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12 November 2012

Never enough brandy

The book I'm working on, Crimson Joy [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses], is set in a small West Sussex market town during Advent and Christmas. So I've been reading about Regency Christmas customs. They're really really cool.

My favorite is the Christmas pudding. Christmas pudding is a boiled bread pudding full of dried fruit and apples, spices, and brandy. As anyone who's read Lauren's The Mischief of the Mistletoe knows, the mixture was then made into small round balls and wrapped in muslin. In the Victorian era, the custom shifted to putting the pudding in a bowl, covering it and steaming it, then inverting it onto a plate and flambéing it. But in the Regency they were still in the tying-muslin-wrapped-balls-onto-a-broom-handle-and-boiling-them-in-the-washtub phase. (And actually, I took a British Christmas cooking class at my local co-op, and the instructor said her mother used to make them that way in Australia in the 60s. She also said, "I know they're shelf-stable because once they were boiled my mother used to keep them in a tub under the bed for months, but I don't recommend that.")

(1774 edition; the book was first published in 1747).

The brandy is really, really important. So is the sugar. Here's why:

The last Sunday in November has a traditional collect from the Book of Common Prayer which begins, "Stir up, O Lord, we beseech Thee, the hearts of Thy faithful people..." As a consequence it was known as Stir-up Sunday and in an adorable traditional joke, it's when people started stirring their Christmas puddings. The day after Stir-up Sunday, grocers would fill their windows with Christmas pudding ingredients and the pudding-making would begin! In The Folklore of Sussex, Jacqueline Simpson says:

The actual stirring of these mixtures was a pleasant family ritual in which everyone took part. When they were already partially blended, everyone would be called in to help stir--mother first, then father, then the children in order of age, then all other members of the household, including servants, if any. Even babies stirred; the author has been informed that she stirred her first Christmas pudding in 1931, at the age of one. The way it was done was important; one must use a wooden spoon and turn it sunwise, from left to right--some say, because Christ's manger was of wood and because the Magi travelled sunwise as they searched for Bethlehem. And one should stir silently, with one's eyes shut, and make a secret wish.
" ...Wait a second," I thought. "They stirred their puddings over three weeks in advance?"

Yes, they did. And all that brandy and sugar were natural preservatives that kept things pretty safe. I still wouldn't have wanted to sample the batter before it was boiled for hours, though!

After being mixed, the pudding batter was often wrapped in muslin and hung from a hook in order to dry out:

A giant lump of muslin-wrapped Christmas pudding hangs on a hook with a little branch of plastic holly attached
Photo credit: DO'Neil at the English language Wikipedia

Let me tell you, though, having sampled some at my cooking class...those things are DELICIOUS. As are mince pies! Very time-consuming to make, though. The thing I'm probably going to making the most often from the class was the brandy butter.

Let's just savor those words again: brandy butter. Also called hard sauce, brandy butter is exactly what it sounds like: butter and sugar creamed together with some brandy. It's then refrigerated again until hard. Here's a simple recipe (icing sugar=powdered sugar, for us US folks). This stuff is RIDICULOUSLY GOOD. I can't wait to try some on toast.

What's your favorite holiday treat? I'm already getting pretty excited about latkes!

And stay tuned, tomorrow I have a guest post from Susanna Fraser about her fantastic new Regency historical An Infamous Marriage...

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4 Comments:

Blogger Marion Spicher said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Marion Spicher said...



Blogger Marion Spicher said...

Rose, thanks for the trip down memory lane. My father & his parents brought English traditions with him to Canada when he was age 4, (1911) and his mother taught my mother (from PA) how to make "Christmas Pudding." Like fruitcake, it could keep for a year! And delicious! Mum made a caramel sauce to pour over it once it had steamed for a long time, so perhaps that would kill any critters! The memory is magical as she would cut the strings, dump it upside down out of the white porcelain bowl steaming hot, remove the muslin wrap & slice it in wedges from the center. Then topped it with the caramel sauce. Today, Mum and I spent these moments together thanks to you, even though she is no longer here.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Marion--aw, what a great story! I'm glad the post brought back happy memories, and thanks for sharing. I feel the same way about holiday foods my mom used to make...eating them is like being home again. That emotional power that food has is part of the reason I love cooking!

5:47 PM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

The excellent British cook who will bring a Christmas pudding and a traditional Christmas cake for our holiday revels has already made both of them. Far more than 3 weeks in advance. We're hoping that these delicacies make it safely past TSA agents! It wouldn't be a proper Christmas without one of her puddings, and the accompanying brandy butter!

3:12 PM  

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