Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making Irish Christmas Pudding: a complex ritual fondly recollected

At the bottom of a column in an 1895 edition of the Dublin newspaper, The Freeman's Journal, appears this brief article which includes a recipe for traditional Irish Christmas Pudding:

The Freeman's Journal Newspaper, 22 November 1895.
Although it may not sound as if something boiled for eight hours would result in an appetizing outcome, if made properly by a talented cook — with a few improvements on this 1895 recipe — a delightfully delicious Irish Christmas Pudding can emerge after hours on the boil.

Certainly, there are many among us who cannot bear the thought of any sort of Christmas pudding, let alone one that has been boiling all day. Having tasted the puddings of some of the less talented cooks on our family tree, I can certainly understand why it might be avoided. I remember feeling deeply grateful when old auntie gave up on her Christmas pudding. Although I cannot imagine how it ended up in that state, her pudding often tasted like a combination of wallpaper paste and sawdust. At least Auntie had a good sense of humour about it, each time someone declined the offer of one of her puddings. My mother's Christmas puddings were always moist and delicious. I am sorry that all of you did not have the opportunity to taste one of them, and very sorry that I will never again get to enjoy her pudding with my tea.

Although my mother's formula differs in some ways from the 1895 version above, her ritual for making puddings was one inherited from generations of women before her. The talent for making it was in her bones; Mam never had to measure out a single ingredient, or consult a recipe. The preparations and the time taken would have never passed muster with Betty Crocker, because there were no shortcuts here. The time honoured course of preparation for the puddings was done over a period of weeks leading up to the Christmas season. Of course, fresh ingredients were always an integral part of the mix, and the care taken and attention to detail ensured the puddings were no less than perfect. Also, critically important were the proper implements in which to steam the mixture. When my mother emigrated from Ireland, among the items packed into her steamer trunk were the pudding tins which she would use for many years to come.

There were never ever any plums in the mix; the notion of Christmas pudding as plum pudding comes from the old English use of the word 'plumb' to describe raisins. However, there were mountains of golden sultanas, deep black currants and amber brown raisins, ruby red cherries and dates from Egypt. Added to the mix was Mam's homemade candied peel, crafted from deep yellow lemons and sweet oranges from Italy and Spain. Every piece of fruit had to be thoroughly washed, and any stems or blemishes removed. All was then dried, rolled and wrapped in white cotton cloths, and left on wooden boards for days.

Dozens of walnut, almond and pecan shells had to be cracked, and the salty nut meat pulled out, as full in its form as possible. Then the nuts had to be roughly chopped, slivered, or thinly sliced. When I was a very young child, my mother even had an odd little implement for slicing the almonds wafer thin. Bowls of flour had to be sifted, wafting down into the vessel like the softest snow. As noted in the 1895 recipe, the butcher's wares came into play as well. Mam would go to the shop of an old German butcher downtown, and ask for a couple of large squares of suet. She would slice off the outer layer of each one, and shave the suet down until it was almost as fine as flour.

Once the ingredients were properly prepared, all of the components were set out on the kitchen table. The end result would be many puddings, so my mother would have an assortment of large mixing bowls at the ready. Her hands would work the mix, so she scrubbed them thoroughly before touching a single ingredient. Then, from all that was laid before her, Mam would draw out and fold in various amounts — sultanas, currants, almonds, peel, flour — pausing to assess her work, making little additions here and there, turning and tumbling all in together, a mesmerizing whirl in the bowl.

After the ingredients were married together, parchment paper was placed over the mix, a china plate over the parchment, a fresh tea towel over the bowl, and it would 'rest' for a while, usually a period of days, until Mom was ready to add the Guinness Porter. Guinness Porter was not available in Canada when I was a child, and since he could not buy it here, each year my dad would ask a friend of his, who travelled to Dublin every summer, to bring back a couple of bottles. Usually a cardboard carrier with six small bottles would show up in the late Autumn, and Dad would place it on a storage shelf in the cool basement to keep it just right. I used to love watching Mam pour the creamy black porter into the bowls. The beer seemed to hiss and giggle as it rolled down over the ingredients. The fragrance of the entire concoction was heavenly.

When the porter was added, the time for making wishes was at hand. My mother would let each one of us take a turn, stirring the spoon through the massive amalgam in a large mixing bowl. Anyone who happened by the house while she was making puddings was welcome to have a stir and make a wish. As we plunged the large spoon into the mix, Mam would say, 'Three times around — make sure it's a full three turns, and be certain to make your wish'. Oh, when I think of some of the wishes made over those puddings.

After all of the preparation was complete, the resulting mixture in each bowl was again tightly covered with parchment paper, a thick layer of cotton tea towels, and a china plate on top as a weight. The bowls were placed on a shelf downstairs and left for days, sometimes weeks. There was no fixed schedule for this, my mam once explained. She would know when the time was right to 'tin' the pudding and steam it, based solely on the colour of the mixture and the fragrance emitting from it. Every couple of days, Mam would lift the elaborate cover and check on the pudding progress.

When the time was right, Mam would pile the gorgeous concoction into the pudding tins, place the tins into pots half-filled with water, and set them on the cooker. Atop each one sat an old china plate, ensuring just the right amount of weight to secure the pudding tin lid. Then the watching and waiting would begin. As the hours ticked by, Christmas music might play on the stereo, or the house might be still. Linens for the Christmas table might be ironed, or cards written out. Snow might be gently blowing in winter's breeze, or the crackle of ice might bite at the window glass, but all would take second place to the sound of Mom's Christmas puddings in the pots dancing on the cooker.



  1. I wish I knew if either or my Irish great grandmothers made this pudding. My father never mentioned them.

    1. Hi Claudia,

      I hope you're able to find an answer to that wish at some point in time.


    2. All the best to you and yours this Christmas Claudia!

  2. There's nothing quite like the smell of Christmas pudding steaming! What an evocative post many happy memories, much of it familiar in concept to me, though rum is our alcohol of choice. I've never thought of making home made peel. I also can't imagine making mine without the recipe! My own ingredients are sitting on the kitchen bench right now...happy days. Have a great Christmas even though I know it will be bitter-sweet without your mother. Pauleen

    1. Hi Pauleen,

      Ah yes, I'm right there with you. There is no fragrance I liked more around Christmas time. I am really missing it this year, and wish I truly appreciated all of those puddings when I had them. My husband says since I remember the prep so well I need to try my hand at it, but not this year.

      All the best to you and yours at Christmas!



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