OK. I’ll admit it, I am not very fond of the modern Christmas. I simply can’t get into the spirit of Santa, Rudolf, dinky elves, even the whole story of the shepherds, angels, and nasty King Herod, behind which there is hardly a scintilla of truth. Also, the ‘Festive Season’ seems to start earlier each year turning Shopping Malls into Jingle Hells well before Thanksgiving.
However, underneath this gallimaufry of kitsch, there are older traditions that I find much more inspiring: the celebration of the end of the year, of looking forward to the rebirth of the world in springtime, and the return of light. So I suppose I’d rather celebrate a fine pagan Yule or the Saturnalia. Luckily one can celebrate this time of year with wonderful traditional foods which vary from country to country.
In the UK, we love pies, puddings and cakes made from dried fruit. Plum pudding is an 18th version of the modern Christmas Pudding, one that would have been enjoyed by King George I, who was known as the Pudding King.
King George’s Plum Pudding
This pudding was said to have been eaten by King George I on 25th December 1714 at 6 o’ clock when he spent his first Christmas in England.
This recipe makes 3 puddings of 3 lb each or one very large one if preferred.
• 1 1/2 lb finely shredded suet (or substitute fat)
• 1 lb eggs (weigh in their shells)
• 1 lb dried plums, stoned and halved
• 1 lb mixed peel, cut in long strips
• 1 lb small raisins
• 1 lb sultanas
• 1 lb currants
• 1 lb sifted flour
• 1 lb sugar
• 1 lb brown breadcrumbs
• 1 heaped teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 nutmeg, grated
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1/2 pint fresh milk
• Lemon, juiced
• Very large wine glass full of brandy
Mix the dry ingredients together
Add the eggs to moisten. The eggs should be beaten to a froth prior to adding
Stand the mixture overnight (at least 12 hours) in a cool place. Cover with a tea towel.
Turn the mixture into a greased mould or moulds.
Boil for 8 hours. Store as long as wished.
Serve. Boil for 2 hours prior to serving. Goes well with brandy butter or custard.
I love mince-pies but try to resist munching on them until just before Christmas, certainly until I have conducted my last pre Christmas Messiah! Traditionally they should be oval not round to represent the manger where Christ slept.
• 2 satsuma, segmented
• 1 apple finely chopped
• zest 1 lemon
• little icing sugar, for dusting
For the pastry
• 375g plain flour
• 260g unsalted butter, softened
• 125g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
• 1 large egg, plus 1 beaten egg for glazing
1. Place the flour and butter in a bowl and rub together to a crumb consistency. Add the sugar and the egg, and mix together. Tip out onto a lightly floured surface and fold until the pastry comes together, be careful not to over mix. Wrap the pastry in cling film and chill for 10 mins.
2. Scoop the mincemeat into a bowl and add the satsumas, apple and zest.
3. Heat oven to 220C/200C fan/gas 7. Roll out the pastry to 3mm thick. Using a round cutter (about 10cm), cut out 16 bases and place them into muffin trays. Put 11⁄2 tbsp mincemeat mixture into each. Brush the edge of each pie with a little beaten egg. Re-roll out the pastry to cut 7cm lids and press them on top to seal. Glaze with the rest of the egg, sprinkle with caster sugar, then make a small cut in the tops.
4. Bake mince pies for 15-20 mins until golden brown. Leave to cool before releasing them from the muffin trays and dusting with icing sugar. Serve.
Chocolate and Chestnut Cake
Finally a cake which is not entirely traditional but has two of my favourite ingredients: chocolate and chestnuts:
• 4 ounces/115 grams chocolate (64 percent cacao or less)
• 4 ounces/113 grams unsalted butter
• 4 large eggs, separated
• ½ cup/100 grams sugar plus 2 tablespoons for topping
• ⅛ teaspoon salt
• ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
• ½ cup/55 grams chestnut flour
• ½ cup/85 grams chopped cookedchestnuts (use canned or vacuum-packed)
• 1 cup heavy cream, for topping
• Chocolate curls or cocoa powder, for garnish
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Melt chocolate and butter in a bowl set over boiling water until chocolate is nearly completely melted, then remove from heat and whisk mixture until smooth.
2. In a mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks with half the sugar (1/4 cup/50 grams) and the salt until pale and thick. Stir in the warm chocolate and set aside.
3. Put egg whites in a clean bowl with cream of tartar and beat until fluffy, then add remaining 1/4 cup/50 grams sugar and beat until whites are stiff but not dry.
4. Stir chestnut flour and chopped chestnuts into the chocolate batter, then fold in 1/4 of the whites to lighten mixture. Fold in remaining whites and scrape batter into an unbuttered 8-inch springform pan, smoothing top if necessary.
5. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out almost clean. Cool on a rack. It may sink and crack a bit on top — this is fine. Run a knife around the edge of cake to free sides and remove form. Transfer to a serving platter. (Cake may be stored, covered, at room temperature for up to 3 days.)
6. To serve, whip cream with 2 tablespoons sugar to a very soft consistency. Spoon over top of cake and quickly spread with a spatula. Sprinkle with chocolate curls.
As the inimitable Mark Morris would say: Happy Hollandaise!!