Christmas PuddingBy amy • • Dec 20th, 2009 • Category: Columns, Prepared Foods, Sweets
Holiday necessity or Victorian monstrosity? Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen – and found Canadians divided on the topic of plum pudding. Many of us – especially those of British descent – love this fugly-looking and mystifyingly delicious olde worlde relic (one scion of Upper Canada says: “It’s pure ambrosia. When you cook it, an irresistible aroma of cloves and fruit pervades the whole house.”). On the other hand, large swathes of our population – especially those who have no cultural acclimatisation to plum pudding at all – dread the moment when it arrives on the table (“It looks blobby and sinister”). Shelf Life takes the long view. If nothing else, this wonderfully loaded mound deserves serious respect. For starters, plum pudding is wily (it hasn’t got plums in it per se – the ‘plum’ refers to dried fruit in general and now-vestigial prunes in particular); it has equal if not more heritage credibility than anything else on the Christmas dinner menu; and its classic recipe is not for slackers or dieters, especially the suet part.
Today, a typical Christmas pudding is a mixture of raisins, currants, sultanas, chopped cherries, chopped almonds, various fruit peel and rind, breadcrumbs, spices, flour, eggs, shortening (or suet) and alcohol – usually stout or brandy – all of which is pressed into a ceramic bowl, covered, and slow–cooked (very slow-cooked). It is often served doused in brandy and set aflame, and eaten with hot custard, cream, or hard sauce (a sort of rock-like vanilla icing). Before the late seventeenth century plum pudding was a mess of pottage (a savoury thick stew or soup); before that it was a runny, Monty Pythonesque mixture of mutton and root vegetables. It was the Victorians who eliminated the last bits of hoof and stumps of parsnip, doubled up on the sweet ingredients, placed it firmly beside the Christmas hearth, and gave the world Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.
Dickens loved writing about food, especially family meals. His work is full of vivid descriptions of bustling kitchens and ruddy, warmly-lit families at the dinner table, downing tripe and eels with gustatory glee. In A Christmas Carol, a plum pudding takes centre stage. In a passage that could melt the hard hearts of pudding haters everywhere, the author makes clear that this once-a-year treat is tremendously exciting for a humble household like the Cratchits. Here is Dickens’ description of Mrs. Cratchit’s Yuletide piece de resistance:
She entered the room, flushed “but smiling proudly; with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in a half-a-quartern of ignited brandy and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”.
Right there, right then, Shelf Life is willing to bet that these people wouldn’t have traded their Christmas pudding for, say, a round of probiotic yoghurts or dabs of wasabi-coconut foam. Nope: like a lot of us, they understood that when the festive, flaming chunk of fat and sugar at last descends on the table, there really is peace on earth.
Channeling their inner Victorian are this week’s expert judges: Elizabeth Baird, executive food editor, Canadian Living magazine, and author of the award winning “The Complete Canadian Living Baking Book”; Donna Dooher: chef, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen; and Malcolm Jolley, editor, Good Food Revolution, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every product in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between zero and five stars. Each plum pudding was cooked in a microwave oven to package specifications (and was not served flambee).
Results: Cheers to the pudding from Metro stores – when their own Irresistibles brand came down the chimney it looked pale and daft but tasted surprisingly festive. Judges equally enjoyed Coles brand Guinness Plum Pudding, imported from the UK, which tied for first place. The other import, Cottage Delight, put us back $36.00 (from Holt Renfrew), but scored firmly in the take-it-or-leave-it range. As for the lowest performing brand, Crosse and Blackwell, we were bummed by the glum plum.
Off The Menu: Shelf Life didn’t have the time or the facilities to steam-heat these puddings, so we opted to prepare them the high-tech way (ie, by following their microwave instructions). In retrospect, we wish we’d had the opportunity to use the old-fashioned method, because the stove might have given them an indefinable extra something – a certain culinary gravitas, maybe. But be warned: puddings of this size take on average one and a half hours to steam heat (partially immersed in boiling water, with constant topping-up as the water evaporates). For those of you who have room for more sweets check out our review of this season’s hit treat – the organic candy cane.