THE CHRISTMAS PUDDING
By Ruth Minshull
My mother-in-law (who came over from England as a teenager) prepared many delicious family dishes that had been handed down for generations–but the recipes were not written down; they were all in her head.
Such was the case with the wonderful plum pudding–a rich, moist dessert that she served with every Christmas dinner.
One year, I decided I should learn how to make it, so I followed her around the kitchen as she prepared the pudding. Unfortunately, she was a handfuls-and-pinches cook. “I don’t really have a recipe,” she explained. “I just make enough for the pan that fits into my steamer.”
“Oh,” I murmured, as she grabbed a handful of flour–and then another, and another. How many handfuls are in a cup? I wondered. Of course, her hands were much smaller than mine. My head reeled.
“The spicing is important,” she advised, adding a pinch (or two or three) from several different containers. Was that cloves? Ginger? How many pinches make a teaspoon?
“It’s a good idea to plump the raisins and currents,” she said dumping part of a boxful of each into a bowl of warm water. Would that be a cup? A half-cup?
I gave up the whole idea when she produced a bowl from the refrigerator. “I usually grind up the suet the day before. It saves time.”
“Suet?” Do people really eat that stuff?
“Yes, of course,” she said, mixing it in with the indeterminate amount of flour, sugar and the unknown spices. “In fact, they called this ‘suet pudding’ at home. It was the poor people’s version of plum pudding. Well-to-do people made theirs with dried fruit,nuts and brandy.”
Whatever they called the concoction, I knew I wouldn’t be making it. This was long before fat had acquired the bad name it suffers today, so that didn’t worry me so much, but I was intimidated by the prospect of plumping and grinding–not to mention the blur of pinches and handfuls.
Some years later, after his parents were gone, my husband confessed that, as the holidays neared, he had a longing for his mother’s pudding.
Well, I experimented with making one. It was a dismal culinary failure. Even the dog wouldn’t eat it. For several holidays I tried different variations, and produced more flops. Then one year, with the yuletide season approaching, I was browsing through my pressure cooker book, when I found a recipe for steamed cherry pudding. What if I omit the cherries, add in raisins and currents (plumped, of course) and suet. I tried these substitutions, and was thrilled to find that I had produced the desired spongy texture, but the flavor wasn’t right. Back to the drawing board (well, the spice cabinet). After several more unsuccessful trials, finally with a bit of tweaking here and there I was satisfied that I had duplicated the essence of the original pudding.
My husband proclaimed it “just as good as Mother’s pudding–maybe even better.”
(Since there was none left to offer the dog, I knew I had a hit.) This became our holiday dessert: my very own version of the plum pudding.
Years went by, and the tradition continued. Eventually, my husband and I divorced, the children grew up and moved across the country. I continued to make the puddings, which were eaten when the family gathered for the holiday, or mailed when we did not. (I even sent one to my ex-husband every year.)
Then the no-fat phase began to dominate the American diet. One-by-one, we all conceded that we wouldn’t, couldn’t (or shouldn’t!) continue to eat that suet-laden dessert any more.
Holidays came and went, celebrated with pumpkin pies, mincemeat pies and cookies. That old rich, fat thing (what was its name?) was forgotten.
That is, I thought it was.
Then one year, my sons and their families came to spend Thanksgiving weekend with me in Florida where I was spending the winter. As the twelve of us sat around the table enjoying pumpkin pie, my oldest son said, “Mother, there’s only one thing I want from you for Christmas.”
“A plum pudding. For years, I’ve been ordering bread pudding in restaurants all over the country–looking for something that tastes like that pudding. But I can’t find it anywhere. Nothing comes close. Will you make one for me?”
“Well, OK” I said.
My other son said, “Hey! I want one too.”
My daughter-in-law gasped, “I can’t believe you agreed to that–so much fat!”
“I know, I know, but it’s just one day of the year.”
Little did I realize how hard this assignment would be. First, I couldn’t find the recipe. I thought they were all on my computer, but the pudding recipe simply wasn’t there. I must have erased it! After so many years, there was no way I could remember all the details.
I fretted for several days until I finally had an inspiration. The recipe might still be in my old card file back in Michigan. I called some friends at home and asked for their help. I told them where to get a house key and what to look for.
To my great relief they found the recipe. They e-mailed it to me and I went to work.
First I needed containers that would fit into my pressure cooker (which was tall but had a narrow opening). Finally, after searching department stores, kitchen stores and grocery stores, I bought several one-pound cans of coffee. The empty cans fit perfectly.
With time running short, I went in search of the ingredients. That was not easy either. I could no longer walk into any butcher shop or supermarket and buy a package of suet. People didn’t use the stuff any more. Eventually I was able to persuade a butcher to save some for me the next time he was cutting up a side of beef.
Meanwhile I was searching in vain for currents. I worried that there might be none left in the state of Florida. Are they fattening too? I wondered. Or were they on some endangered list? I was almost ready to give up when I discovered a couple of boxes in a little grocery store. Although I suspected that they might be left over from the Civil War days, I grabbed them up.
I made the puddings and some sauce to go with them and, with time running out, I sent them off by Fed-X.
They were happily received, but I knew they would now be expected annually, and (comfort food or not) I didn’t feel that I should continue to commit this dietary sin against my sons.
Perhaps I could devise a new version of the recipe, I mused. But what could I use in place of the suet? It was vital to the consistency, if not the flavor. There had to be another way. I’d seen applesauce recommended in some cookbooks (as a substitute for fat) so I tried it. Yuk! (I no longer had a dog, but I knew no self-respecting dog would have gone near this unsavory concoction.)
Now what? I needed something that would retain the flavor, but would give me the moist density that was the basic characteristic of the pudding. Well, I thought, there’s a similar density in carrot cake. What if I used carrots?
It seemed like a rather bizarre idea, but I tried it. To my amazement, it worked.
The fatless version was joyously accepted–and a new tradition was born. For several years now I have continued to send puddings to both of my sons and to my former husband as well.
I wouldn’t exactly call it a “health food”. I probably can’t call it a plum pudding (which never did have any plums, by the way). And it’s certainly no longer the old suet pudding.
I guess you could call this thing–that was imported, lost, recreated, abandoned, lost again, found, recreated, modified, Americanized and reincarnated–My Christmas Pudding Lite.
* * *
Read Full Post »