A Dickens of a Christmas

This was a different kind of Christmas for us this year. Travis left for Ethiopia on December 26th so we decided to spend Christmas at home, far from family in Vermont or Seattle. Lucky for us some friends were also doing a Christmas at home. We had four kids running/crawling around Christmas dinner and a most inappropriate Cards Against Humanity game, all within a 5-minute drive from our house.

Now, our friend Thom is a cook after my own heart who glories in experimenting and is never daunted by any kitchen task. And apparently he has spent the last couple of holidays perfecting his Christmas goose. We had fun with our Christmas rabbit and chicken a couple of years ago, so of course we were game to go goosey.

In the days leading up to Christmas dinner it occurred to me that a goose is exactly what Bob Crachit’s family had for dinner in A Christmas Carol. Always on the lookout for a good theme, I decided to dive in with Thom and add to our Dickens dinner with a Christmas pudding. I’ve never seen one before, let alone made one, so I went into research mode.

Let’s start by discussing the term “pudding.” Google it, and you’ll pull up all kinds of interesting tidbits. For example: “Food historians generally agree the first puddings made by ancient cooks produced foods similar to sausages. 17th century English puddings were either savory or sweet and were typically boiled in special pudding bags. By the latter half of the 18th century traditional English puddings no longer included meat. 19th century puddings were still boiled but the finished product was more like cake. These puddings are still served at Christmas time. Modern steamed puddings descend from this tradition.” (http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpuddings.html)

One day I’d love to play with some sort of meat pudding, or a mincemeat pie, but that’s a project for the future, after I’ve mastered the art of steaming a pudding. And after my children are a) less picky or b) able to fend for themselves if they don’t want to eat what I’ve made.

So beef out, fruit in. I started with my trusty Fannie Farmer cookbook, always an excellent jumping-off point. She (not actually Fannie by now, this is the Marion Cunningham edition) briefly describes the process of steaming a pudding before including some recipes. Here are the salient points:

  • I could use suet, aka beef fat. This could be a nice compromise to not actually throwing some meat into the dessert. But where, in central Maine, do I find suet? I love me some Amazon (go Seattle!) but even I refuse to order beef fat off an internet mega-store.
  • Use a well-buttered mold or container, which must be tightly covered. Marion mentions a pudding mold lid or a double layer of foil tied with string. I could even use a coffee can with a plastic lid. Is it just me or is that the least appealing image ever, a lump of coffee-can-shaped pudding?
  • Boil gently. So, like, don’t get distracted by 5 year old boys that like to swear and 20 month old girls that like to play with toilet paper, wood ash, and empty beer bottles.
  • Use a sauce on top. Saucy!

I absorbed these basic points and moved on to the recipes themselves. Marion included a steamed chocolate pudding, an Ohio pudding, a fig pudding, a persimmon pudding, a sterling pudding, a Thanksgiving pudding, an English plum pudding and a cranberry pudding. Like the good student I am, I read them all. Hey, just cause I don’t follow recipes well doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy reading them. And they were fascinating. Who knew Christmas “pudding” is basically cake! Some had bread crumbs instead of flour and leavening. Some had white bread and scalded milk instead of flour and leavening. It’s apparent from reading these recipes that, once upon a time, these pudding-cakes were a means of using stale leftovers. Brilliant! A little of this, a pinch of that. Merry Christmas.

In the spirit of Christmas I went with Marion’s fig pudding recipe. I have to say, I LOVED making something that had a song to go with it: “Now bring us a figgy pudding, now bring us a figgy pudding….We won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some….”.

I started water boiling in my lobster/beer pot. Travis used my soup pot to melt down beeswax for candles, pretty much ruining the interior. The lobster pot did seem like an overkill but I didn’t have a lot of options and I was already mid-way through Christmas morning.

DSCN7713

Fortunately, the recipe was basic and easy. Finely chopped apples and dried figs, flour, sugar, a bit of salt, baking soda, and allspice. Some eggs. Some milk. It ended up being incredibly stiff, just barely past a baking-powder bread dough or cookie dough. Definitely not pourable.

And while I stared at the dough and pondered adding a bit more milk, I realized that there were three points here telling me all was well. First, this was being boiled. How on earth would such a moisture-laden form of cooking actually cook something that was already filled with liquid? Second, a sauce is served on top. Why would you pour sauce over something really moist? Third, puddings can be wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth and aged, and aging something moist mostly leads to grossness and mold rather than complex flavor. So I figured all was well, and in an act of supreme self-restraint I did not tamper with the recipe.

Instead, I spooned the dough into the well-greased bundt pan (who actually owns a pudding mold or pudding bag?), then wrapped a piece of foil over the top and tucked it around the rim, then wrapped another piece of foil and secure it with yarn. I placed it on top of mason jar lids in the lobster pot, nearly burning the undersides of my upper arms. Then I tried for a gentle boil and walked away for 2.5 hours.

I almost burned myself again taking the “pudding mold” out of the pot. I held my breath as I unwrapped the foil….. perfection! I think. I’ve never seen a steamed figgy pudding before. But it smelled great. It had a nice bounce to it and was cooked perfectly through.

figgy pudding

I brought sauce supplies to our friends’ house and made up a basic custard sauce, again from Fannie Farmer.

We all agreed it was lovely, and when Figgy Pudding came up on an answer card when playing Cards Against Humanity it just seemed like fate agreed. It was a lovely Dickens of a Christmas.

 

 

 

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