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December 22nd, 2011

Proof of the Pudding

nancy-80x80Last year, I had the pleasure of seeing Gerald Charles Dickens, the great-grandson of the author Charles Dickens, present a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol. Gerald clearly resembles his namesake, and his facial expressions as he brought to life the different characters in the story were priceless. But my favorite part of the evening was when Gerald embodied Mrs. Cratchit as she prepared to serve the Christmas pudding to the assembled Cratchit family. Here’s the condensed version of the scene used by Charles Dickens himself in his dramatic readings:

“Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone, —too nervous to bear witnesses, — to take the pudding up, and bring it in.

“Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose, — a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.

“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 pastry-cook’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.

“O, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”

And many a modern British family would not think of celebrating Christmas without a traditional pudding. But this pudding is not at all like what we think of as pudding in the United States—a creamy smooth, relatively bland desert. “Pudding” is the generic term for “dessert” in the U.K. Christmas pudding, though, is a specific dessert with a rich history. Though I confess I have never tasted this treat, from the typical ingredients used, I can conclude that it must be sweet, spicy, dense, and chewy. Last week, I blogged about mincemeat and its mystery ingredients. Christmas pudding (a.k.a. plum pudding because it originally contained plums) seems to be a recombination of many of the same ingredients—suet, dried fruits, candied fruit peel, and spices—held together with flour, breadcrumbs, and eggs. The mixture is formed into balls, wrapped in cloth, and aged for a few weeks, during which time it is basted with brandy or rum. It is then steamed or boiled to soften the texture. Just before serving, the dining room is darkened and the pudding doused with flaming liquor before being ceremoniously presented to appreciative oohs and ahs.

The plum pudding trade cards in my collection, which date to the 1870s, suggest that the role of carrying the pudding to the table in households of means was typically performed by a servant. Below, the king instructs his serving-man where to place the steaming dessert:

A pudding fit for a king

A pudding fit for a king

On this card, the bearer resembles a liveried footman:

Presenting the pudding

Presenting the pudding

The woman below appears to be a cook, with cheeks flushed from standing over a steaming copper pot:

A steamy job

A steamy job

Sometimes the task was assigned to a child, as on this trade card, which depicts either a servant boy or a wealthy child in period clothing:

Servant or heir?

Servant or heir?

The most nerve-wracking choice would be to entrust the flaming pudding to two small children in the family. Don’t try this at home, kids:

A recipe for singed eyebrows

A recipe for singed eyebrows

If you are not inclined to light your food on fire this holiday, you’ll find a simplified, flame-free version of a classic English Christmas pudding here (along with sources for a few harder-to-find ingredients). But why not try the real deal instead? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

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