Central to any Christmas celebration is the dinner table groaning with Christmas fare. The turkey of course, with all the trimmings, customarily cranberry sauce, roast potatoes and boiled vegetables, with a cascade of red wine gravy to swill it all down. Then mince pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. For high tea or supper a boiled ham is eaten cold with an out-of-season salad.
Mince pies are a traditional British treat eaten between Christmas Eve and New Year. Today’s pies are sweet but tart concoctions of raisins, currants, glacé cherries, apricots and other preserved fruit encased in a short pastry case and topped with sugar; there is usually a pastry top. But the modern pie is a world away from the original.
Up to the Victorian age, mince meat pies were exactly that: minced spiced meat sometimes mixed with dried fruit. But its history goes back to medieval times and chewette pastry that was either fried or baked. The pastry was filled with chopped liver and other meat, boiled eggs and ginger. For variety, sometimes preserved fruits were added.
By the 16th century, mince pies were considered to be a Christmas speciality. Gradually, meat was replaced with a mixture of preserved sweet fruits as we know them today. After the English Civil War (1641-1653) the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan, forbade the eating of pies on Christmas Day. Despite this, they never fell out of favour and are as popular as ever.
Sharing the centerpiece with the turkey is another traditional sweet consumed only at this time of year: the fabled Christmas pudding, or, as some call it, the “plum pudding”.
The pudding is a rich, glossy dark brown, and customarily made on “Stir up Sunday”, five weeks before Christmas day, when all of the family and especially the children would have a hand in stirring the mixture of fresh or dried fruit, suet, Guinness or stout and brandy to give it its dark, almost black colour. As they stirred they would make a wish for the coming year.
Once decanted into a bowl the pudding mix would be steamed or boiled for several hours and re-steamed before being brought to the table.
Serving the Christmas Pudding
There are many ways to serve the pudding. Some families will decorate it with sprigs of holly; others pour brandy over it and set it alight at the table; others will eat it with brandy butter, custard or cream.
It used to be de rigueur for the head of the family to parade the brandy-soaked flaming pudding to the table with great pomp and ceremony. The gathered clan would then then consume it with relish.
Christmas Pudding Charms
It is a custom to add silver coins and charms to the mix, and whoever gets the coins keeps them as a lucky charm to bring prosperity for the coming year.
In many British and Irish homes, Christmas dinner would not be the same without these two traditional sweets.
Christmas puddings require a fair amount of preparation but the taste experience is second to none and certainly is much superior to shop bought puddings.