The festival of Christmas in the UK is widely thought to have started around 596 AD when St Augustine landed in England and established Christianity.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the date of 25th December was based more on the ancient pagan festival of Saturnalia1 which had been celebrated by the Romans. The early Christians, rather than disclaiming this pagan festival, engineered a compromise and re-named the day Christ Mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This Holy Day was decreed to be celebrated on 25 December by Bishop Julius I of Rome in 350 AD. The earliest record of Christmas being celebrated in England, however, only dates back to 1043.
The Celtic culture of revering green plants led to the use of holly and mistletoe to decorate homes and churches and the pagan ritual of fire and rebirth crept in under the guise of the yule log. During the Middle Ages the carol was born and incorporated into the festivities. The main fayre of the Christmas meal during these times in unclear, but the well-off would certainly incorporate plenty of game, fowl and meat dishes alongside rich sweetmeats.
After a few difficult times during the strict protestant rule of Oliver Cromwell2, the festival slowly grew in popularity culminating in the creation of the 'Traditional' or 'Victorian' Christmas during the mid 1800s. By now other, more familiar, items had appeared. The Christmas tree, Christmas cards, crackers, pantomime... they were all inaugarated during the reign of Queen Victoria. For someone who was, famously, 'Not Amused' she certainly knew how to have a good time!
This Mini Series
This series of recipes and thoughts aims to introduce the sort of Christmas which I and many others probably remember from our youth. Although most of the hard work associated with preparing for the biggest meal of the year in England can be avoided by the purchase of ready-prepared items it can still be fun, if you have a little time, to 'do-it-yourself'. The collection of recipes provided are taken from tried and trusted ones which came mostly from family and also from a good level of cookery classes at school.
I hope you enjoy them.
Traditional Christmas Pudding
The Christmas pudding of today was completely different at its origin. It started life as a 14th century 'porridge' called frumenty.
This combined the unlikely ingredients of boiled beef and mutton with fruits, wines and spices and was more like soup than a pudding. It tended to be eaten as a fasting dish in preparation for the Christmas festivities.
By 1595 it had evolved into the more recognisable dessert we know today. It was thickened using eggs and breadcrumbs, more dried fruit was added and the addition of ale and spirits gave it much more flavour. It grew in popularity until, in 1664, the Puritans banned it as a 'lewd custom'. It was, mainly due to its rich ingredients, described as 'unfit for God-fearing people'.
It remained in obscurity until 1714 when George I, who developed a taste for plum pudding, re-established it as part of the Christmas feast. This was despite the fact that the Quakers objected, calling it 'the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon'. Having survived this villification, it had fully established its place on the Christmas menu by Victorian times. It was around this time that the tradition of placing a silver coin, a thimble or even a ring was established3. Although most often depicted as a sphere - because of the original method of wrapping it in a damp muslin cloth before steaming - these days it is more usual to find it basin-shaped. Christmas Pudding is often set alight with a small amount of brandy, decorated with a sprig of holly and served with Brandy Butter or Custard or Cream... or all three! It may also be served cold or reheated by frying gently in a knob of butter.
Making Your Own
Despite the ready availability of many good shop-made puddings, there is nothing quite so satisfying as making your own. Traditionally this should be made several weeks before Christmas to allow the fruits to mature and the mix to form the gooey texture so indicative of a good pudding. A Christmas pudding will quite happily last, in a good condition, for a year or more if kept sealed.
A Family Recipe
There are many family recipes handed down from generation to generation. Here is mine.
This will make enough to fill a 2 pint pudding basin.
- 8oz - 240 grams - Currants
- 8oz - 240 grams - Sultanas
- 1lb - 480 grams - Seedless Raisins
- 4oz - 120 grams - Mixed Peel
- 8oz - 240 grams - Breadcrumbs
- 8oz - 240 grams - Suet4
- 8oz - 240 grams - Soft Brown Sugar
- 4oz - 120 grams - Plain Flour
- 1 large carrot
- 1oz - 30 grams - Ground Almonds
- ½ tspn Mixed Spice
- 4 Eggs
- 2 tblsps Black Treacle
- 2 tbslps Golden Syrup
- ¼ tspn Grated Nutmeg
- Grated Rind of 1 Lemon
- 4 fl oz Brandy
- 8 fl oz Stout5
- Pinch of Salt
To make and bake
Use a large mixing bowl or very clean washing-up bowl and a wooden spoon.
Start by mixing all the dry ingredients together. Make sure that the fruit is clean and the sticky peel is separated.
Peel and grate the carrot and add to the mixture.
Beat the eggs well and add, along with the treacle and golden syrup.
Pour in the brandy
Add enough stout to make sure that the mix is moist without becoming too 'runny'.
Give the pudding a final stir, make a wish and leave to stand for a short while.
Meanwhile, grease the pudding basin.
Put the mixture into the basin and cover with either greaseproof paper or cooking foil. Two good tips for you:
- Make a fold in the foil to allow plenty of room for the mixture to expand without the foil splitting.
- Use household string to tie the foil in place and make a 'handle' with it at the same time. This way you can more easily lift the cooked pudding out of the pan when completed.
There are two alternative ways to cook the pudding, steaming6 and with a pressure cooker7
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Gently lower the basin into the pan, taking care that the liquid doesn't come over the top. Set your timer clock for 8 or 9 hours and admire the wonderful smells after about 3 hours. Check every couple of hours to make sure that the water hasn't boiled dry and top-up when neccessary. If you have made your string handle you should be able to lift the pudding out after the cooking time by using a wooden spoon... be careful though, a steam burn is very painful!
Place the basin in the pressure cooker and fill with water up to just under the lid. Place the pressure cooker lid on and use only the 5lb weight. Bring up to pressure, lower the heat and time for 2½ hours. Reduce the pressure slowly by running the cooker under the cold tap, remove the lid and use the wooden spoon to lift out the pudding.
If you used greaseproof paper, remove it and replace with fresh. Foil covers can be safely left if they are intact. Place the pudding in a cool, dark place until Christmas Day.
If you steamed your pudding you will need to allow another hour of steaming before serving the pudding. If you used the pressure cooker method you can pop the pudding back in and cook for a further half hour... just fire it up when you serve the main course and it will easily be ready.