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A Taste of Christmas

by Dawn Copeman

Christmas
cakeIf there is one time of year when we forget all about healthy eating and eating in moderation, it is Christmas. Many people in Britain start buying extra food for Christmas from the beginning of autumn: a box of chocolates here, a tin of biscuits there, in preparation for the one time of year when far more food is bought and cooked than could ever be eaten.

Whilst Britons are tempted by an increasing array of Christmas foods - such as panetone, stollen and lebkuchen - the staples of a British Christmas are still mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and a sumptuous roast lunch.

Turkey is still the most popular main course for the lunch, served with either bread sauce or cranberry sauce and accompanied by roast potatoes, roast parsnips, sprouts, chestnuts and carrots. But in recent years goose has made a comeback, and duck is also becoming more popular. The key to all these dishes, the thing that makes them a Christmas dish rather than an average Sunday roast, is the stuffing. A Christmas roast must look and taste fantastic. If you want to have a go at making a traditional British Christmas lunch, then http://www.bbc.co.uk/lifestyle/christmas/food_turkeygooserecipes.shtml has many excellent recipes for both turkey and goose. For a Christmas Duck recipe visit: http://www.positivenation.co.uk/recipes/recipe73_74/recipe73_74_1.htm In many British households it is the custom to also roast a pork, ham or beef joint to accompany the fowl course. It is usual for the accompanying roast meats to be cooked the day before and served cold on Christmas Day.

After the lunch comes the Christmas pudding, which is normally covered in brandy and set alight before being brought to the table. Christmas pudding evolved from the 14th century's plum porridge or frumenty, a dish that was eaten following the traditional fasting on Christmas Eve.

Originally, frumenty consisted of porridge, scraps of meat, root vegetables and dried fruits. Over time, spices and honey were included, and in the late 16th century, breadcrumbs, eggs and spirits were added. This dish could no longer be heated in a porridge pan and could no longer really even be called porridge, so the name changed to plum pudding and the mixture was placed in a cloth, which was then tied up and boiled for several hours until cooked.

Plum PuddingIn 1664, the Puritans under Cromwell not only banned the celebration of Christmas but also the eating of Plum Pudding, mainly because of the richness of its ingredients. King George I overturned this ban in 1714, and by then the meat was omitted in favour of more dried fruits and spices. Yet it did not become a popular tradition in England until the Victorian era, when Prince Albert, who instigated many of our Christmas traditions, re-introduced it as a staple of the Christmas feast. By this time the root vegetables had gone too, although some recipes still include a carrot.

If you want to make your own Christmas pudding (and I've included a recipe below), then you need to do it soon. A Christmas pudding takes around eight hours to cook and is normally made in Britain on Stir-Up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent. It is considered good luck for every member of the family to stir the pudding in a clockwise direction, while closing their eyes and making a wish.

It is also traditional to include charms in your pudding. The charms traditionally consist of a coin (representing health, wealth and happiness), a thimble (representing a lucky life) and a ring (representing marriage). Sainsbury's, a British supermarket, tried to revive this tradition this year and spent months locating sixpences to put into their puddings. Unfortunately their plan fell foul of Health and Safety Laws, so instead of being in the puddings, the coins will be in a collector's card, which the host can place under a plate for a guest to find. If you want to put charms in your puddings, wrap them up in greaseproof paper so that they are easily identifiable and remember to warn people that they are there.

Christmas cake is normally served at around teatime. A Christmas Tea is traditionally very light -- cold meats, cheeses, pickles, salad, sandwiches, Christmas cake and mince pies. (Although to be fair, on Christmas day, the eating never stops from lunchtime to bedtime: chocolates, crisps, biscuits, cakes, fruit, nuts, sweets etc. Well, we do buy a lot of food -- so we do our best to eat it all!)

Christmas cake was originally Twelfth Night Cake, a rich fruit cake made to celebrate Epiphany. But the Puritans had removed Twelfth Night from the church calendar and by the late 19th Century it was becoming a night associated with mischief-making, so Queen Victoria banned it as a feast day in 1870. The bakers, not wishing to lose any money, simply iced the cakes they'd already baked to represent a snowy scene and sold them as Christmas cake instead.

Mince pies are not only eaten on Christmas Day, but during the entire run up to Christmas. Originally the mince pie was a large pie filled with minced meat such as ox tongue, beef or chicken, eggs, raisins, sugar, orange and lemon peel, spices and brandy. Over time the pies became smaller and as with Christmas pudding the meat was gradually removed until we arrive at the modern mincemeat which consists of dried fruit and spices which have often been steeped in brandy.

If you want to try these foods but don't want to make them, then why not do as most Brits do and buy them ready made. At http://www.britishsupermarketworldwide.com you can buy Christmas foods from major British supermarkets. Botham's, a traditional bakery, http://www.botham.co.uk/christmas.htm will deliver a traditional Christmas cake and Plum Pudding to the USA for £41.24; orders must be received by the 30th November.

I wish you all a very happy and hearty Christmas feast.

Recipes

Christmas pudding

1.5 cups currants
1.5 cups sultanas
1.5 cups raisins
1/2 cup mixed peel
1 cup flour
2 cups breadcrumbs
2 cups suet
1.5 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of mixed spice
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
1/3 cup walnut halves or chopped blanched almonds (optional)
Grated rind of one lemon or one orange.
4 eggs beaten
Quarter of a cup of brandy.
1/2 cup of milk.

  1. Put all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl and mix well.
  2. Add the eggs, brandy and milk to moisten the mixture.
  3. Pour into two greased and lined pudding bowls, cover with greaseproof paper secured with sting and steam for 6 hours, topping up the water as it boils.
  4. Remove from pan, allow to go cold then cover with foil and store in a dry, cool place.
  5. On Christmas Day -- steam for 2 hours. Serve with brandy butter, a.k.a. hard sauce or custard.

Brandy Butter/Hard Sauce

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sifted confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoons brandy

  1. Cream the butter and sugar, add the brandy and beat until smooth.
  2. Put in the refrigerator until needed.
  3. Serve piled high in a dish.

Christmas cake

3 sticks butter
2 cups of brown sugar
6 eggs
4 cups flour
4 cups currants
4 cups sultanas
1 cup raisins
1 cup mixed peel
1/3 cup cherries
1 cup chopped almonds
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons treacle (or Golden Syrup)
1/2 cup brandy (optional)
Almond Paste
Royal Icing

  1. Cream the butter and sugar together, add the eggs one by one and beat until the mixture is stiff.
  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well.
  3. Place mixture into a well greased, 9inch round cake tin, which has been lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 6 and a half hours at 275°F, 140°C or Gas Mark 1.
  4. Keep the cake in a in an airtight container for 2 - 3 weeks then cover with a thick layer of almond paste.
  5. When the paste is set, cover with Royal Icing.
  6. When the icing has set, decorate as desired.


Miniature Mince Pies (makes 20)

8oz or 1 pack ready made rough puff pastry
2 cups mincemeat
Egg or milk to glaze
A little sugar

  1. Roll out the pastry and cut into 20 small and 20 large rounds.
  2. Place the small rounds on a greased baking sheet and place a teaspoonful of the mincemeat filling in each.
  3. Damp the edges of the small rounds with water or milk and cover with the larger rounds, sealing well.
  4. Brush with milk or beaten egg and sprinkle the sugar on top.
  5. Make a steam hole in the top of each pie then bake in the oven at 450°F, 230° or Gas Mark 8 for 10 - 15 minutes

Editor's Variation: Last Christmas I concocted a delightful variation on the two-crusted mince pie: mince tartlets. For this you'll need a miniature muffin pan (for 1-inch "jewel" muffins). Cut out about 20 small rounds of ordinary pie crust (packaged or homemade) for every 8 oz of mincemeat. Press these rounds into the muffin pan. Fill with mincemeat and bake at 325°F for about 15 minutes or until the edges of the pie crust turn golden brown. Top with brandied hard sauce if desired. (If you have more muffin "holes" than rounds, fill the remaining openings with a bit of water so that the pan won't burn.)

More Information:

Christmas Food and Drink
http://www.smithsrestaurant.net

Christmas Pudding Recipe from Sussex
http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Transwiki:Christmas_pudding

English Christmas Foods and Customs
http://www.foodmuseum.com/christmas.html
Liscat's Old World Christmas
http://www.netcastles.org/ liscat/owxmas.html
Lots of recipes!


Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2005 Dawn Copeman
Images courtesy of BritainOnView.com

 

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