“I won’t worry. We’ve a lot of Christmas puddings,” e-mailed back the gentleman. With that, my order was confirmed. I could now rest assured.
It was 17th December, balmy for a winter day in New York. A blue sky, speckled with fluffy, gray clouds arched above. A weak sunlight dappled on our wooden floors. The heating pipes hissed faintly. That afternoon, I’d phoned this store in Chelsea to reserve my dessert.
Only a couple of days earlier, I’d finished reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a novella published on December 19, 1843.
It describes a scene of a Christmas feast in which the family of Bob Cratchit, Ebenezer Scrooge’s clerk, is seated around the dinner table, waiting expectantly for their Yuletide treat.
Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone—too nervous to bear witnesses—to take the pudding up, and bring it in.
In half a minute, Mrs. Cratchit entered, flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
That Dickens saw this dish as a symbol of Christmas cheer and festivity is amply clear from the passage. And I was so taken by it that I got it in my head to, if not make one, then surely, to purchase one.
In the Big Apple, you can locate ingredients and edibles from almost anywhere, if you look in the right nooks and crannies.
M., my resident researcher, put on her mortarboard, and did a swift, but studious, search. Sure enough, she’d found a place that sold the said confection.
19th December rolled around. It was the day we were to pick up our order in person. “No more personal deliveries or mail orders until January 1, 2015. Sorry!” the merchant had declared on in its electronic shop window.
A “traditional British grocery store,” in the block where Horatio Street intersects with the very busy Hudson Street, it had an old-fashioned, welcoming, homey air about it.
The shelves that lined the walls, stocked HP sauce, Marmite, bangers, Scotch eggs, pickled walnuts, Devonshire cream, and every other delicacy from the British Isles. The goods drove me bonkers. But that’s what it’d do to a die-hard Anglophile, wouldn’t it?
In the middle, was a square table, piled high with boxes, in festive packages—some round, some square, some rectangular. There was one with my name on it, though, not literally.
M. and I picked out a one pound “luxury” Christmas pudding, prepared by Mathew Walker, in Derbyshire, U.K. Luckily, for me, he claims to be “the world’s oldest Christmas pudding maker,” having started his business in 1899.
Carrying it on the subway, in a plastic shopping bag with the Union Jack on it, was no trouble at all. Once home, I put it in the refrigerator, a feeble trepidation gnawing at me about whether or not it’d keep well for the next six days. In retrospect, my worries were laughable.
A Christmas pudding, a.k.a. “plum pudding” isn’t like most puddings. It has no eggs, and looks nothing like its peers. It’s a mound of rich, black scrumptiousness, which, traditionally, rounded off, as you might expect, a Christmas meal.
But it wasn’t always that way.
It traces its roots to medieval England, though, it truly is a Victorian invention, for it was in the 19th century that it got its standard form and character.
It emerged not as a sweet treat, but as a hearty “pottage” of meat and vegetables that had nothing to do with Christmas celebrations. Back in the austere, pre-freezer, 1420s, livestock was stored through the bitter winters in cool rooms called larders.
Earthenware pots were filled with chunks of meat, and kneaded together with wine, chopped onions, and an assortment of spices, dried fruits, and fat, so as to keep it from spoiling.
By the 1700s, its savoriness had waned, and its sweetness had waxed. Around this time, it’d be boiled in a piece of cloth.
It wasn’t until the 1830s that the delectable ball of sultanas, raisins, cherries, treacle, brandy, rum, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peels, lemon zest, and flour made a solid appearance.
The Victorians also prepared it differently from the Renaissance folks. They’d pour the decadent mixture into a mold, and then steam it patiently for a long time. Once turned out on a platter, they’d deck it with a spring of holly, douse it in brandy, and flambé it.
Typically, they’re made four weeks ahead of Christmas. Because it’s spiked in spirits, it lasts a great while.
On 25th December, at 6:00 p.m., on the dot, I took it out, and sat it on the dining table. With every care, I opened its golden wrapper. Inside was a study, burgundy-colored, plastic bowl, housing, of course, the gastronomic gemstone.
All it needed now was to be served and had.
Wait. Not so fast.
On its box, I spied a verse of instructions, printed in Lilliputian font.
REHEAT INSTRUCTIONS: This pudding has been cooked already, and only requires gentle reheating. To ensure that your pudding tastes its best, we recommend heating it by steaming, but other methods have been included for your convenience.
Remove outer packaging.
TO STEAM: Leave in basin with film lid on. Place the basin in a steamer over boiling water, and steam for one hour. Ensure that water does not enter the pudding. Do not allow the steamer to boil dry.
TO MICROWAVE: This is a guideline only. We suggest that you consult your instruction manual. Pierce film lid, and place in microwave on a microwavable plate. Heat on full power for 750W/Category D for 3 minutes or 850W/Category E for 3 minutes. Leave to stand for one minute before serving.
That boggled my mind. I was exhausted from all the beetling around, popping casseroles in and out of the oven all day, and famished withal.
I paused, thinking what a “basin” might be? At the time, I was sapped of energy to peek into a dictionary, but I figured it alluded to the container in which it came. Then again, I felt a stab of anxiety, when it occurred to me that I didn’t have a “steamer.” A nukebox wasn’t in sight either.
But surely, I couldn’t afford to not have my pudding only for want of mere kitchen appliances. As is my wont, I improvised. I ascertained that it’d have to be warmed up tenderly, using a delicate procedure.
I put on the burner, my Rachael Ray-branded, porcelain sauté pan, filled it with water to the brim, and placed a ramekin in it, creating a small island of china in a stovetop lake. It’s on that pedestal that I gingerly lowered my Christmas pudding, and roofed it with a glass lid.
A complex maneuver, I dare say.
The liquid within simmered. Bubbles erupted. Small eddies swirled. Steam began to rise. The pudding had to receive heat by convection.
I’m glad I have don’t own a microwave—because the women of the 1900s wouldn’t have had one either. Like me, they too, would’ve put it in a culinary sauna, and rejuvenated it. Only, I didn’t have the butter brandy to dress mine in.
But I was still tremendously chuffed with it. It was the best gift I had that Christmas.