Last year, right after Thanksgiving, I embarked on the most involved cooking project I have ever undertaken. It was also probably the most involved gift I have ever given.
If you knew me, you would know that means it was pretty darn involved. I made my mother-in-law a Christmas pudding.
A bit of background: My mother-in-law, Mary, is Irish. As in she’s from Ireland.
Every Christmas, Mary talked about how as a girl her family always made a traditional Christmas pudding for dessert.
Christmas pudding (also called plum pudding, though it contains no plums) is basically a steamed cake flavored with molasses, dried fruit and spices and then bathed in alcohol.
She remembered how rich and moist it was, especially when topped with a scoop of the delicious brandy butter. (Brandy butter: brandy, butter, powdered sugar. Of course it tasted good.)
As Mary reminisced, I would say, “Well let’s make one!”
And she would say, “Oh no, you can’t make it right before Christmas. You have to make it at least six weeks ahead. It has to age.”
I didn’t like the idea of a cake that needed aging, but I still wanted to try it, this confection that made her so nostalgic. I thought that taste of Ireland would be the best present I could give her — well, except for a grandchild, which is what she really wants.
Unfortunately, every year I would remember too late.
Last year I remembered. I found out that many people across the pond make their Christmas puddings on “Stir-up Sunday,” which is the Sunday following Thanksgiving for us Americans.
The timing is exactly why Christmas puddings have not taken off in this country. The last thing you want to do a few days after cooking a giant meal is to begin another enormous cooking project.
Still, I went for it. I researched recipes, settling on one with about a thousand ingredients that, if I did everything right, was supposed to look like a bowl of black mud inverted onto a plate.
I went in search of a pudding mold. I found and ordered a beautiful fluted one online before I realized that what most people in Ireland use for this pudding is a plain old mixing bowl.
Then I started shopping. I would need eggs, flour, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, almonds, walnuts, apple, brown sugar, molasses, carrot, lemon rind, orange rind, currants, raisins, golden raisins, dried cherries, dried apricots, bread crumbs, candied citron, hard liquor and a pint of Guinness (that’s what makes it Irish).
Oh, and one more thing: suet. Suet is beef or mutton fat, specifically the hard fat around the kidneys and loins.
The good thing about suet is that you can probably get it for free. The bad thing is that since not very many people ask for it, not very many butchers know how to get it for you. Those who do will think you’re using it to make a bird feeder. It took me several conversations to get what I needed. Once I did, I still had to process it. Gross.
I also couldn’t find candied citron or any candied citrus peel, so I made my own. It wasn’t hard; I just cooked the peel in a sugar syrup and let it dry. Still, this pudding project was becoming quite an ordeal.
Actually mixing up the Christmas pudding was pretty easy once I had all the parts together. Then you pour the batter into a greased bowl, cover with foil, tie with string and steam it for — get this — 12 hours!
When it came out, I let the pudding cool, wrapped it and stuck it in the cabinet with a couple of glugs of brandy to age. Every so often I would water it with alcohol, taking care to follow the instructions.
About six weeks later, on Christmas Day, the surprise was ready. I mixed up the brandy butter and plopped the pudding onto a platter. The whole family waited at the table for dessert.
Just as I was about to come out with it, my husband, Brendan, told Mary I had a surprise for her. Never one to wait, she shreiked, “A baby!?”
Um, sorry, no.
Once we both got over our disappointment, I came out with my homely masterpiece. The pudding smelled amazing. And even though I hadn’t eaten it as a child there was only one way to describe the flavor: it tasted like Christmas.
Though she might have felt bad for her earlier faux pas, I could tell Mary was utterly sincere when she whispered, “It’s perfect.”
Those words made all my effort worthwhile.