Stir up!

“But Viper!” you cry. “It isn’t Stir Up Sunday yet!”

To that I reply, “Get knotted. I’m busy on Sundays, so I’m doing it today. Hush your mouth!”

Doing what? Why, boiling Christmas puddings, you wet lettuce.

I should explain. I should explain so many things.

I like traditions. I like the seasons. I LOVE seasonal traditions. I grew up as an active member of the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England. I’m not an active member any more. Very often, I’m not a believer of any kind. My relationship with God or even the absence of God is complicated. I’m not here today to talk theology, though. I’m here to talk pudding. Traditional Christmas pudding.

There’s a tradition that you begin your pudding on Stir Up Sunday. This is the last Sunday before Advent in the Anglican Church, where the reading from the Book of Common Prayer for that day starts, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…”.It’s a good day for stirring your will and your pudding. I’m doing my pudding early because I will be at home all day today and these bad mofos need eight hours of simmering and steaming. I know! Eight hours.

Last night, myself and Mrs Viper dug out the recipe (hand written by my mother). This comes from my dad’s grandma and, very possibly, from her mother or even grandmother. It’s hard to trace the recipe to its origin. For me, the making of the pudding has a resonance that I can’t explain adequately. I’ve been doing this since my childhood. The smell of nutmeg and orange zest evokes childhood happiness. Making the pudding transports my mind to something more innocent and less complicated. I am back in a world where the world seemed safe and there was a bright hope even in winter. Although I’m now bitter, broken and cynical, certain moments can bring back a gentler and more hopeful Viper. This will be a LONG post because it’s going to contain the whole recipe WITH pictures. Fancy that! If you want to bail now, I will forgive you. Fly, you fools!

First, the ingredients. It’s in imperial measurements and it makes four puddings, so we usually half it.

1lb seeded raisins

1/2 lb currants

1/2 lb sultanas

1/2 lb candied peel

1/2 lb apples

1/4 lb sweet almonds

1 orange and 1 lemon

1lb Demerara sugar

1 tea spoon salt

1 lb vegetable suet

1/2 lb plain flour

3/4 lb breadcrumbs

1 tea spoon cinnamon, another of ginger

1/2 nutmeg (grated)

2 table spoons black treacle

6 eggs

1 or 2 glasses of rum

1 glass of sherry

That’s a lot of ingredients! Then you’ve got the business of preparing them. Here’s what the recipe says:

Prepare the fruit and put the raisins and candied peel through the food chopper (food chopper? I wonder what an antique ‘food chopper’ looked like…) followed by the apples, peeled and cored. Then blanch and shred the almonds, but not too finely (or buy them pre-chopped… or leave them out if you don’t like them). Sieve the flour, salt, spices and make the breadcrumbs. Remove any skin from the suet, which should be dry. Grate it by using the coarse part of the grater and then chop it until fine as breadcrumbs, sprinkling it with flour if it becomes sticky.

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a basin and add the grated rind from the orange and lemon.

Make a well and add the treacle and eggs, well beaten. Add the strained orange and lemon juice. Pour in the wine and rum, or a glass of stout may be used if economy has to be studied (that’s my mother’s favourite line from the recipe. You can also ‘study economy by getting the cheapest booze you can find, Viper-style).

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Cover the mixture and let it stand for 24 hours. Then put it into well greased basins. Cover with greaseproof paper and tie a pudding cloth over the top (or use tin foil and rubber bands). Then plunge them into boiling water and boil quickly from 6 to 8 hours according to size.

Plum puddings should be made at least a week before Christmas (or more than a month before!). When you wish to serve the pudding, steam for about 4 to 5 hours, depending on size.

A well made pudding will keep for months in a dry, cool place.

To serve pudding, lift it out of boiling water and let it stand for 5 minutes to allow some of the steam to escape. Then remove the covering and turn it out on to a hot dish. Dry the dish, sprinkle the pudding with sugar and decorate it with a sprig or two of holly. Pour a glass of rum, brandy or whisky over it and set fire to this just before bringing the pudding to the table. Serve with lemon or hard sauce (no idea what those are, we make brandy butter instead).

That’s the recipe. It’s from a time when people had more patience, apparently! Nevertheless, it’s worth it for me. Mrs Viper has become equally sentimental about Stirring Up. Last night we were bustling around the kitchen together, preparing our ingredients. You get to make a wish when you stir the mixture, too. Thus far, none of mine have come true. I think I’ve made wishes that are too big. I’ve gone for something smaller than ‘world peace’ this year, something more manageable. No, I’m not telling you. Don’t be nosey.

This morning, I did my usual morning jobs, but I also had to rush around getting the mixture into the basins. I was in the kitchen before dawn, fully dressed, greasing pudding basins. I live a rock and roll lifestyle, me.

As I type this, the puddings are rattling away in our largest pans (stick a saucer in the bottom of the pan, this stops the pudding from touching the bottom and getting burnt). By three in the afternoon, they will be ready to take out. Then they go into storage until Christmas. One of the puddings may even be saved for Easter. They really do keep that well. It’s the booze or the sugar, I reckon.

I’m tense, because I don’t want the puddings to boil over or boil dry. I’m also content, because this is a pointless ritual that gives my life a point. I fully intend to hand this daft tradition and this recipe to my children when they are old enough.

Would it be better to live without ritual and sentiment and nostalgia. I’m sure there are people who would say yes. Personally, this stuff glues me together. The universe may be empty of meaning, humanity may be doomed, but I’m making puddings. I could buy puddings that would be cheaper than all the ingredients. Buying a pudding would save time. Making the puddings, though, that saves me from despair. Isn’t it odd how cooking with loved ones and following family traditions can be so powerful. I can hear the pans rattling right now and it conjures up dozens of memories that would be meaningless to anybody else, but to me they are… well, ME. (thoughts of mum filling the garage with smoke and steam when she let the Burco boiler dry up; thoughts of sitting with my sister, stirring and wishing; thoughts of dad carefully pouring brandy and letting me light it… blue flames… actual magic)

You made it to the end of the post? Well done, you! You’ve got the sort of character that can stand two hours of prep, eight hours of steaming and another five hours on the big day! Try this recipe. Let me know the results.

Or buy a pudding like a sane person. A sane, heartless, spineless person.

Yeah. Think on.

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Post Scriptum: It snowed a bit. It hasn’t settled, of course. But it did snow. Clearly the universe approves.

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