When I was in the U S a couple of years ago, I was invited to a Stir Sunday. It wasn’t another party, picnic or potluck but preparations for the traditional Christmas pudding.
I arrived at Jose George’s sprawling bungalow, to find his wife Maria standing at the kitchen table, surrounded by a small army of family and friends. A cheer went up as she carefully poured a small mountain of brown sugar into a large basin, followed by chunks of butter.
The brown sugar, reinforced with generous douses of rum, brandy and even beer, gave the pudding its distinctive
almost-black colour. Maria gently creamed the mix, before passing the spoon (wooden because that’s what the infant Jesus’s crib was made of) to her sister-in-law Josie, the first in the line of relay mixers.
Tracing the roots
As this baton changed hands, eggs were lightly beaten in, flour folded in and an apple and carrot grated in. Josie explained that back in 15th century England, where the Plum Pottage originated, it was a meaty first course made from minced beef or mutton, onion, dried fruit and root vegetables.
As each person gave the batter a brisk stir, they dropped in a handful of chopped lemon and orange rind, mixed dried fruit or chopped blanched almonds into it. These had been soaked in rum for close to a week. Rum adds to the steam spirit and if you’re thinking calories, then bond with the Puritans who banned the pudding as “sinfully rich”.
Make a wish
My hand took an anti-clockwise turn. Immediately, I was corrected: “Close your eyes, stir clockwise and make a wish.”
Making a wish is part of this Christmas tradition. In the olden days it showed up in several symbols.. small silver coins which mirrored the desire for more wealth, an anchor which was a bon voyage hope, ring for early marriage and a silver thimble signifying thrift.
The silver has reduced as concerns of hygiene and accidents have grown. Maria refused to put even the traditional sixpence into her pudding, fearing one of the kids may swallow it.
If you are using a pressure cooker, don’t forget to cover the insides with greased wax paper and foil. Once the pudding has taken shape (it’s usually round and hard), it is cooled and left to mature in a dry, dark, cold place for anything between two-five weeks.
Some make their puddings six months before Christmas and one particular chef, James Beard, even suggested making it a full year ahead. Generally, it’s stirred on the last Sunday before Advent.
On Christmas Day, it is re-steamed for an hour or two. Just before serving, the pudding is turned upside down on a heated platter, a small hole dug on the top and filled with rum or brandy which is fired or set alight.
The pudding is then brought out into the darkened living room by the lady-of-the-house, in this case a beaming Maria, little flames giving it the right celebratory touch.