Pub Classics - Great balls of fire

By Richard Fox

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Christmas pudding

It has its origins back in the mists of time, but it is still, arguably, the country's favourite festive dessert. Richard Fox lauds the Christmas...

It has its origins back in the mists of time, but it is still, arguably, the country's favourite festive dessert. Richard Fox lauds the Christmas pud.

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding!

In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered - flushed, but smiling proudly - with the pudding. Like a speckled cannon ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

"Oh, a wonderful pudding!" Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage…

If time was ever a test of quality, then this quote from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, must bare testament to

the stature of the Christmas pud. And yet these days we can just pluck one off our supermarket shelves as though it were

another packet of bog roll. Another culinary classic reduced to a plasti-clad list of unintelligible ingredients to be zapped by microwaves to within an inch of its life.

Time for a little reverence me thinks - particularly at Christmas, when goodwill and historic reflection are a much needed tonic for the spiritually bereft (OK, so I speak for myself).

In actual fact the Christmas pud was in existence well before Dickensian England. Recipes can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages, making this pudding one of the oldest surviving dishes in British culinary history - along with beer. Maybe its no coincidence that stout is as good an accompaniment with Christmas pud as the finest Sauternes with pâté de foie gras.

OK, things were a little different back then. For a start, it contained chopped poultry, pheasant and rabbit (hey, I'm still tempted). By the end of the Middle Ages, raisins, currants, prunes and wines were being chucked in with the meat. But by 1600, it reached - give or take an ingredient

- it's current incarnation, with the addition of dried fruit, and breadcrumbs.

And then everything went pear-shaped. In 1664, some kill-joys/Daily Mail editors declared the innocent pud: a "lewd custom" and promptly banned it. I ask you!

Fortunately, normality was restored in the 18th century when King George I reestablished it, much to the chagrin of the

Quakers. What a party animal he must have been.

But the real champion of the pud - and I guess the guy we should credit for its present-day popularity, was Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. His enthusiasm for this dessert certainly sparked his missus into action, and before you could say "great balls of fire" Christmas was not Christmas without a healthy serving of this brandy-doused sweet.

So, having firmly established its credentials as a classic, how should we go about cooking and serving it to our expectant punters - and what to serve it with?

Firstly, Christmas pudding needs to be steamed. This method allows for slow cooking, which is essential if we're to get a moist, tasty result. The thing is, the Christmas pud is a very dense affair, so conventional baking would result in a

crusty outer layer and uncooked middle - not good.

The other key factor is when to cook it. Traditionally, it's made on Stir-up Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Advent. It should then be left to mature until Christmas. This maturation period is particularly important as all the ingredients meld and macerate together, giving a flavour much greater than the sum of the parts.

One tradition that I would definitely advise leaving out, particularly in the American-style climate of litigation that now haunts us, is the practice of putting money in the mix (how that always ruins everything). One broken tooth could cost you much more than an apology.

To summarise ingredients then: the fruit element should be made up of raisins, currants, glacé cherries, orange and lemon rind and apple. Suet is a key ingredient, along with brown sugar, eggs and flour. On the alcohol front, a strong dark beer is perfect. Although stout is traditional, there are all kinds of artisan beers around now to add extra flavour and fruity notes to the combo. Thomas Hardy ale is exceptional - but be careful of its 11% + abv. Fuller's 1845 also has the credentials to give the dish a real lift.

Once steamed and turned out onto a serving plate, no Christmas pudding experience is complete without a flaming ceremony. The secret is to warm the brandy first before pouring over and igniting. And finally, a simple brandy butter finishes off the whole affair to perfection. From a commercial service point of view, individually-steamed puddings are going to be the most practical and easiest to manage.

From a marketing perspective, why not advertise the day you've made the mix, and then commence a countdown to the

actual sampling. You'll give the whole Christmas dining experience a real artisan flavour. Get stirring!

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