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Ah, the scent of pine logs, roasting chestnuts; the clink of sleigh bells and the hum of carols; the gathering of family around warm fires, set against the glow of the Christmas tree. It’s that time of year, and whether your family resembles a tableaux-vivant of a Norman Rockwell painting or not, we all have the same fantasy of what Christmas should look like. This notion is based largely, believe it or not, on Coca-Cola commercials. The very idea that Santa Claus dresses in fuzzy red pajamas is based on early Coke marketing campaigns. Santa Claus evolved from Saint Nicholas, who is actually the patron saint of sailors, but who grew to be associated with Christmas gifts because of a story in which he helped the daughters of a destitute family avoid prostitution by secretly giving them gifts of coins—not quite as wholesome a story as the ones about Kris Kringle and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but there’s a certain charm to it.
One stalwart of the holidays is the baking of a Christmas pudding—and by pudding, we mean it in the British sense, which is to say that it is synonymous with dessert. Christmas Pudding, more specifically, is part of a long Anglo-Germanic tradition of baking a moist cake, drenched in a sauce and/or icing, as the finale to the Christmas dinner. The earliest references to a dessert of this type date back to medieval England (although medieval Germany has a number of similar variations). The oldest recipes are called “plum pudding,” or sometimes just “pud.” The basic formula is a dense, moist cake featuring dried fruit. The term “plum pudding” is actually a false-friend, as no recipe for these cakes features plums—the Victorians called raisins “plums,” so it’s really a heavy raisin cake that is bound with egg and suet, with frequent and generous additions of treacle and a mighty seasoning of nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, all-spice, and ginger in some combination. The presence of suet (literally beef or mutton fat) helps to explain why these cakes are rather heavy. Brandy or rum also feature, which makes the cakes built to last—they are often aged, sometimes for as much as a year, preserved by the lacing of liquor.
Victorian recipes called for the dough to literally be boiled or steamed in a bag, known as a “pudding cloth,” hung to dry and settle, then eventually unwrapped to serve. They are often topped with warm custard, brandy butter, sweet béchamel, or other creamy sauce. This ain’t exactly on your diet, but it is Christmas, after all… In Food and Cooking in Victorian England, author Andrea Broomfield explains that, in the Middle Ages, “pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every member of the family stir it in turn from east to west, to honor the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction.” That may be, although it sounds suspiciously like a theologian adding mythology to a more recent recipe—no similar recipes survive prior to the 17th century. The probable predecessor to Christmas pudding that dates to the 15th century is the recipe for “mince pies.” When I was studying at Cambridge in England, I was always confused by these “mince pies” that popped up around the holidays. Mince is usually a term for ground meat, but these were sweet: little pie crusts filled with a “mince” of dried fruit and spices, eaten with coffee or tea. The term is one that originally referred to meat pies. Before modern preservatives were available, leftover meat at the end of the butchering season was preserved by mixing it with dried fruit (which acted as a sort of preservative) and then sealing the mixture from air by baking it into a tight pastry case. These were large, heavy things that could feed a band of hungry knights. The combo may sound funny now, but in truth we eat meat with fruit often—take Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce as an example. But these days, “mince pies” leave out the meat, which means that they are more appealing to dunk in coffee than they otherwise might have been.
By now you’ll probably have noticed that I’ve peppered this article with words like “heavy” to describe Christmas puddings. To be honest, I’m not much of a fan. They can be over-sweet for my taste, the combo of dried fruit soaked in alcohol and treacle, then topped with lush custard, just makes me want to take a nap by the fire. Which may be precisely the point. But I have a different, still British, favorite pudding to make over the holidays. Sticky Toffee Pudding. It’s got a great name, and I’ve tasted it wherever I see it on the menu. It is simply a moist cake made with pureed dates, giving it a caramel taste. And it’s topped with a caramel sauce. When studying in England I used to throw dinner parties, but that was a lot of work. I soon realized that I could have the same social gathering if I just made dessert, and so I initiated the Midnight Pudding Society at Cambridge University, where friends would gather to eat sticky toffee pudding (and occasionally smoke shisha, wear black tie and no shoes and play croquet by moonlight, but that’s another story).
Here is my recipe, made as simple as possible:
Professor Charney’s Sticky Toffee Pudding
Preheat the oven to 350/180. Grease a baking dish. Puree or finely chop 250 grams of pitted dates In a large bowl, combine the dates with 250ml of hot water, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, a pinch of salt, 250 grams of flour, 50 grams of warm butter, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, one shot of rum or brandy, and 100 grams of cane sugar. You can optionally add golden syrup, which the Brits love to do, but I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. Mix and pour into baking dish. Bake for around 30-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the “pudding” comes out almost dry—but do not overcook! While baking, make the sauce.
The easiest caramel sauce of all is to heat 500 ml of heavy cream (or milk, if you’re trying to be “good”), and stir in 50 grams of cane sugar and 50 grams of white sugar until it all melts. Add optional rum, brandy, or vanilla bean to the sauce. You can also go lighter on the sugar and have simply a warm cream sauce, if you want the “light” version.
Slice the pudding, place slices into bowls, and cover with the sauce. Serve warm. And have a very merry Christmas!