Story & prop styling by Meghan Sheffield
Photography by Jeannette Breward
Christmas pudding, unappealing brown blob that it is, has always held a special place in my heart; a place where the rush and anxiety of the holidays have passed, the turkey has been unceremoniously demolished, the early dark has fallen, and the real peace of the season begins. Christmas pudding heralds that magical time — Christmas night.
When I found an old recipe titled “Mrs. Hunt’s Christmas Pudding” in my great-grandmother’s collection, I was intrigued. The yellowed, typewritten recipe card held a lot of mystery: unfamiliar ingredients, no instructions at all, and what I assume is a typo (sald must be salt.)
The ingredient list is, it turns out, still relatively simple to procure.
I wasn’t familiar with either, but mixed peel and citron are both candied citrus fruit peel (citron is made from the citron fruit, which doesn’t yield much flesh, but has a lot of flavourful rind).
Suet sounded like bird food to me, but is actually hard, raw, beef fat — which is also used in some bird feeders. I was able to find local suet, from grass-fed cows. Once I had it home, however, the real work began. The fat itself is held together by a thin, transparent covering of cartilage, which needs to be removed before grating the suet for adding to the pudding. It sounded straight-forward, but each time I thought I had a good grip on the stuff, it seemed to disappear. An hour later I decided I was close enough to the called-for pound of suet.
Once I had the ingredients assembled, I had to figure out how to make a pudding out of them.
I found the recipe in the yellow wooden box that holds my great-grandmother Audrey’s collection. Mrs. Hunt was her mother. Though the title sounds a bit formal, apparently it wouldn’t have been unusual for Audrey to refer to her mother that way.
“Very British,” was how my Nana summed it up when I asked.
I don’t know much about my great-great grandmother Louisa. She was born in 1880, and died in 1957, so my mother didn’t know her either. I know she grew up in Parkdale, on the west side of Toronto, after her father was injured by a streetcar horse and died from his injuries. She got married, raised two daughters, and buried a baby son. Louisa was of English descent, but her husband Phillip, was an English immigrant.
From the half-blank recipe card, I turn to the modern home cook’s best friend, googling: “how to make a Christmas pudding.” The top four hits are from the BBC, Nigella, and Jamie Oliver. If “very British” was the direction, I was on the right path.
Nigella’s ingredient list was closest to Mrs. Hunt’s, but most of the methods had the same basic steps — so simple that you might not even need to include them in a note to yourself, once you’d made a pudding once: put all ingredients into a bowl, and stir.
To my surprise, the ingredients filled my biggest mixing bowl. I wondered if, in my entire pudding-eating lifetime, I had ever seen a total of so much pudding. But of course — the ingredients measured by weight alone came to a combined 5 lbs of fat, nuts, fruit, and peel.
“Either in the traditional manner or just any old how;” was Nigella’s directive to stir, and I was intrigued. It turns out the traditional way to stir Christmas pudding is: on the Sunday before Advent begins (“Stir-Up Sunday”), from East to West to symbolize the travels of the three wise men, and a bit of stirring done by each family member, who makes a wish while they stir.
At this point, having worked my way through the suet and all the rest, it was nearly midnight, and my family were all tucked into bed for a long winter’s nap. I was on my own. I wished that the rest of the recipe would come together quickly, and ploughed on, hefting the ingredients around the bowl with my tallest wooden spoon, from East to West when I remembered it. The bright note in that dark night was the smell of the pudding as the parts came together: lemony, sweet, with a note of nutmeg.
The next morning, I patted a few spoonfuls into a buttered pudding bowl, which is essentially, a small, heatproof, mixing bowl. I topped it with a buttered bit of parchment paper, wrapped it up in foil, tied it with a string.
Using a steamer basket, in a pot, I steamed the pudding for about three hours. On the advice of my chef friend Randi, I put a pebble in the bottom of the pot, to give notice if it was in danger of running dry. After three hours, I took the pudding out of the pot, and unwrapping it set all my nerves to rest. It smelled like Christmas night. After replacing the foil and parchment, and set it in a cool spot in my pantry.
Now we wait. Pudding connoisseurs insist that the longer a pudding sits, the better. Some, with the help of brandy, keep a pudding all year, till next Christmas. This story doesn’t end with lip-licking descriptions of an incredible pudding. Like everything else in this month of anticipation, I’ll have to wait to reap the reward.
On Christmas Day, memories of picking through raw suet and muscle-straining wooden spoons behind me, I’ll pop the pudding in to steam for three more hours. When it’s warmed through and a rich, brown colour, I’ll tip it onto a platter, spoon on a sauce (I haven’t chosen yet — traditional hard sauce? My friend Patricia’s suggested lemon sauce? Nigella’s eggnog cream?), and serve it up to my own kids, the fifth generation to follow Louisa’s, and I’ll tell them a Christmas night story of the hundred year-old pudding.
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