GETTING AHEAD FOR CHRISTMAS: Traditional Christmas Puddings

When I think back to the palaver my mother went through with the annual ritual of making the Christmas puddings, not to mention mincemeat for mince pies and Christmas cake, it is shockingly easy to make them today. All you do is stir all the ingredients together and steam the mixture in pudding basins. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the length of time they take to cook.

When I was a child, stir up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent and the traditional time to make Christmas puddings, was the official start of the run-in to Christmas. It followed days of tedious preparation. The fruit had to be washed and dried and some had to be pitted as well. Candied citrus peel didn’t come neatly chopped and ready for use, but in big, stiff, hard pieces. It was the days before food processors, so bread for crumbs had to be dried then rubbed through a special big round sieve with wooden sides. We lived surrounded by relatives and they all trooped in to stir the stiff, intoxicating pudding mixture and make a wish. The next day it was packed into white china pudding bowls, covered with calico and tied with strips torn from the cloth. My dad was dispatched to borrow a multi-tiered steamer from his family home and the puddings steamed away all day, misting up the windows and filling the house with the smell of Christmas coming.

I went for years without making my own puddings, relying instead on a stock-pile of my mother’s. When she died, I feared the family recipe had gone with her to the grave but one cousin, it turned out, had salvaged a book of her mother’s hand written recipes. It went with her when she emigrated to Queensland where she began a tradition of making Christmas puddings to give away as prizes at her husband’s ballroom dancing classes. Many of the cakes and puddings, particularly Christmas recipes, will have been handed down through the generations of our mothers’ family. The pudding is very dark and very fruity yet light and succulent with a rich, mellow flavour and spicy back notes. It is far superior to any Christmas pudding I have ever eaten. My mother served it with brandy butter, custard and cream. Magically, or so it seemed, everyone got a lucky silver sixpence in their portion. My father used to slip them in as he served the pudding but a beady-eyed cousin says theirs were dispersed through the mixture in a fold of greaseproof paper.

The quantities given make two family-size puddings. The second is a splendid Christmas gift for some lucky person or tucked away for next year. I am tempted to make several little puddings and solve all my Christmas present problems in one fell swoop.

Leftover pudding, wrapped in waxed paper then foil, will keep for months. It freezes perfectly but why bother when it keeps so well? When I was about eight, one of my cousins taught me how to fry a slice of Christmas pudding in butter and eat it slathered with cream. It’s still one of my favourite treats of Christmas, but I recommend hoarding a slice or two to lift the spirits on a cold and miserable February afternoon.

One little tip concerning cloves: pinch off the ball and crush that to make ground cloves, don’t bother with the stalk.

Makes 2 puddings, each serving 6-8

Prep: 1 hr

Cook: 7 hours; 5 hours initial cooking, 2 hours before serving

225g raisins

225g currants

225g sultanas

200g cut mixed peel

225g shredded suet

500g dark muscovado unrefined cane sugar

225g fresh breadcrumbs from day-old bread

75g plain flour

1 level tsp freshly grated nutmeg or ground cinnamon

½ (half) level tsp ground cloves

¼ (quarter) tsp salt

50g blanched almonds

1 carrot

1 Bramley cooking apple

2 lemons

3 large eggs

150ml brandy, whisky or rum

large knob of soft butter

you will also need: 2 x 1.2 litre pudding basins, greaseproof paper or baking parchment, foil and kitchen string

Tip raisins, currants, sultanas and mixed peel into a very large mixing bowl. Add suet, sugar and breadcrumbs. Sift the flour, nutmeg and cloves into the bowl. Add salt and chopped almonds; I prefer to do this by hand but use the pulse button if you do it by machine. Trim, scrape and grate the carrot into the bowl. Quarter the apple, cut out the core and remove the peel. Grate over the carrot. Grate the lemons (I use a microplane grater) over the top on the smallest hole of the grater and squeeze the juice through a sieve into the bowl. Whisk the eggs with a fork until smooth with half the brandy. Add to the bowl. Stir thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Lavishly butter two 1.2 litre pudding basins. Fill the pudding basins and cover with a disc of greaseproof paper. Pleat a large piece of foil and place loosely over the top. Tie securely, going round twice, with string under the rim of the basin, then loop a handle across the top, allowing room for the pudding to rise. Repeat with the second pudding. Stand the puddings on a trivet in a large saucepan with a good fitting lid. Add sufficient boiling water to come two-thirds the way up the basin, fit the lid and boil for 5 hours. Check every hour or so and top up with more boiling water. Leave the puddings to go cold. Remove the foil and paper disc. Spoon on the remaining brandy. Re-cover with a fresh disc of greaseproof paper, wrap the entire pudding in greaseproof and then in foil. Store in a cool, dark place for at least until Christmas Day (ideally a month) to mature. Remove foil and greaseproof, then re-cover with a greaseproof disc and foil as before. Steam for a further 2 hours. To serve, place a hot plate over the uncovered pudding, quickly invert and decorate with a sprig of holly. To flame with brandy, heat about 3 tbsp of brandy in a ladle or small pan, pour over the pudding and ignite in the kitchen (if it isn’t too far away).