November 25, 2012

Traditions: Stir-up Sunday

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded…”
- the Book of Common Prayer

That’s right, dear friends, a surprise category. How exciting! In an attempt to save possibly the best until last - and absolutely nothing to do with my forgetting to include it in the previous post - I’m kicking the new format off with Traditions. Featuring either my own or long-established customs, this section will focus on and regularly revisit some old favourites by sharing the recipes and stories behind their inception. As the festive season is less than four weeks away it’s the perfect time of year to be enjoying such history-rich treats, and so I thought there no better place to begin our Traditions feature than with the humble Christmas pud.

Bound heavily by religious custom the plum pudding has been associated with Christmas since the early 17th century, but traces even humbler beginnings as far back as 1420’s Victorian England, where it originated as a meat and dried fruit-filled pastry concocted to preserve the excesses of the autumn harvest. Over time the savoury elements were slowly replaced by a more decadent combination of suet, sugar and spices, and by the mid 1800’s the plum pudding had developed into the celebratory Christmas cannon ball that we know today.

Much like the flaming ritual of its sharing, the making of a plum pudding is also heavily steeped in tradition. Beginning theologically on the last weekend before Advent, Stir-up Sunday was adopted by those of a baking faith as the day on which to make their Christmas pudding so that it had time to mature. For many the day was spent in the kitchen with family where, as well as the superstitious adding of trinkets, every child in the household was also given an opportunity to stir the fruit mix and make a wish. The family recipe slowly passed from generation to generation and habit soon became tradition such that, with its unmistakable festive aromas, the pudding is now an essential feature on almost every table come Christmas day.

As a first-time pudding maker, today the reason for these traditions quickly became apparent as deciding where to start when commencing from scratch can be an absolute minefield. Do I boil, or steam? Use a lot of suet, or just a little? And will it be milk or ale, marmalade or treacle, fresh fruit or no? All this to decide, and that’s before I’d even thought about which and what ratios of dried fruits to employ! But you have to start somewhere, and so after consulting numerous ‘best-ever’ and ‘family favourites’ I settled on one most closely resembling that of Granny Jane's, courtesy of the ever-delectable HFW. Naturally a number of personal tweaks and modifications were made, and no doubt there will be many more in years to come, but in the end it was an ale-based, medium level suet recipe that kicked things off.

Plenty of different vine fruits went in. There were almonds and marmalade, glace cherries and peel. And just for a little added extra the breadcrumbs came from a particularly scrumptious honey and whey sourdough.

Working in an Australian summer makes the suet grain difficult to control so I’m not sure that I’ll get exactly the right texture, but after six hours of simmering they all looked as a pudding should look, with a nice springy finish and a beautifully dark hue.

All that’s left now is a few splashes of brandy once they’re cool then it’s off to the fridge to relax until the big day. Godspeed, little puddings!

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