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Piece of Mind: Jill Summerhayes keeps the family Christmas pudding tradition alive

The traditional date to begin making the pudding is quickly approaching
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Supplied photo

My family, on the matriarchal side has a long history of making traditional Christmas puddings, passed down through the generations. At a very young age I witnessed my great, great grandmother making a large one for all the family to celebrate together on Christmas Day. I was seven when she died and then my great grandmother took over making them. As children my brother and I were each allowed to stir and make a wish.

When I first arrived in Canada in 1969 I had no idea what was in the recipe, so I phoned my mother a few weeks before Christmas to ask,“Sorry Jill, I haven’t yet had the honour of it being passed to me, I’ll ask your grandmother.”

My grandmother had now taken on the task from my great grandmother (her mother) so you see what I mean about a family tradition.

Once armed with the recipe I tried to find the necessary ingredients which included butter, brandy, beer, black treacle, brown sugar, dried fruit, dozens of eggs, apples, almonds, carrots, milk and orange juice, a little flour, spices and much more. Easy enough, but it was difficult to find the black treacle until I discovered here it is better known as molasses, not quite the same but close enough. The suet was also something that I could not find. In the U.K. it was bought at the local butcher’s shop, and there were none nearby so I decided to leave it out and for the fat content, use extra butter instead.

Over the years I’ve adapted the recipe, added a few ingredients. Although I now know where to get suet I’ve always used butter, resulting in a lighter, less stodgy pudding. At one point I was making almost two dozen puddings and gifting them to English friends and family. It became a huge amount of work, as well as quite the expense.

This led me more than a decade ago, to invite friends to come for a day of 'mix and make the pudding.' In 2003, our first year, we had eight participants, all lovers of the traditional pudding.

Wikepedia tells us a popular myth is that plum pudding's association with Christmas goes back to a custom in Medieval England that the "pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every family member stir it in turn from east to west to honour the Magi and their journey in that direction.”

However, recipes for plum puddings appear mainly, if not entirely, in the 17th century and later. One of the earliest plum pudding recipes is given by Mary Kettilby in her 1714 book.

Every year since 2003 we had a 'make and mix day,' but in 2020 the pandemic brought that to a halt. I’m delighted this year, 2021, we have revived the tradition but with a smaller group of just three close friends, all double vaccinated who I have seen regularly during the pandemic. I’m still cautious about big social events and wish to stay safe, as much for my grandchildren and others as for myself. 

My recipe is deliciously rich, a bit different each year as I cook instinctively adding ingredients that might enhance the flavour. It’s not difficult to make, just time consuming. Served with hard sauce or brandy butter (which my husband David makes) we always look forward to this Christmas treat.

Some of my family members do not even like it, including two of my children, (guess I made a mistake somewhere!) so unless my daughter Helen, who fortunately loves it takes over the tradition, it will die with me. ( No pressure here Helen! )

I soak the 10 lbs dried fruit in brandy overnight before we meet, then we put all the ingredients on the kitchen island counter, prep them, measure them and start to mix them together, adding one at a time in a huge pot. It’ s a long process and it takes a lot of stirring to be well mixed, fun when done with friends to help.

The longest task is the steaming of the pudding, which takes six to eight hours depending on the size of the pudding, so after the first hour of steaming here each person took their own pudding home to steam further. I use the proper porcelain pudding basins and always top wrap them with white cotton cloth, keeping the tradition alive, I adhere to the original. These days there are many other options for a covering but I like the cotton cloth.

Then they are stored away until Christmas. I put mine on a shelf in the back basement, but they could go in the fridge. Give them (not you) a good drink of brandy a few times before Christmas. Not more than once a week. 

If you like this delicious traditional pudding and would like to make it, (Sunday Nov. 21 being the 25th Sunday after Trinity) you still have time.

Please email me at [email protected] and I’ll happily send you the recipe as a Christmas gift.