Monday, December 20, 2010
Sharing Christmas Pudding Memories
As Christmas draws near, I have been thinking a lot about those wonderful family gatherings of past. Our large extended family always gathered at Mom and Dad’s either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to celebrate all together. Each of us children had our own homes and families and spent time in our own homes but we never missed the gathering with our parents at their home. Christmas just wasn’t complete unless we made the trek to Mom and Dad’s for the great food and precious time to be together. Mom made the best chili and oyster stew in Nebraska. Her chili was more like soup than thick stand alone chili but it was the best and not one family member remembers those special times without recalling that chili. She always made it by the gallons too. All of her children and grandchildren are good cooks but our varied chili recipes never tasted quite the same as Moms’ chili. The evening was always topped off with a dish of Mom’s suet Christmas pudding, just “suet pudding” as our family always called it. The thought of that rich, warm, and luscious dessert always brings back the flood of old memories.
Our holiday times together were often highlighted by watching Mom and Dad open their special gifts from the whole family. We all piled on the furniture and around the floor to watch them open the Christmas gifts from everyone. Watching them delight in their new treasures was better than all the gifts any of us could receive. Dad, especially, was thrilled with anything he got. Beautiful collectible books, western figurines, American Indian artwork, motorcycle magazines, humorous motor gadgets, long red neck scarves and especially the unique handmade trinkets from all the grandcildren were all delights to him. I remember the year that his brother from Idaho sent him a real “turd bird”. They always exchanged something humorous. We all laughed until we cried but I think it was one of the best presents that Dad received that year. It sat on his desk in his gun room for many years to come as a great conversation piece and always called up the great memories of that particular Christmas eve. It did not matter what it was or if it fit or not, he never exchanged anything… but put it to use one way or the other and if it didn’t fit, he just modified it! He had a great laugh that delighted especially the kids and it was truly a jolly laugh, not unlike old Santa himself!
While the wonderful aroma of the steamed Christmas suet pudding was filling the house and the fragrant rum sauce for topping drifted in the air we often spent time singing around the organ in the living room. I played some and sister-in-law, Ruby, was the accomplished musician. I don’t think any of us were very blessed with beautiful voices but that didn’t matter, we sang and played just the same. Of course the traditional Christmas carols were performed but we made quite a ruckus with such presentations as “Alley Cat” and “The Bird in the Gilded Cage”. Dad often played the banjo or occasionally the violin in accompaniment, always signing along too. With sometimes near 20 family members in the compact living room singing our hearts out, looking back, it was enough to scare even Santa away. He always seemed to show up though so maybe we weren’t as bad as I remember. We certainly did our part to rejoice in the season! Even the Lord must have been pleased because we were blessed with many years of celebrating and being all together for Christmas.
Anticipation grew among us all as we waited for Mom to announce that the suet pudding was ready to eat. Her special gift to us all was the warm and loving home she had worked so many years to provide. She was a cook extraordinaire, not fancy dishes but the best homemade food there was. She collected recipes both old and new but I never once saw her resort to using one as her lone road map to culinary success. She had the natural touch and everything was wonderful. She always said her Mother was a great cook so I think she surely came by it naturally. Last night and ironically while looking for another recipe, I found the copy of that old Christmas pudding recipe. It is large probably about ten by fourteen inches and was folded into a small bundle and had been wedged in the bottom of Mom’s old recipe box, under many other recipes, clippings etc. Over the years it has been folded and refolded until the folds are tearing and parts of it are nearly separated. Looking at that old Christmas Suet Pudding recipe, one would have to assume she could just make it work as the recipe itself is a tattered and torn paper with the original ingredients written in the hand of my Grandma, Pearl Moore, and just later notes added to the page by my Mom. Notes that only she knew exactly what they meant. The joy of finding that precious piece of paper cannot be expressed. It is my Christmas treasure. I tried to make Mom’s suet pudding only once since she has been gone as I could never find just the right recipe. I had looked but just didn’t have her original and had watched her many times over the years as she made the tasty concoction but never paid enough attention to the detail. I sit here thinking that if I could only go back once more and watch and learn, those shortcomings of youth indifference often come back many years later as we realize the missed opportunities.
As time went on and it was getting late on Christmas Eve, finally it was served and it was so worth the wait. The memories, the smells, the taste; they all come rushing back as I fondly hold the old paper and write this blog. Although the family gatherings had been wonderful, that pudding cake was the final treasure, the sweet ending to every Christmas gathering for many years in the past. New traditions can now be passed on to my children and grandchildren as they will have the copy of Grandma and Mom’s Suet Christmas pudding. I hope it will encourage them to make the pudding and serve it as part of their celebrations as they create their own fond family memories.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS PUDDING:
Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding (because of the abundance of prunes), originated in England. It is traditionally made five weeks before Christmas, on or after the Sunday before Advent. That day was often deemed "Stir-up Sunday," and each family member or child in the household gave the pudding a stir and made a wish.
The rich and heavy pudding is boiled or steamed, made of a heavy mixture of fresh or dried fruit, nuts and sometimes suet, a raw beef or mutton fat. My Mom always used fresh ground beef suet that she ordered from the old local meat market. Modern recipes say that vegetarian suet may also be used for a lighter taste. The pudding is very dark, almost black, and for extra flavor can be sprinkled with brandy or other flavored alcohols as it is wrapped for storage. The puddings used to be boiled in a "pudding cloth," but today they are usually made in glass baking dishes, baking crockery, fancy pudding tins or even tin vegetable or coffee cans like my Mom always used.
Many households stirred silver coins (for wealth), tiny wishbones (for good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift), a ring (for marriage), or an anchor (for safe harbor) into the mixture, and when served, whoever got the lucky serving, would be able to keep the charm. Now you can buy special little trinkets at any large culinary store that are made for baking into the concoction.
After the pudding has been steamed, it is cooled, removed from the baking container, wrapped in parchment and kept in a cool dry place for several weeks or longer. Mom always froze extra and it keeps very well, even for months. It will need steamed for a couple hours more on the day it is served. There are different ways Christmas pudding is served. Some decorate it with a spray of holly, douse it in brandy or set it on fire as it is brought to the table. Mom always served it in individual dishes with the warm rum sauce and a dollop of cream. We sat around the living room eating the pudding and ending a special night as a family.
Christmas pudding may be garnished with brandy butter, rum butter, hard sauce, cream, or even with custard. My Mom made a homemade vanilla butter sauce with a few drops of rum extract or real rum added and topped it with a small dollop of whipped cream!
MOM’S CHRISTMAS SUET PUDDING RECIPE:
One Cup bread crumbs
One Cup flour
One Cup fresh ground suet
One Cup sugar
½ Cup dark molasses
½ Cup sweet milk
One tsp. baking powder
One tsp. each of allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves
One cup raisins, currants, or any kind of dry fruits
(she usually used a mixture of all!)
One cup of finely chopped nuts
Mix together all the dry ingredients. Stir in the eggs and mix through well. Turn the mix into 4-1pint or 2-2 pint lightly-greased pudding basins or tin cans. Put a circle of baking parchment and foil over the top of each basin and tie securely with string or rubber band. Put the containers in a large steamer of boiling water and cover with a lid. Steam puddings for 3 - 5 hours, topping the boiling water off from time to time if necessary. If you don't have a steamer, put the basins in a large pan on inverted saucers on the base. Pour in boiling water to come a third of the way up the sides of the pudding bowls or cans. Cover and steam as before. Cool. Change the baking parchment and foil covers for fresh ones and tie up as before. Store in a refrigerator or you can freeze until Christmas Day. To serve the pudding on Christmas Day, steam for 2 hours and serve with brandy butter, rum sauce, cream or home-made custard.