Christmas Pudding and the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future

I made Christmas pudding aka Black Cake aka fruitcake aka plum pudding this week.  It’s always been part of my life.  My grandmother made it.  My mother made it.  My aunts make it.    I have always loved it.    I am not a quiet personality.  One of my supervisors told me some years ago that had I been growing up now I would have been diagnosed as ADHD.  A facile explanation for sure.  But this is an old family story.  My Grandma had mailed pudding to my mother.  My mother was talking to my Bubba and noticed silence.  I was two.  Upon investigation she found I had gotten into the pudding.  Bubba told her well at least I would get drunk and pass out.  Uh, that’s not how I get drunk to this day.  I get hyper and very active.  Child is father of the man.

The pudding is one thing that I cannot give up.  It’s an integral part of my Christmas.

My mother made it all by herself when my brother was two and I was around five.  She declared that she wanted to jump out the 6th floor window and would never make it by herself again.  It’s an intense process and truly needs a family.

I was reflecting on how things have changed.  Some parts of the pudding are easier now.  When my mother was a child she remembered the servants tending it over a fire in the yard.  As this was in the tropics, it must have been quite the undertaking.

Traditionally, we made pudding the Saturday or Sunday just before Christmas in the last few decades.  Before that when I was little, it was done earlier as it had to be posted to Jamaica to arrive before Christmas.  That too, was a process. The correct tin and box had to be found, the brown paper wrapping and string, the customs form, the trip to the post.  Of course, if someone was coming or going a chance could be taken to smuggle it in luggage.  The opportunity did not frequently represent itself.  And of course, one received puddings too.  I now send pudding to my father-in-law who states it is the closest thing to Irish plum pudding. Of course, we are all colonials.    We send it after Christmas so he can enjoy it on his own, without sharing. I do share it with those who know it.

This year I made it the Tuesday before Christmas.  I am not working so not bound by the weekend.  I have only done it once or twice on Christmas Eve.  Once recently, due to work.  It made me feel unsettled. The  last Christmas my grandmother was alive, I made one by hand Christmas Eve at my aunt Hyacinth’s.  We had landed from New York that day.  Hyacinth hadn’t done it.  In fact, it really wasn’t a true pudding but more of a raisin cake/pudding.  It was made with raisins that had been soaked with I am supposing brandy.  Hyacinth was big on having a dram of brandy after dinner with a little cigarillo. It was flavored with rosewater.  I did by hand and mixed and cooked till literally around midnight.  I woke Christmas morning with blistered hands. I don’t think we even tried to smuggle our own in.  My mother was aghast that Customs made us unwrap all our presents.  By the way, it was agreed, my pudding, such as it was, was excellent.

Pudding is a huge process and starts months before.  Fruits need to be bought and in my family soaked in port, sometimes with a little rum.  We used to have a brown Mott’s apple juice bottle for the purpose which we kept in the garage.  My husband recycled it by accident a few years back.  My mother would set a box of raisins on a cookie sheet covered with cheesecloth and set it out on the backyard table in the sun to “plump”.  And then the bit I hated and have dispensed with, we had to cut the raisins.  This was done one by one and was a sticky mess.  This practice was dated to when raisins weren’t necessarily seedless.  Then prunes had to be stewed and pitted.  Another mess.  I buy them pitted most years and sometimes I stew, others not.  In the old days the pits were dried than cracked and the kernels also went into the bottle also.  I did that once by myself and had one of those jumping out the window moments. Then mixed citron.   We have had problems finding this in our regular market the last few years.  We were getting desperate.  Bought it this year for $10.00 and my mother and grandma would be twirling in their graves at that thought.

In the past, in the afternoon the day before, we would sit around the table and crack a pound of walnuts.  These go in last as my grandmother said any earlier made the pudding “mecky”.  I buy them shelled.  I am deeply grateful that I can afford to do so.

The night before we “rubbed” a pound of dark brown sugar and a pound of butter together. The purchase of the butter had to be  I did this by hand at Hyacinth’s.  We used to use a hand mixer.    The mixture has to be completely incorporated and change to a pale beige color.  How we didn’t burn the mixer out, I do not know.  My father, who never, ever tasted it would always fret that it would spoil.  They argued about it every year.  I have a Kitchen Aid.  It takes minutes and it’s done in minutes.

The morning of is very busy.  The tins must be taken out and set up.  When I was growing up, we used a pudding basin that must be easily over 100 years ago.  This was supplemented by three tins dating back to WWII.  These were made at that time not bought.  They had very sharp edges and as the years went by began to fall apart.  About ten years ago I mentioned the tins were shot and a West Indian woman told me that there was a kitchen supply place by the office where I could get them.  I did!  They were inexpensive and easy.  Another change.   The tins need to be greased and lined.  We used to do it with Crisco and the saved papers from the butter, and waxed paper.  I use cooking spray and parchment paper.  Cutting the wax paper was always an ordeal.  My grandmother made clothes without a pattern and cut freehand.  My mother cut perfect circles.  And then there was me.  I can’t cut a straight line with a paper cutter.  I lost that job.

Then pots of water must be put to simmer on the stove.  They have to be the right size to accommodate the puddings.  The kettle needs to be full and simmering too to be ready to replace water in the pots as needed.  One of the favored pots is my baby bottle sterilizer.

Next my Gran’s big bowl needs to be taken out.  When Grandma and Ma were doing it that was where the butter and sugar had been rubbed.  It’s a massive antique bowl.  I see smaller ones in antique shops and they are quite pricey.  We used to have a nested set but as this one is only used once or twice a year, it survives.

Assembling the rest of the ingredients:  It requires a dozen eggs.  They should be separated and the whites and yolks beaten.  My mother didn’t separate.  My Gran used to and whip the whites by hand.  In my teens, they compromised and separated but didn’t beat.  Ah, mixers.  I separate and whip the whites and beat the eggs.  This is when my husband starts to implode as he contemplates masses of dishes.  Next is the scale.  Again, a once a year item.  My mother got it with Plaid stamps.  Our recipe require 3/4 pound bread crumbs and 1/4 pound flour. This then gets sieved a cup at a time alternating with the fruits at the end.  First off, I stopped sieving the flour.  It’s a different time.  The flour is fine enough. Then we used to definitely sieve the bread crumbs.  This requires two people, one mixing, one sieving.  I used to sieve then I graduated to mixing.  Now, I do it on my own.  No sieving!

The butter and eggs get transferred to big bowl and now we start mixing by hand.  We add rosewater, vanilla and the secret ingredient – black currant jam.  This jam is so hard to find some years.  The spoon needs to stand by itself when the mixture is right.  This has been challenging in the best of times.  Now, I am weaker and older.  I need help.  My husband stepped up to the plate.  At this point, I feel incredibly sad.  My frailty bothers me.  I remember the last time I did it with my mother, too.  She had dementia but I didn’t realize.  I couldn’t imagine how she had forgotten how to do it.  That night was one of the last times my brother and I had cordial relations.  He stopped by the house, said I had to get out of the house and took me out. I got blissfully, blessedly drunk.  Jumping out of windows was not an option.

Next step the mixture gets divided into the tins and the tops get sprinkled with flour to seal them.  The tins are then shut and in the old days we made a flour paste to put around the edges.  It was my first job and I hated it.  Now I have proper tins that lock.  The next bit was my father’s and he bitched every year.  The old tins had to be tied with string without upsetting the contents so that the tins could be raised and lowered.  Much screaming and gnashing of teeth.  I have proper tins and my husband is amazing at knots so all that is needed is a loop at the top.

Onto the stove to steam for four hours.  The house begins to smell insanely of liquor and Christmas spice.  This drives my husband crazy as he is allergic to the nuts and can’t have any.  You have to keep watch over the pots to make sure there’s enough water.

It’s always a long day.  This year I was destroyed.  I literally hurt in all ways.  I hate not being strong enough.  I honor the past.  Some years it’s easier than others.  This year I miss my mother and my grandmother.  I know Grandma would not let me do it my way, the new overtaking the old.  They were precise women with a sense of what was the right way and wrong way to do things.

The puddings are served with a brandy hard sauce.  Not in my house, can’t take the chance on the alcohol and husband.  More adjustments.

At the end of the day, this is Christmas – family, memories, tradition.

Merry Christmas!

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