Christmas day. So I wrote my personal food hero, Nigel Slater. And, amazingly, I received a personal message from him the next day. The Critic was wrong. Christmas cake needs frequent dousing, but not the pudding. As for the mistrust, the Critic was so convinced that I wouldn't get the pudding "right" that he bought a couple of puddings in the UK, just in case. He doesn't do that any more. (Well, except for the pudding that found its way into my stocking this year, but that was more by way of a joke...)
He now fully admits that my Christmas pudding is a bit less dense, bit more moist and infinitely preferable to the store-bought ones. And I owe it all to Nigel. (From whom I also pinched a recipe, though I never follow it exactly.)
You can make this pudding a few days before you want to serve it and just reheat it on the day. Nigel suggests re-steaming it for 3 1/2 hours, which certainly works well. However, you can also pop it in the microwave for 7-10 minutes instead. If your pudding bowl is not microwave safe, re-steam it for 20 minutes to loosen the pudding from the bowl and then tip it onto a microwave safe plate, cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave it. Unlike most baked desserts, this pudding doesn't really suffer at all from being microwaved.
Nigel and Meg's Christmas Pudding (serves 8 generously)
175 g yellow raisins (Nigel calls for sultanas, but the Critic has never been able to satisfactorily explain to me what this means so I either use yellow ones or a mixed bag from Trader Joe's)
175 g raisins
75 g dried figs, chopped
60 g candied peel
50 g dried apricots
40 dark glace cherries, halved
75 ml brandy
50 ginger in syrup, chopped, plus 2 tbsp of the syrup*
1 apple, grated
1 orange, juice and zest
3 eggs, beaten
125g shredded suet**
175 g soft muscovado sugar (you can substitute light brown sugar)
125 g fresh breadcrumbs
90 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed spice
an old coin (sixpence is traditional, apparently, though my stepdaughter tells me her family stuffs the pudding with a variety of modern loose change)
To serve: 1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped, 1/2 cup brandy, 1 match or lighter
A note on the dried fruits: I have never actually followed this recipe as it is written above. Firstly, I don't know what sultanas are or what they would be called in the US or France. Secondly, I have this weird inability to distinguish between dates and figs and so have discovered that dates work well too. Thirdly, I sometimes don't have as many raisins as I think I do. So my advice is to assemble around 575 grams of the dried fruits YOU like, with an emphasis on big plump raisins. Other fruits which have found their way into my pudding include prunes, dried sweetened cranberries, currants, preserved mango and dried sweetened cherries. It's all good.
The night before you want to make the pudding, put all the dried fruits in a large bowl and stir in the brandy.
The next day, butter a 1 1/2 litre bowl liberally. The perfect pudding bowl is microwave safe, thick porcelain with a nice lip to it, to make tying its top on easy. I originally used a beautiful butter yellow Fiestaware bowl that came to me from my grandmother. Until I broke it, that is. This year, I bought a pudding bowl from The English Shop (12, rue Mesnil, 75016 Paris) which worked perfectly well but did not make my heart sing like the old yellow one did. It only cost a few euros, though, and I won't be as heartbroken when I break it.
In a large bowl mix the ginger, syrup, apples, orange juice and zest with the eggs, suet, sugar, crumbs, baking powder and flour. Add the fruit and brandy mixture and mix well. Pour into the greased bowl and even the top with a spoon. At this point, you can poke a well washed coin or two into the mix. Take a large piece of baking parchment or waxed paper and make a pleat in the center of it about an inch wide. Cover the bowl with the paper and tie it on the bowl tightly with a piece of string. If you have a thick lip on the bowl and a lot of confidence, you can also tie the string across the top of the bowl, making a handy loop to lift the pudding from the bowl when it is done.
If you have a large stock pot with a steam basket, it's ideal for this purpose. However, you can also steam the pudding by simply placing the basin in a large pot and adding a few inches of water. The main thing you want to worry about is checking every so often to make sure that the water has not boiled away. Bring the water up to a boil and then lower the temperature so that it's just barely boiling and keep it there for three and a half hours. Your windows will be steamed and the house will smell exactly like Christmas. Once it is cooked, remove the pudding from the pot. You can either tip it out onto a plate and serve it immediately or put it in a cool place for a few days. Nigel recommends removing the waxed paper cover and covering tightly with cling film, but I never bother personally.
To serve, reheat (if necessary, as mentioned above, in the microwave or with another 3 hours of steaming) and turn out onto a plate. Warm the brandy in a small saucepan. Fill a ladle with the warmed brandy, light it, and pour it over the pudding. Carry proudly into a darkened room to a chorus of "oooooohs". Blow out the flames and serve with a generous helping of whipped cream.
Below is a photo of last year's pudding in its steamer. The photo at the beginning of the post was taken by my brother this year, just as the Critic was pouring the flaming brandy over the pudding.
* If you can't find ginger in syrup, it's very easy to make: peel and finely chop 50 g fresh ginger and cook it over a low flame in a solution of 75 grams of sugar in 75 ml of water for half an hour.
** In the UK, you can buy vegetarian suet in most supermarkets, which is what I have done until this year. Because the pre-packaged dried vegetarian option was not available to me, I had to go to the butcher section of my mother's grocery store and buy a big old hunk of beef fat, a.k.a. suet. I grated it in my sister's food processor and it was remarkably easy. I didn't notice any taste difference in the end result.