In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, eight members of the Cratchit family shared a tiny plum pudding. One taste was enough to inspire smiles of satisfaction and enthusiastic praises all around. Their appreciation of simple pleasures even warmed the heart of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, as he travelled with the ghost of Christmas Present.
In the spirit of Christmas Past, I have been thinking about the variety of puddings I have sampled throughout my life. The British tradition of serving Christmas pudding, after the Christmas meal, evolved from a 14th century recipe for frumenty, which was porridge-like and eaten as an entire meal. Frumenty was a mixture of meat, dried fruits, spirits, and spices. I am sure this mixture kept well without refrigeration.
Thank goodness pudding recipes have evolved over the decades. Some recipes became more fruity and were referred to as plum puddings. These puddings were dense, and, if not steamed to perfection, were called cannonballs, an old Victorian word for puddings on the heavy side. The addition of eggs, grated root vegetables, and breadcrumbs, created a lighter dessert, sometimes called carrot pudding. Many families cherish their traditional pudding recipe, passing it down from generation to generation, making adaptations based on their family’s dietary opinions and available ingredients.
Christmas puddings were usually steamed, which meant they could be made on any heat source, as long as a large pot was available, and the pudding was lifted slightly away from the bottom of the pot. This enabled even cooking of the pudding, in spite of the varying temperatures of heat sources.
I remember sitting by the wood stove watching my grandmother add water, from the hot kettle, to the big pot that held the pudding. More amazing, is my memory of the smell of the caramelizing white sugar, which became part of the sauce that went over the pudding. The sweet fragrance from Grandma’s kitchen wafted up the stovepipes to the bedrooms. Such a fragrance would easily induce visions of sugarplums.
Over the years, I have collected delicious Christmas pudding recipes designed to be cooked in conventional ovens, microwave ovens, and crockpots, as well as steamers. Ingredients vary widely, but, when Christmas puddings are served, they are usually smothered in delicious sauce. It’s the sauce that motivates my husband to say, “Yes!” to this dessert. He prefers a bowl of sauce with a tiny piece of pudding…for garnish.
Of course, Christmas puddings were the perfect dessert for pioneer women to make, here in Canada. As I mentioned, most recipes included easily stored ingredients like dried or candied fruits, nuts, and breadcrumbs. Root vegetables kept well and were readily available for months after harvest. Steamed pudding recipes have always been quite forgiving, and families would add whatever extras the local general store might have imported for Christmas, such as oranges or lemons. The addition of spirits, like rum or whiskey, contributed to the taste as well as the preservation of puddings.
If you have never tried old-fashioned Christmas pudding, then you must pay a visit to the Western Development Museum (WDM), in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, during the Christmas season - mid-November until the New Year. For decades, I have made several December visits to the Boomtown Café in the museum to treat my mother-in-law to a serving of Christmas past. My mother-in-law and I believe that a four-pudding December is, usually, followed by a blessed New Year. I wrote about our Christmas tradition some time ago, and you can read A Christmas Tradition in Saskatchewan by clicking on the title.
Each time my mother-in-law and I enjoyed pudding at the WDM, I was filled with questions about the recipe, the bakers, and what it looked like behind the scenes. I do remember the day, many years ago, when I learned that volunteer grandmothers came into the kitchens and made their family pudding recipes. I could imagine a group of little white haired ladies, socializing as they chopped and stirred, each steaming their own pudding. I wondered if they competed for accolades. In those days, no two servings were ever the same, but you could tell, at a glance, which ones contained more dark fruit and which had visible carrot bits. The rum sauce was, and will always be, the great equalizer when it comes to puddings. My mother used to say you could serve it on a shingle and folks would rave.
It took me two years to persuade the various food specialists, at the WDM, to allow me entry into their kitchens, to watch the Christmas puddings materialize. This year, permission was granted, the date was set, and I was cautioned that I would not be allowed to see the recipe for the pudding OR the sauce. The recipe had been passed on, in a file of well-loved recipes, from baker to baker, and was classified information. I presumed it might have originated with one of the grandmothers. Of course, many adaptations must have been made to create a recipe that would feed the large groups that attend the WDM each year. I was told, in jest, that if I saw the recipe I would have to be terminated. The nervous laughter I heard was my own, but I remained optimistic about my pending visit.
The forbidden file!!
On the planned date, I had barely set foot into the cafeteria line, when Bobbi, the head baker, arrived to welcome me. Marilyn, the kitchen supervisor, arrived next, and the two ushered me through the short order kitchen to the baking kitchen. On the counter there were two huge bowls of already measured ingredients. Eggs and butter were ready to be added. There was no visible recipe for the pudding, although there were other recipes strewn about for me to look at, as well as some of Bobbi’s favourite cookbooks. They were definitely serious about the secrecy of the pudding recipe.
I took a moment to notice the exaggerated size of everything. There were pails of baking powder. Bowls, pans, and ovens were oversized. I watched Bobbi mix the batter with glove-covered hands. There is something relaxing about watching someone mix ingredients, this way. Bobbi, too, seemed to drift back in time. She remembered, aloud, sitting at a table watching her grandmother and her mother bake. Bobbi had learned about texture, and consistency, of batters and dough by watching and asking questions. She talked about enlarging, and adapting, recipes and testing the results diligently until perfection was reached. As she talked about the importance of food storage, I could smell cookies baking. She explained that each cookie would be cooled, wrapped, and frozen. I felt like I was in Santa’s workshop.
Marilyn (L) and Bobbi (R)
Bobbi scooped the huge batches of pudding into buttered and lined flat pans. She didn’t divulge how she would cook them, but I could see there were several options. In this kitchen, I saw steam ovens, regular ovens, and warming ovens. I was expected to leave the kitchen, before the puddings were put in to cook.
I had no trouble filling a couple hours at the Western Development Museum. I enjoyed a delicious lunch in the Boomtown Café. On this day, I had cream of turkey soup and a piece of pumpkin pie. After lunch, I walked through Once Upon a Christmas, by myself, for the first time, ever. I usually have delightful grandchildren or sweet old people in tow. I took time to walk through Boomtown. It was beautiful with little snowdrifts on the rooftops and sidewalks. I went into the newspaper office and remembered my early childhood in my parents’ newspaper business.
I was lost in my own memories, when I became aware of the delicious smell of almost cooked Christmas pudding, wafting into the 1910 town. I headed back to the kitchens. As I sat outside the restaurant, waiting for an invitation to return to the kitchen, I realized that Christmas pudding is, in itself, a simple thing to make. The magic is in the traditions surrounding it.
Back in the kitchen, I was allowed to peek under the pans, and the damp parchment paper, to see the moist and fragrant pudding. It was immediately covered to retain the steam. This pudding would be served at several upcoming banquets, as well as offered in the café. On the day of my visit, they already had plans to serve 40 events over Christmas. As I stood in the bustling kitchen, I felt warm, happy, and sure that the busy, talented people who work in the Western Development Museum kitchens are sincerely devoted to creating special taste memories for their guests. I am a frequent and grateful guest.
When it was time for me to leave, I took some photos, enjoyed a last glance around the kitchen, received several farewell hugs, and was given a giant cookie for the road. I thanked everyone in the kitchen, and assured them I would see them soon.
My mother-in-law is ready for the pudding countdown to Christmas, 2017. I will always feel special when I pay for our treats, because I have been allowed to enter the magical WDM kitchens, and not just everyone has the persistence to get inside. Right?
My recipe for Steamed Apple Date Pudding can be found by clicking on the title. I give detailed instructions and have made this pudding many times. If you are new to steaming puddings, this is a great recipe to try.
Special thanks to Bobbi, Marilyn, Jamie, Jason, and the other people who make each visit special. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful 2018!
Back in 1972, when the museum first opened, they had planned on catering weddings and conventions. The newspaper mentioned that the main hall would be able to serve 1000 guests.
I use a tiny jar of baking powder in a year.
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