By Jamie Drummond
A couple of weeks back I penned a small article/recipe chronicling my rather sorry endeavours, through following a superb recipe by Nigel Slater, to make the best traditional Christmas pudding in the world, ever. Today I put fingers to keyboard and attempt to describe to you how the (dried) fruits of my labours were received, firstly with family on Christmas eve in that snowy outpost of civilisation known as Kapuskasing, northern Ontario, and then with friends at a casual New Year’s Eve dinner party in the west end of Toronto. After the series of misadventures that accompanied the preparation of these two Christmas puddings, it was with a considerable amount of trepidation I presented them to my family and friends.
The train journey from Toronto to Kapuskasing theoretically takes twelve hours. I stress theoretically seeing as last year when we travelled up north to spend the holidays with my girlfriend’s family, there were a series of mitigating circumstances that led to our journey taking closer to seventeen hours. With this in mind I prepared a multi-course picnic to accompany us upon our travels. In a strictly mandated change from the previous year’s on-train picnic of innumerable “barley sandwiches”, I had forgone my usual habit of stuffing 90% of our food space with chilled cans of beer. Upon this occasion I had lovingly prepared some hot, thermos-encased tomato and arugula soup, slices of chilled heritage pork with piccalili, a mixed bean/tuna/red onion salad, some cold barbecue chicken drumsticks, and a substantial selection of artisanal cheeses. Also in the picnic hamper, slotted in beside the Tupperware and (just) two cold cans of Löwenbräu was one of my babies, the first of my two Christmas puddings, or Figgy, as I had decided to name him. Numerous were the occasions I got up from my seat and peered into the hamper, looking down with love and smiling at my little bundle of raisins, sultanas, brandy and glorious pasture-fed meat fat. I took Figgy in my hands and we looked out of the train window together, taking in the snowswept landscape of frozen muskeg as it whipped by. This was a big adventure for Figgy, the first time he had been parted from his twin sister, Plum, who was sitting alone in the fridge back in Toronto. And it was going to be Figgy’s very first Christmas…
My girlfriend’s mother’s family hail from an Alsatian-French background, and so holiday celebrations tend to be focused around a traditional réveillon on the night before Christmas itself. One of my girlfriend’s aunts had prepared a magnificent spread for a long table of eighteen persons, a spread that centred around a very special Moose Bourguignon (made from a beast shot by her husband no less!) Aided and abetted by many a bottle of Pepe’s homemade wine, it was a very fine dinner indeed and the perfect way to spend Christmas eve with family. It was now close to one in the morning and my Christmas pudding had been boiling away in the kitchen for nigh on four hours, much to the chagrin of our hosts (Figgy was taking up valuable stovetop space!) It was at last time for the big reveal… would my culinary endeavours serve to again cement the centuries-auld alliance bewixt the French and the Scots, or would my stodgy sweet meat pudding have me banished from the family for crimes against Larousse Gastronomique?
The deliciously moist Christmas pudding slipped with ease from the Perspex bowl he had called his home for the previous two weeks. The heady, sweet, rich, dense aromatics of fruit, spice and booze filled the kitchen as I transferred my creation to a serving bowl in preparation for presentation at the table. The lights were abruptly dimmed and the room went quiet as the pudding was brought to the table whilst I attempted to tell the story of the dish’s origins and history. I heartily doused the steaming dessert with a few glugs of Gran Reserva brandy and stepped back before setting the alcohol alight, smiling to myself as the brandy ignited and all assembled looked on, the blue flames licking around the dish making it look like the most traditional Christmas pudding ever.
I am very pleased to report that I feel it was actually rather well received. Perhaps everyone was just being terribly polite in an attempt not to hurt my feelings? (My girlfriend had no doubt briefed everyone on my sensitive nature when it comes to my cooking as I was upstairs preparing.) All assembled, bar a couple of quite obviously scared teenagers, sampled a small portion served alongside a good dollop of brandy and vanilla-augmented whipped cream, many coming back for seconds, and one demanding thirds! The concealed “lucky” pound coin was discovered by my girlfriend’s cousin, none other than Michael Sacco of Toronto’s Chocosol. That evening I went to bed feeling extremely happy, a little tipsy, magnificently full, utterly satiated, and, if the truth be told, quite proud of myself. I was also feeling confident about serving the second pudding to my friends on New Year’s Eve back in Toronto.
In Scotland the New Year’s festivities are known as Hogmanay, and for many are a greater cause for holiday celebrations than Christmas itself. Having often been an integral part of many a Hogmanay ho-down of truly bacchanalian proportions, I find as I get a little older and (perhaps) wiser that I much prefer the kind of New Year that we enjoyed this year. It involved the cosy dining room of a friend’s home, eight good friends, some Henri Texier playing in the background, a little grilled Guernsey Girl cheese, a creamy Meatball Linguine, innumerable bottles of wine, a little Löwenbräu (bien sûr!), a playful little kitty called Thelonius, and, of course, a traditional Christmas pudding. Call me old-fashioned…
As more often than not New Year’s festivities place a little more importance upon the consumption of libations rather than that of foodstuffs, by the time my second Christmas pud was ready to make an entrance, all around the dinner table had certainly had their fill of the many beverages on offer that evening. It was again coming up for almost one in the morning when I decided that our dessert was finally ready. As the lights went down a hearty cheer went up and all eyes were on the dark and mysterious, soon-to-be-aflame hemisphere. Three good slugs of brandy thoroughly soaked the pudding, and with a flawless ignition (I was getting pretty damn good at this), the blue flames enveloped the final course of our dinner, transforming it into a resplendent fireball of mucilaginous deliciousness.
Perhaps it was the considerable volume of alcohol consumed pre-pudding, coupled with my visceral description concerning the origins of suet (replete with gestures of course), but my fruity-boozy delight was not met with quite the same rapturous reception as it had done in the snowy wilderness of northern Ontario. Saying that, it could have been something to do with the fact that I only had a half carton of whipping cream, and in a pinch had added half a carton of single cream, which of course wouldn’t thicken in the mixer. Quite the predicament. So I did what any budding cook would do and added the obvious to the cream in order to thicken it. Yes, that’s right… some grated parmesan I handily discovered on the kitchen counter. Genius.
The dinner table seemed evenly divided, with one half politely asking if they could please have a little more, and the remainder playing with their food before clandestinely pushing their bowl aside when they thought my eyes were turned. Yes… I saw you.
Nevertheless, I was most happy with my first foray into the world of making traditional Christmas puddings. It is something that I hope to turn into an annual event at my home every festive season from here on in. Even if my family and friends experienced only a fraction of the great pleasure and satisfaction that I personally gained whilst making and presenting the puddings, then it will have been worth all of the trouble. Here’s to this year’s Christmas pudding!