By Faye Charpentier, History Program Director
Food has been a method of connecting people and sharing culture across time and place. And related to that role food plays, taste and smell are some of the most powerful triggers of memory. It’s no wonder, then, that food plays an important role in the holiday traditions of so many people. This year, I tried making a traditional Christmas dessert that is new to me, but likely seen on the Christmas tables of King’s Chapel members in the 1700s: a Christmas pudding.
As a homebaker and diehard fan of The Great British Baking Show, I have seen variations of these puddings, but had never seen one in real life. “Pudding” as I grew up with, is very different from the “puddings,” or “puds,” bakers are asked to make on the show. That said, special desserts of this variety likely would have been familiar to the colonial Anglicans who worshipped at King’s Chapel.
There are endless blogs and articles circulated this time of year relating to the history of Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding or figgy pudding, as it’s called in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Christmas pudding’s origins reach back to 14th-century England and a dish called frumenty, which combined beef or mutton with fruits and spices into a thick stew. Overtime, the dish evolved into a sweet dessert featuring dried fruit, which became more readily available in 16th-century England. By the 17th century, these puddings were culturally linked with Christmas. Early recipes for traditional Christmas puddings typically include dried fruits, suet, breadcrumbs, eggs, and alcohol such as brandy or rum.
A quick search for Christmas, figgy, or plum pudding results in numerous recipes with those same base ingredients. But in my personal attempt to recreate this traditional dish for my table, I had an additional challenge: making it vegan! As I don’t consume animal products, eggs were obviously out, but suet was as well. For many Americans today, hearing “suet” conjures images of hanging bird feeders, rather than a staple in traditional English baking. Suet is simply a raw, white fat, taken from the loins and kidneys of common livestock such as cattle and sheep. As a fat used in cooking and baking, suet is extremely rich and has a high smoke point, which is important when creating pastry dough.
Luckily, plant-based eaters abroad have found plenty of substitutes to make their Christmas puddings accessible to various diets. After browsing a few, I settled on attempting “The Ultimate Vegan Christmas Pudding,” created by food blogger Melanie McDonald. While the recipe is a modern take on the classic, this pudding recipe is still brimming with dried fruits, festive spices, and boozy flavor, as well as simple substitutes for the non-vegan ingredients. The recipe substitutes eggs with aquafaba -- the brine from a can of chickpeas that works surprisingly well in place of eggs in vegan recipes -- and coconut oil as the fat. The most challenging part of purchasing ingredients for me was actually selecting and locating the dried fruits at the store! Ultimately, I opted for a slightly different blend than in the recipe and used a combination of currants, raisins, candied ginger, figs, apricots and cranberries. I also opted to use dark rum instead of brandy as my liquor. Given rum’s place in Massachusetts’ colonial economy, perhaps King’s Chapel members may have used rum in their Christmas puddings as well.
But when to make the pudding? And how? I actually made this pudding a month ago, and it’s still sitting in my fridge! Tradition among Anglicans, particularly in Victorian England, calls for making the Christmas pudding the week before Advent begins, on a day dubbed “Stir-up Sunday.” The name comes from the Anglican liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer, which included the line “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” Its relation to pudding is essentially a pun - by the 19th century, pudding-making would often be done this Sunday, and each member of the household would take a turn stirring the thick batter, and make a wish for the new year. While you don’t have to make your Christmas pudding that far in advance, the alcohol in the dish serves as a preservative, and will keep the pudding until Christmas. Recipes, including the one I used, claim that the flavor of the pudding evolves over time, becoming even better by the time Christmas comes.
The recipe was pretty straightforward until it came to be time to cook the pudding. Rather than baking the pudding, it is steamed on a stovetop, which I had never done before. While I don’t have a “pudding basin,” a piece of cookware designed for steaming English puddings, I was able to repurpose a Pyrex bowl for the purpose. After soaking my dried fruits in rum, which created a potent aroma in the kitchen, and mixing up the rest of the ingredients, it was time to wrap and steam the pudding. Because you are partially submerging the pudding in simmering water, it’s important to properly wrap and tie parchment paper and foil around the top of the basin to prevent any water from entering and ruining the pudding! Once I had the technique down, it was time to steam it. It’s a good thing I had blocked off my afternoon, since the pudding needed to steam on the stove for 3 hours!
Luckily, when the time came to reveal the pudding - flipping it out of the basin and onto a plate - my Christmas pud came out beautifully! I garnished it with some evergreens, fresh figs, and cranberries, and served it to my family before Thanksgiving. Having never had a dish like this before, I was unsure exactly what it would taste like, but I can best describe the flavor as a sort of warm, boozy, fruity, thick bread pudding. The “warmth” of the pudding was not just from serving it slightly heated with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but also from the meld of spices and rum. I definitely understand the Christmas-y and wintry appeal of this treat!
With the pudding complete and aged throughout the Advent season, some enjoy their Christmas puddings with extra excitement: setting the pudding on fire! While I didn’t attempt this when we ate the pudding at Christmas, I had to try it before the pudding was gone. There does not seem to be a historical consensus, as far as I can tell, as to why people set their puddings ablaze on Christmas, but some suggest that the practice may harken back to pagan winter solstice observances. Regardless, it is quite the spectacle and is featured prominently in the Charles Dickens Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol:
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
After weeks of my leftover pudding sitting in the fridge and of my building up courage, I finally flamed it a few days before Christmas. After watching several Youtube videos and reading directions from BBC GoodFood and Tesco, which I figured were both good authorities on British food, I finally felt ready. Armed with my apartment’s fire extinguisher and jars of water, I readied my supplies: the pudding itself, a candle and matches, dark rum, and a ladle. Truly frightened of having a flaming saucepan of rum in my apartment, I opted to go with warming and lighting the rum in a ladle. After gently heating the bottom of the ladle over a candle to warm the rum, I carefully lit the ladle’s contents on fire and poured it over the pudding. To my delight, in a darkened room, you can see the orange and blue flames around the pudding. When I say it smelled absolutely incredible, I really mean it. In retrospect, I do wish I had infused the liquor with spices, as recommended in the BBC GoodFood directions. Most importantly, I only set the pudding on fire, and not my apartment. Once the flames died out, I figured I should give it another taste. While I was a bit skeptical about eating a month-old dessert that has been sitting in the back of my fridge, I can attest to the flavor deepening over time and the flaming liquor definitely added to the warmth and flavor!
While I don’t know if I’ll be adding Christmas pudding to my repertoire of holiday recipes, it was a fun adventure to learn about and attempt a modern interpretation of this classic. As I said at the start of this blog, food and memories are closely intertwined, and especially this year, recreating traditions on the table may be an important way to connect with loved ones and get through a difficult holiday season. While I am not able to celebrate the holidays with my family this year and won’t be making another Christmas pudding this week, my family’s traditional recipes -- from tourtière to Rhode Island pizza strips -- will play an important role in how I celebrate the holidays.
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