Of Autumn Leaves and Christmas Puddings



‘Making the Empire Christmas pudding’, artwork by F C Harrison produced for the Empire Marketing Board
Date: 1926-39  – Note the Jamaica Rum on the table.

Here in England the clocks have now reverted to GMT and although the mornings are temporarily a little lighter, the evenings draw in. Halloween has passed with its imported American festival of trick or treat which has completely replaced the ‘guising’ of my Scottish childhood, when children in disguise would go from house to house required to perform a party piece in return for an apple or an orange, the latter no longer subject to wartime rationing.

The other thinly disguised pagan festival of the autumn, Bonfire Night, a combination of primeval defiance against the encroaching darkness and the anti-Catholic celebration of the execution of Guy Fawkes is also passing. The simple post-war family bonfire with its handful of small Golden Rain and Roman Candle fireworks, the inevitable non-rotating Catherine wheel,  supplemented by a handful of Sparklers has been replaced, largely for safety reasons, by the municipal event. Even small village celebrations are fewer than they were as the cost of insurance rises.

The first frosts of the winter have changed the colours of the leaves, and despite the dreadful wet summer (one of the wettest since records began) which followed eighteen months of drought, we now have a brilliant festival of reds and golds, greens and purples, only awaiting a late autumn gale to strip the trees.

It is now that thoughts turn to the making of the Christmas cake and Christmas puddings so that they will have time to mature before December the 25th.

Even here things have changed somewhat since my childhood when recipes required you to pick over the dried fruit removing pips from raisins and sultanas from their stems, washing the fruit and chopping citrus peel and cherries. Now everything comes pre-prepared, and pre-packaged but even fifty or so years ago during my childhood the purchase of such items was closer to the 18th-century than the twenty-first. The grocer’s shelves were loaded with large tin boxes, or small hessian sacks, filled with loose items such as raisins that were scooped out, individually weighed and then packed into bags made of brown paper or blue sugar paper neatly folded and twisted from a single sheet under the skilled hands of the shop assistant. Butter and lard were cut from large blocks, weighed on scales balanced with huge brass weights, and wrapped in greaseproof paper. Sugar, like oranges, not long off rationing was still used sparingly.

Our Christmas recipes have evolved from a time before refrigeration when you either had to eat the meat you killed immediately, or had to wait for the autumn frosts to arrive before you killed a pig to make bacon. In the tropics, without such frosts, the only alternatives for preserving meat or fish were either to salt it heavily, to smoke it or to dry it in wind and sun. In both Britain and Jamaica spices were used at least in part to disguise the taste of meat past its best. You are probably aware that our Christmas mince pies, made with mincemeat, once actually contained meat where now they only contain a mixture of fat and fruits.

It is interesting to compare the recipe for Christmas pudding that I have used ever since I received a free cookbook with my first gas cooker in 1968 with Hannah Glasse’s recipe for ‘A Boiled Plumb-Pudding’.

My recipe calls for two pounds of dried fruits, currants, sultanas and raisins, a quarter of a pound of candied peel, the juice and rind of two lemons, a quarter of a pound of orange marmalade, six ounces of Demerara sugar, eight ounces of flour, six ounces of breadcrumbs, six ounces of shredded suet, three eggs, half a pint of Brown ale, a teaspoonful of salt, a teaspoonful of cinnamon, and a teaspoonful of mixed spice. Even in the 1960s I was still being exhorted to wash and prepare the fruit a day beforehand and to slice the mixed peel.

By contrast here is Hannah Glasse’s 18th century recipe*.

A Boiled Plumb-Pudding

Take a Pound of Suet cut in little Pieces, not too fine, a Pound of Currents, and a Pound of Raisins stoned, eight Eggs, half the Whites, the Crumb of a Penny-loaf grated fine, half a Nutmeg grated, and a Tea Spoonful of beaten Ginger, a little Salt, a Pound of Flour, a Pint of Milk; beat the Eggs first, then half the Milk, beat them together, and by degrees stir in the Flour and Bread together, then the Suet, Spice and Fruit, and as much Milk as will mix it all well together and very thick; boil it five Hours.

Although she does not call it a Christmas cake, the nearest recipe I can find to a modern Christmas cake in Hannah Glasse is her recipe for a

Rich Cake

Take four Pound of Flower (sic) well dried and sifted, seven Pound of Currants washed and rubb’d, six Pound of the best fresh Butter,two Pound of Jordan Almonds blanched, and beaten with Orange Flower Water and Sack till they are fine, then take four Pound of Eggs, put half the Whites away, three Pound of double refin’d Sugar beaten and sifted, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, the same of Cloves and Cinnamon, three large Nutmegs, all beaten fine, a little Ginger, half a Pint of Sack, half a Pint of Right French Brandy, Sweetmeats to your liking, they must be Orange Lemon, and Citron. Work your Butter to a Cream with your Hands before any of your Ingredients are in, then put in your Sugar, mix it well together; let your Eggs be well beat, and strain’d thro’ a Sieve, work in your Almonds first, then put in your Eggs, beat them all together till they look white and thick, then put in your Sack and Brandy and Spices, and shake your Flower in by Degrees, and when your Oven is ready, put in your Currants and Sweetmeats as you put it in your hoop; it will take four Hours baking in a quick Oven, you must keep it beaten with your Hand all the while you are mixing of it, and when your Currants are well washed and cleaned, let them be kept before the Fire so that they may go warm into your Cake. This Quantity will bake best in two Hoops.

It may surprise a modern reader that the recipe was to be beaten with the hand, but the best sponge cake I ever tasted was made by my Scottish grandmother who always beat the butter and sugar together with her hand. Perhaps the additional warmth of a hand compared with a wooden spoon or metal beater makes the difference, but it is certainly hard work! I am curious that Hannah Glass refers to ‘hoop’ rather than a cake tin, and I don’t know whether this means that it was a freestanding hoop resting on a metal tray, or just another name for a cake tin.

One thing we can be pretty certain of and that is that Hannah Glasse’s double refined sugar would have come from Jamaica, but been refined in a sugar bakery in England.

*First Catch Your Hare…The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by a Lady (Hannah Glasse), a facsimile of the first edition supplemented by the recipes which the author added up to the fifth edition and furnished with a Preface, Introductory Essays by Jennifer Stead and Priscilla Bain, a Glossary by Alan Davidson, Notes and an Index. Prospect Books, Totnes, 2012. ISBN 978-1-903018-88-0.







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