Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa

….. Mea Minima Culpa. Sorry I don’t believe in that “maxima” stuff!

Well I’ve been busily searching for a way to take back the incantation I had asked Bridgid to work on Chef Nigel Slater.

I’ve been whinging about a recipe of his I used for this year’s Plum Pudding. Both my faithful readers will recall that it involved much prep-work and made considerably more pudding than he indicated. I ended up with two large and two small puds.

As a finish off to last evening’s dinner I steamed one of the small ones. I wanted to taste test it to make sure I wouldn’t be poisoning anyone on Christmas Day.

A tiny remaining piece of last night’s plum pudding – just enough to have a bite with tea on Sunday afternoon.

It was one of the lightest, fruitiest (oh stop it! According to the tabloids Nigel turned into a full fledged hetero a few years back, even lives with a lady. Those other things are behind him! STOP IT I SAID!), and tastiest plum puddings I’ve ever had. Laurent agreed whole-heartedly – and just to be sure he had two servings.

So Nigel I take it all back and I should have trusted you! I’m sorry about the warts – apparently if you halve a potato, rub it on the affected area(s) then bury it in the backyard near a patch of Bishop’s Scourge they should disappear by Candlemas.

December 15th is Wear Your Pearls Day – can I clutch them or just suck thoughtful on them, as the actress said to the Archbishop.

Puddin’s and Pies Oh My!

A few thoughts on Christmas cookery.

“It is a problem certainly, that Christmas plum pudding. There is here something that I do not understand at all.”
Hercule Poirot

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
by Agatha Christie (1925)

As Laurent mentioned over at Larry Muffin At Home this past few days has been a flurry of Christmas cooking. By tradition I should be making the Christmas Pudding today , Stir Up Sunday. (For an explanation see Excita, Quæsumus) However today is our much anticipated second concert of the season and I have a busy day ahead of me. It should be a great concert: Space and the Rocket: Gustav Holst’s The Planets and a fun setting of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater by Abigail Richardson-Schulte. I’m pleased to say it’s almost sold out. If you’d like to take a look at the programme notes I compiled they can be found here.

Having said that Friday and Saturday were filled with dried fruits macerating in brandy, suet being chopped, ginger being peeled, bowls being stirred (clockwise), and makeshift systems straight out of steampunk novels being erected to cook more puddings than I intended to make. At one point in time I did have a “traditional” recipe that I followed, clipped as I recall from the New York Times some thirty-odd years ago. However it seems to have disappeared so I, in a fit of inspiration, turned to Nigel Slater. Good old dependable Nigel! Just one thing Nigg, we have to talk. Your recipe makes a bit more than two average puddings!

Anyone who has followed a recipe from an English cookery books or websites knows that there are certain quirks, shall we say. We could start with term “cookery” but that’s a bit of a nit-pick. The measurements are given in metric and the temperatures in Celsius or even more quaintly in “gas marks”. Fortunately Siri is quick to convert measures and temperatures – okay not so much with the gas mark thing. So that’s really not a major problem. (As a sidebar my lad Siri has the most lovely Galway accent*.)

Then there are the ingredients which can cause a touch of confusion e.g. many people confused caster sugar with confectioner’s or icing sugar. Not the same thing at all my dears. Over here caster sugar goes by the name baker’s sugar, bar sugar or superfine. It’s virtue is that it dissolves quickly and gives a smoother result. A search on the web tells me that ordinary granulated sugar can be turned into caster sugar with a quick whiz in a spice or coffee grinder. For 1 cup simply use 1 cup plus a tablespoon, hit the button for 30 seconds and ecco là* 1 cup of caster sugar.

On the topic of sugar how about that old British standby Muscovado or Barbados Sugar! It’s an unrefined cane sugar with a strong flavour of molasses and the texture of Brighton Beach sand. And it is not the same as brown sugar or even demerara sugar, though it can be used in a pinch. I was able to find muscovado last year in a holistic food store down the street but they only sold four bags in a year so stopped ordering it! Though I went the demerara route according to Mr Google you can make your own by mixing 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 or 2 tablespoons of molasses. Just mix with a fork and voilà* muscovado sugar.

As for self-rising flour, well that one is dead simple: 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Blend it all thorough and within no time at all you have self-rising flour.

Now to the final grip, and this doesn’t just apply to British recipes: the matter of time! I’m not sure where the hell these kitchen mavens get their preparation times from but, as an example, it takes more than 15 minutes to peel 600 grams of ginger root! That is unless you have a bloody kitchen staff worthy of Downtown Abbey or whatever it’s called.

Okay whinging and wining over! Next up – use the mincemeat to make mini-pies and freeze them. But for now I’m hanging up my mop cap and apron, making a cuppa tea and having one of those muffins I made from the over abundance of dried apricots we had on hand.

*Take that you “Leave” bunch. That’s my stand for Europe, that is!

November 24th is Celebrate Your Unique Talent Day – hmmmm. Is surviving 41 years without committing murder a talent or just an accomplishment in self-interest?

The Traditions of Christmas – Christmas Pudding

christmas-puddingIn an exchange with my friend Jackiesue on Facebook today I was trying to explain the difference between a Christmas Pudding and a Christmas Cake. And why it wasn’t pudding in the way we think of it in North America.  As she said “English to American”.

I recalled that back in 2007 I had an entry about our own “Pudding” tradition.  Again this year I didn’t make my own – and I have lost that recipe that good King George loved so much.  However the PEI Humane Society was selling them and given the wonderful work that they do it I thought it was an excellent alternative. The lady who makes them told me that she used a recipe of her mother’s from the Second World War when rationing was enforced:  it has no beef suet, and reduced butter and sugar.

So for Jackiesue – I hope this clears up a bit of the very understandable confusion.  And I’ll let you know how it turned out.

Willy Or Won't He

Flaming Christmas Pudding

This will be the first year in over 40 years that there will be no plum pudding on the table as a climax to Christmas dinner. Even last year in Hong Kong our darling Diane arranged to have one especially for us. It was set aflame at the table and then enjoyed with great dollops of Custard Sauce.

There was a time when I would make my own and perhaps had I thought about it this year I could and should have. But that’s all in the conditional so no point dwelling. In fact there was a time I made Christmas Pudding as gifts – a change from Christmas Cakes but we always left those for our friend John to provide.

In amongst all the silly papers we’ve kept and brought with us to Rome I found the following letter that went with the puddings in 1989.

This pudding is…

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Excita, quæsumus

Excita, quaesumus, Domine, tuorum fidelium voluntates: ut divini operis fructum propensius exsequentes, pietatis tuae remedia maiora percipiant: Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amem
(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; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.)

So reads the Collect for the Sunday Next Before Advent, the last Sunday of the Liturgical year in the Christian calendar.

This is not a picture of me showing Laurent how to “stir up” the Christmas Pudding.

It is a reminder to all Christian souls to begin their preparation for the advent of the Christ child by remembering to do good works – a very appropriate sentiment given what is happening in the world today.  And also, if folk myth is to be believed, it serves as a reminder to the goodwives of the parish to finish the preparations for that centre piece of any good English Christmas dinner – the Christmas Pudding.

Yes it’s time to give that pudding batter a final stir – always clockwise and allowing each member of the household to take a turn for luck – before steaming it, lashing it liberally with an appropriate liquor and storing it to ripen and mature.

Though I have long since given up many of the traditions of the Anglican faith I’ve decided that this weekend I would revive the non-liturgical tradition of making my own Christmas Pudding  (I wrote about it a few years ago here).  For many years, to the delight of the hydro company shareholders, I steamed ten or twelve puddings for the requisite eight hours.  They were then given as gifts to friends and family. When we moved to Poland in 1997 the challenge of finding ingredients and the projected cost of sending 2 lbs of dried fruit, candied peel, suet and rum in a ceramic bowl back to Canada saw that tradition end very quickly.  Now that did not mean that we did without our Christmas Pud – no, there has yet to be a Feast of the Nativity in our home where a flaming pudding has not made an appearance at the conclusion of the meal.  Home-made or store-bought, whither it was Mexico, Cairo, Chicago, Warsaw, Beijing, Rome or even back here in Canada our Christmas meal has always ended with the lights being dimmed, the brandy flamed and the be-hollyed Pudding being carried to the table.

Silk greeting card
Embroidered cards, known as WW1 silks were sold to soldiers as souvenirs during WW1. The cards were sewn by women in France and Belgium, and then sent home by soldiers serving overseas.


That first Christmas in Cairo I carted my Christmas Pudding in my hand luggage through Schiphol  Airport.  Security was more lax in those days; today it would no doubt be confiscated as a dangerous weapon.  It was the hit of a dinner which introduced several of our Egyptian friends to turkey, cranberries and the pleasures of the Christmas Pudding.

This is definitely not Janet’s Christmas Pudding.

And we certainly had more success with our pudding that year than our friend and colleague Janet. Our sufragi Ahmed also worked for Janet and she was entertaining six or eight people for dinner and felt she needed all the help she could get.  Ahmed was eager to please, hard working and all-knowing; and even if he didn’t know  he’d expire of embarrassment before he’d admit it to us.  So when Janet asked if he knew what to do with the Christmas Pudding  he assured her that of course he knew what to do with it: why had he not been preparing Christmas Puddings since he was a child grasping at his mother’s skirts?  So confident that she would have a blazing finish to her dinner she left him in charge of the Fortnum and Mason’s pudding and hard sauce a friend had sent from England.  An hour or two before the guests arrived she found Ahmed at the stove stirring the mysterious contents of a large saucepan.  When she peered in there was her Christmas Pudding broken into pieces and being patiently incorporated into the now bubbling hard sauce.  Ahmed was totally puzzled as to why “Madame” would flee the kitchen in tears.

But back to the subject at hand – this year’s Christmas Pudding.  I searched for the recipe I used all those years ago but it has gone the way of many slips of paper that have been tucked into books and binders.  I recalled that it came from the New York Times and was referred to as King George V’s favourite recipe but no amount of goggling (is that now a word? must be spell-check accepted it) turned up any such animal.  However there is no lack of formulas out there and the myths, legends and history surrounding the Festive Pud’s origins and traditions are often written of.  Rather than go into them here I’ll  pass on a jolly good read at Ivan Day’s Food History Jottings.

Empire Pudding2
A left click will take you to Ivan Day’s story of this Royal recipe.

In Day’s article he refers to a recipe purportedly created for George V by his chef André Cédard in 1927.  It was part of a marketing scheme to sell the riches of the “Empire” with contributions from almost every corner of the Commonwealth.  I was tempted to use it – after all if it was good enough to be served to all the little Windsors at the King’s beloved Sandringham  it should be good enough for our little gathering on Mcleod Street in Ottawa.  However as Day mentions the weights and measures provided by the good people at the Empire Marketing Board are great if you’re the King of England and are have a pudding made for every member of the Palace household and all the tenants on your many estates.   However if all you want is one pudding for a select few it just isn’t going to work.  So the search continues.

That is  a tradition that I should remark upon: the Queen still gives each member of her staff a Christmas Pudding, though now they come from Fortnum and Mason’s rather than the Royal kitchens.  The pudding bowl I’ll be using is one which held a Royally-gifted pudding in 2006.

Not the author preparing to boil the pudding.

I won’t bore you with the story of how it made it’s way to our table on our second Christmas in Italy just say that it was a gift from my darling Deb the last Christmastide I saw her in London.  This weekend as I fill it with whatever fruity, boozy mixture I’ve chosen I will think lovingly of her and the times we shared.

Since I first started writing this post a recipe from the London Ritz Book of Christmas has been selected from the many and the list of ingredients made.  Today is shopping; tomorrow the preparations begin; on “Stir Up” Sunday Laurent and I will each give it a stir for luck – with a few extra stirs for all our friends;  Deb’s pudding basin will be filled and be set to steam; and the first smells of the season will invade the kitchen.

As we stir I think that rather than the pious collect proscribed by the Book of Common Prayer we’ll use a rhyme that cheeky choirboys have chanted in Cathedral cloisters for at least a century:

Stir up we beseech thee
The pudding in the pot
When we get to our house
We’ll eat the bloody lot.

On this day in 1992:  a fire breaks out in Windsor Castle, badly damaging the castle and causing over £50 million worth of damage.

Christmas Pudding, Luv?

As often happens when I either read, exchange e-mails with, or actually talk to my friend David I end up buying a book. David and I met three years ago through our blogs and I had the good luck to meet him and his Diplomate face to face for a concert and dinner when I was in London two years ago.  Brief though my recent trip to London was it still gave me the opportunity to meet up with David and the Diplomate on the Friday evening.

A lithograph from the London Illustrated News showing the new quarters of the Garrick Club in 1864.  The club had become so popular that its original building proved inadequate and a new building was constructed on King St – which was soon to become Garrick St in honour of both the club and the great actor it was named after.

The afternoon began with drinks at the Garrick Club with Diplomate and several of his friends who made this wide-eyed colonial bumpkin feel very comfortable amongst the theatrical splendor of one of the most prestigious private men’s clubs in England.  I would have liked to post a few pictures from the Internet of the interior with its incredible collection of theatrical art work but as a privileged guest I would be breaching etiquette by doing so; so you might want to click on the link above to see some of the splendors I saw at 15 Garrick Street.  Conversation – and several rather delicious Manhattan Cocktails topped up with champagne – flowed easily with one of England’s finest young countertenors and a member of the clergy from St Paul’s Cathedral.  Topics ranged from upcoming performances in Chicago to arts gossip to the Occupy London situation at the Cathedral to a charity project in India.   We then headed over to Chinatown to meet David and a lady friend for dinner at the New World – one of the top rated restaurants in the area.

 The lady friend is an editor with a small publishing house – yes they still exist – and her house had just had a title that had astonished everyone by making the best seller list over the Christmas holidays.  More astonishingly it wasn’t a new novel but a reissue of a book originally published in 1932.   Christmas Pudding was the second of Nancy Mitford‘s nine novels. Perhaps most astonishingly in recent years Mitford has been more thought of as one of those sad, bad, mad Mitford girls than the fine novelist she was and here she was once again a best selling author.  The reissue of Christmas Pudding climbed to #4 on the British best seller list and may well have started a mini-Renaissance for, as I’ve discovered, an unjustly neglected writer.  The general consensus at table was that it was a good read so I immediately added it to my mental list of books to read in 2012.

Those sad, bad, mad Mitford girls:  Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela Mitford in 1935.  Ben MacIntyre a journalist with The Times characterized them as:  “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

And is there any better place to read a book than at 32,000 feet as you head across the Atlantic – particularly if none of the 72 video options are either interesting or current.  And surely if it was on the best seller list it would be available at the W. H. Smith bookstore at Heathrow.  I mean you can get Stilton cheese, Hermes scarves, Pink’s shirts (I bought two) , Clinque, 12 year old Scotch (Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or) and Molton Mowbray Pork Pies at the shops in the concourse  – so a best seller from this past Christmas should be there right?  Wrong!  When asked if she had Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, the pleasant lady at the till – in a voice that would have done Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins proud – suggested I look in cookbooks or if I wanted the real thing that it was a bit past the season but I might try Harrod’s.  Sadly I had to make do with the latest bit of Stephan Fryery as reading material and graciously passed on the idea of a Christmas pud from the Disneyland of Department Stores.

But I knew it would be available here – if not from Amazon then one of the small bookstores that still manage to do business in Ottawa.  Well I discovered that from the former I could order it and it would appear in my mail box sometime in the next three months and from the later possibly – if it could be ordered – it would be in my hands a month or two later.   Even a search of the Ottawa Public Library came up empty!  Now there is nothing quite like the inability to get something to whet the appetite for said unattainable item. 

Finally there it was, good old dependable Penguin had published all nine of Mitford’s novels in one of their marvelous “complete works of” series.  I was going to get to my fill of Mitford – 997 pages, excluding “new introduction by….”  – of a writer that I had neglected in the past.  So the reading project for this winter:  The Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford.  All nine! All 997 pages!  Ah well one shouldn’t do anything by halves should one?  Dear god I’m starting to talk like a Mitford Bright Young Thing!!!!!

 04 February – 960:  The coronation of Zhao Kuangyin as Emperor Taizu of Song, initiating the Song Dynasty that would last more than three centuries.

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