As I promised in my last post, I have a second cheese recipe for you that uses a traditionally-made British cheese. Harvey & Brockless sent me a whole loads of excellent cheeses and other goodies, and tucked in there was probably my favourite British blue cheese, Isle of Wight Blue:
‘Established in 2006 by mother and son Julie and Richard Hodgson, Isle of Wight Cheese Co. flagship blue is soft and creamy with a bluey green natural rind and blue veins.’
It’s strong, yet mellow and very creamy. Nothing like a Stilton at all (I love a good Stilton too, of course).
This is exactly the sort of cheese Professor Peter J. Atkins and I were talking about in my podcast episode about the British cheese industry, and how there is a resurgence in traditional styles and methods: softer cheeses made in small batches in small farms – before the behemoth that is Cheddar came along!
This cheese, because of its blue cheese flavour, low acidity and smooth consistency, is perfect to make into an ice cream. Cheese ice creams used to be popular, hitting a peak in the Regency period: indeed, the Prince Regent himself tucked into Parmesan cheese ice cream. My ice cream, like Prince George’s, is sweetened, but it is not over-sweet. It’s very simple to make – a case of mixing soft cheese into some cream and sugar. A curdy, hard or crumbly cheese would not work here.
I’ve combined it with a dessert classic: pears poached in red wine. There’s a recipe in Forme of Cury for it, so it really does have quite the vintage. The poaching wine is sweet and spiced and is reduced to a delicious, tart and slightly fiery spooning sauce. On the side: a nice digestive biscuit.
This is a well tried-and-tested recipe: it’s popped up on restaurant and pop-up restaurant menus in the past, but I originally made it as part of The Telegraph Fabulous Foodie competition all the way back in 2015. It was judged by none less than Xanthe Clay, John Gregory Smith and Jeremy Dixon and it took me to the grand final. So if you are still unsure as to whether you’ll like it, take it from them, not me, that it is good!
Give it a go, you won’t be sorry. Also, see below for an excellent way of using up left over ice cream and sauce.
In a bowl, break up the cheese as best you can and beat into it one third of the cream. You won’t be able to blend it in perfectly, but a little texture is no bad thing.
Sift the icing sugar with the reminder of the cream in a second bowl and whip until just slightly floppy, then fold into the cheese.
Freeze it in an ice cream churn if you have one. Alternatively, place in a tub, pop in the freezer and beat it with a small whisk every 20 to 30 minutes or so until it becomes too difficult; at that point you are done, and it can be left in the freezer until required. If you don’t want to freeze it, you can whip the cream a little more and use it like clotted cream.
For the pears:
4 to 6 unripe conference pears
500 ml red wine
100 g caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 long peppers (or ¼ tsp black peppercorns)
¼ tsp ground ginger
Peel the pears, leaving the stalks intact. Slice the bottom so that the pear is able to stand up sturdily. If you have one, use a melon baller to remove the core from beneath.
Bruise the cinnamon stick and long pepper (or crack the peppercorns) and place in a pan with the wine and sugar. Put over a medium-low heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Once dissolved, add the pears.
Bring to a simmer and cover the pan, turn down the heat and poach until tender. This will take around 20 minutes. The pears won’t be completely submerged, so to ensure an even colouring from the wine, turn them half way through cooking.
Remove the pears and set aside. They can be stored in the fridge for up to four days.
Now make the syrup: turn up the heat and bring the wine to the boil and let it reduce by around three-quarters or more, until viscous. Pour into a jug or jar and allow to cool.
Remove the ice cream from the fridge around half an hour before you want to serve. Place a pear in the centre of a plate – it may need another trim at the bottom if it’s been in the fridge a day or two – and carefully spoon a couple of teaspoons of the syrup over the tip of the pear.
Place a biscuit next to the pear – I used a homemade digestive (post coming soon), but a hob-nob would also work very well – and place a scoop or quenelle of ice cream on top the biscuit.
Leftovers: there will probably be leftover ice cream and syrup, the latter of which keeps for weeks. Treat yourself to a very grown-up ice cream cookie sandwich using digestives instead of cookies, cheese ice cream instead of vanilla, and red wine syrup in place of raspberry sauce.
This post complements the episode ‘Cheddar & the Cheese Industry’ on The British Food History Podcast:
Britain’s cheese industry has certainly been through its peaks and troughs over the centuries. As Peter Atkins and I discuss in the podcast episode Cheddar & the Cheese Industry there was once a great variety of local cheeses, but as urban populations grew and there was the need for cheap cheeses for the masses, Britain underwent a cheese bottleneck. The reason? The ‘cheddarfication’ of the industry: our lovely Cheddars were stripped of their character in the 19th and 20th centuries, massed produced and insipid. Not only that, but other cheeses became more like Cheddar, i.e. sharper and harder: Cheshire, Dunlop and Wensleydale all became more like Cheddar. The latter, now a mild and curdy cow’s milk cheese was once a soft, blue ewe’s milk cheese! Writing in the 1950s, Dorothy Hartley thought our cheese industry was dead: ‘the sub-standard cheese is so poor that it invites contrast; so the good cheese standard must be lowered till both are “standard mediocre”. The industrial revolution of the dairy is complete! And our really fine cheeses are lost to England.’1
But then old cheeses and old methods returned with gusto from the late 1980s. How? You’ll have to listen to the podcast! Writing in the 1990s in the third edition of her book English Food, Jane Grigson was impressed by the ‘marvellous choice’ available by the end of the 20th century: ‘One of the happy developments since I wrote [the first edition of] this book has been the renaissance of cheesemaking in Britain.’2 She was particularly happy about the raw milk cheeses, and chesses made with ewe’s and goat’s milk. I’d like to add more soft cheeses and proper full-flavoured hard cheeses.
You are not going to find these cheeses in your local supermarket: you need a good purveyor. I can highly recommend Harvey & Brockless. They have some excellent cheeses, in fact some of my absolute all-time favourites. They sent me a selection of British cheeses through the post, and I must say I was impressed.* It wasn’t just the quality but the fact there was the full gamut of historical and traditional cheeses represented: a Romanesque fresh goat’s milk cheese (Rosary), a cheese that could have been Anglo-Saxon (Bix, a raw creamy cow’s milk cheese), my favourite blue cheese of all time (Isle of Wight Blue; just divine). There was too the oozy and very ripe Baron Bigod, and some traditional cheesecloth matured Cheddar and Devonshire Red (both by Quicke’s). There was even a jar of salty raw goat’s cheese in a herby and garlicky oil (Graceburn) which I made into a salad using the oil to make the dressing – excellent!
Excellent cheeses such as these require little help. It’s important you allow your cheese to come up to room temperature under a cheese cloche (or upturned bowl). Proper cheese is a living breathing community of bacteria and fungi and it can sit happily under cover for 2 or 3 days in a cool cupboard or larder.
Eat with simple crackers (H&B provided me with Fig & Sultana Toasts from the excellent Millar’s, and Peter’s Yard Sourdough Crispbreads) or good bread, oatcakes and digestive biscuits (recipe coming soon!). In Yorkshire cheese is eaten with fruit cake, apple pie and gingerbread. Add equally simple accoutrements such as fruit jellies, chutneys or pickles.
Using great cheeses in your cooking improves dishes immeasurably and I thought I’d provide you with a couple of good recipes that makes a small amount of cheese go a long way: a historical toasted cheese and a blue cheese ice cream which is excellent served with poached pears and home-made spelt digestives (that one will be coming in the next post).
Lady Shaftsbury’s Toasted Cheese
This is a recipe I have adapted slightly from Jane Grigson’s English Food. Jane was fortunate to receive the ‘receipt’ book that belonged to Emily Shaftesbury ‘wife of the great social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury’. They were relatively poor, at least as far as the aristocracy go, and were always in debt.2 Because of this, many of the dishes are cheap – again, as far as the aristocracy go – and this one is delicious. It would make an excellent savoury or starter, or even a ‘light’ lunch if served with a green salad on the side.
I use inverted commas when I write ‘light’ because it is actually pretty heavy going; essentially it’s a fondue of good Cheddar cheese, egg yolks and cream that is grilled before serving with toast. The small amounts given are enough to feed four people.
A good strong melting cheese is required, and I used Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar. It is perfect: potent, yet creamy with just the merest hint of blue. Just one 150g piece is needed for four people.
Be warned, Jane points out that toasted cheese can cause nightmares,2 so don’t eat it too close to bedtime.**
50 g butter
5 tbs double cream
150 g grated mature Cheddar cheese such as Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar
2 medium egg yolks
Freshly ground pepper
Optional extras: pinch of Cayenne pepper or 1-2 tsp smooth or wholegrain mustard
4 slices of toast cut into soldiers
Preheat your grill to a medium-high heat.
Gently melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, then add the cream, cheese and egg yolks.
Stir to combine so that the cheese melts and the egg yolks thicken the mixture to produce a smooth, thick mixture like a thick pouring custard. On no account let it boil, otherwise the cheese may split and the egg yolks scramble. Slow and steady wins the race.
As the sauce is melting, season with pepper and add the Cayenne or mustard if using.
Divide the cheese mixture between four ramekins and grill until a golden brown colour, around 3 minutes.
Serve immediately with the toast soldiers.
Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
Grigson, J. English Food. (Penguin, 1992).
* I should point out that I am asked fairly often to do this sort of thing, but I usually turn the company/producer down, the products on offer not being my thing at all, but the brands sold by Harvey & Brockless are genuinely the ones I purchase anyway. You can be sure I would never endorse a product I didn’t think was excellent. I am no cynic!
Regular readers of the blog will know that I have been working on a book all about sugar’s dark side over the last couple of years, and I am very pleased to announce that A Dark History of Sugar will be published on 30 April 2022 by Pen & Sword History. It is – as far as I know when I write this – available in the UK and Australia from this date. North America, you’ll have to wait a little longer for it: 30 May.
Before I tell you all about the book, I thought I’d let you know that if you pre-order via Pen & Sword’s website (so there’s not long left) you can get 25% off the cover price. The book is, of course, available from other booksellers. I will be receiving some copies, which of course will be signed by Yours Truly. I’ll let you know when they are available. I’m not sure as yet how much I’ll be able to sell them for, but hopefully it’ll be under the cover price. Keep your eyes peeled here and on my social media.
In fact there’s another reason to look at my social media: I’ll be doing some competitions on here, but also on Twitter and Instagram on, or around, publishing day. If you don’t follow me already I am @neilbuttery on Twitter and dr_neil_buttery on Instagram.
Okay, let’s talk about the book.
Writing it was very involving and sometimes even distressing and upsetting; unfortunately the history of this everyday and all-too-common commodity contains possibly the darkest in human history. But why is its history so bad? Well, it’s because it’s so good.
I begin the book looking at the lengths early man went to just to get its hands on honey – the purest natural source of sugar. You see, Homo sapiens adapted to spend a great deal of its time thinking about sugar and how to get hold of it. We evolved bigger brains with the ability to problem solve that feed on glucose only – no other sugar will do – and we evolved pleasure centres that are never sated and stomachs we can stuff with sweet foods well after we are full.
This evolved adaptation is advantageous if there is little sugar about, but when it’s available any time we want in any amount we want, our brains go into overdrive and out pleasure centres spin like Catherine wheels, reinforcing our behaviours, training us up to eat more and more of it. At any cost. As I say in the book:
We take sugar for granted, but now we are paying the price, and have been for some time. With cheap and plentiful sugar came centuries of exploitation, slavery, racism, diabetes, obesity, rotten teeth, and mistreatment of an exhausted planet.
But sugar and sweetness are seen as pretty favourable: sugar is good, heavenly even; little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ Somebody who is described as ‘sweet’ is cute, friendly, kind, and your romantic partner is your ‘sweetheart’. We look at sugar with dewy-eyed nostalgia: baking cakes with Grandma, chocolate coins at Christmas, buying sweets in the corner shop.
The reality is different, for we are a world of sugar junkies, and as consumers we have had the wool pulled over our eyes for centuries. Of course, sugar manufacturers, confectioners and fizzy drinks companies much preferred it when we knew nothing about how sugar was made and what its effects are upon the human body.
Just how did we in Europe go from returning crusading knights bringing back a few sugar samples to pass around at court, to a transatlantic trade in African slaves that displaced 12 million African men, women and children to the sugar colonies via the horrific Middle Passage?1 The slave and sugar trade made many people rich; not just investors and merchants, but also those in Britain selling fancy goods, food, tools and furniture to the colonies. This intricate web of commerce reached into almost every aspect of trade is called the ‘sugar-slave complex’.2
When the slave trade, and then slavery itself, was abolished, one might think that working conditions might have improved. Sadly they did not: new World sugar plantation owners simply swapped one type of exploitation for another, making it nigh-on impossible for freed slaves to leave them.
As the British Empire grew, so did the British sugar manufacturing industry, with sugar plantations cropping up wherever it was viable to do so. At this point, the association of sugar manufacture with exploitation could have been decoupled, but sadly this was not the case, and the indigenous people who had become suddenly, and usually violently, subjects of the empire were worked to death, and many were displaced to work on plantations thousands of miles away from home. Indian workers, for example, were forced to work on the West Indies, South Africa and Mauritius as well as India itself.
And it still goes on today: people across the world are still being exploited to make sugar, even children.
There is not enough space on the blog to go through everything discussed in the book: sugar as (useless) medicine, the Coca Cola Company, Cadbury and Queen Victoria, environmental disasters, the horrors of the sugar making processes and squalor of the slaves, rotting teeth, diabetes, Big Sugar, Christopher Columbus, the Haitian Revolution and the fact that every English monarch from Elizabeth I to George III had a stake in the sugar-slave trade. The list goes on…
I hope you find A Dark History of Sugar interesting and informative, and that I achieve my aim: to connect the dots between the first time sugar was made in Asia to the mess we are in now…and some thoughts upon how we can get out of it.
Curtin, P. D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
Abbot, E. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. (Penguin, 2008).
Hello! I’m back after two-month hiatus. Did you miss me?
It’s British Pie Week this week so I thought I’d post a recipe for a favourite of mine. The trouble is, I have many favourites, so I came up with a list of four and let Twitter decide. I was very glad to see my favourite won.
Later, I saw the cheese and leek/onion pie was tenth in the top ten favourite UK pies, receiving just 1% of the vote!* Shocking. I think there may be a north-south divide effect at work there; back in the days of my market stall and restaurant, cheese and leek pie was by far the favourite.
The cheese and onion pie or pasty used to be a very important food for the working classes of Northern England, especially Yorkshire and Lancashire: it’s easy to make and the ingredients are cheap compared to meaty fillings. It’s the pie equivalent of the Welsh Rabbit/Rarebit.
The simplest of fillings were made of cooked onion, thinly-sliced raw potato, or cold mashed potato, and grated cheese. On the fancier side, a thick white sauce is used instead of mash. For my recipe I am going somewhere in between to hopefully enjoy the best of both worlds. I use onion and leek interchangeably because either (or both) can be used: I make leek pies as I’m intolerant to onion.
As for the cheese, use a mature kind that melts easily: Cheddar, Lancashire, Double Gloucester etc. The pastry should be a simple shortcrust made with half butter, half lard, but all butter is good too.
Serve the pie with mashed potatoes or chips, with peas and gravy as is traditional, but this pie eats very well just warm with a dressed green salad and some good old salad cream.
Makes one large pie to serve 6 people (or 4 greedy ones who always have seconds)
For the filling:
50 g butter
1 leek, trimmed and sliced, but with the green left on; or 2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
350 g (approx.) potatoes, peeled and diced (about 2 medium-sized ones)
Salt and pepper
1 tbs plain flour
1 tsp English mustard powder
275 ml hot milk
150 g grated cheese
Pinch Cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tbs double cream
For the pastry:
400 g plain flour
200g salted butter, or 100 g each butter and lard (or shortening)
120 ml water or milk
Start with the filling. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the leek or onion and potatoes, season with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Cook over a medium heat until the leek or onion melts right down. Do this slowly, turning down the heat if necessary – you don’t want to fry them, though a pale golden brown colour is fine.
Stir in the flour and mustard and cook for a minute before mixing half of the milk. When the milk combines with the flour to make a smooth sauce, add the remainder of the milk and combine again.
Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Mix in the Cayenne pepper. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper. It’s a good idea to slightly over season the filling to make up for the comparatively bland shortcrust pastry. Finally stir in the cream and allow to cool completely. I usually make my cooked fillings a day or two ahead of time.
Now make the pastry. Rub the fat(s) into the flour. If you are using unsalted butter, add half a teaspoon of salt. If you are making pastry by hand, unless you have forearms like Popeye, use fats that are at room temperature. If using a mixer, use the flat beater and use cold fats straight from the fridge. Either way, once it resembles breadcrumbs add the water a couple of tablespoons at a time until you have a soft but not sticky dough. Knead very briefly, wrap in cling film and leave it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
After resting, take around a third of the dough and roll out on a lightly floured worktop. I used an 18 cm cake tin because I like deep-filled pies, but a shallow pie dish or flan ring of around 25 cm would work too. Roll out a third of the pastry into a circle. Leave the pastry to rest again for a minute or so before laying it in the tin. Be careful to press the pastry into the corners without stretching it: lift it in carefully. If using a deep dish as I have it’s helpful to fold the pastry into quarters, placing it in the dish or tin and then unfolding it.
Roll out the remainder of the pastry to make a lid. Cut a steam hole in the centre and set aside.
Spoon in the pie filling, but don’t fill it too much – it does expand as it cooks. Now brush the edges with egg wash (I use an egg, or egg yolk, beaten with half a teaspoon of salt). Glue the lid in place, pressing the lid down well.
Trim the excess pastry with a sharp knife and then crimp the edges or use a fork to seal the lid. Paint with more egg wash, and if you like add a bit more black pepper. Place in the fridge to set the pastry.
Preheat your oven to 220°C and pop a baking tray on the centre shelf.
(If you have any left-over pastry and filling, make a pasty with it (see here for my Cornish pasty recipe) and bake it with the pie, or freeze it. Both pastry and filling freeze well separately.)
Take the pie out of the fridge and place in the oven on the hot baking tray (this prevents a soggy bottom from developing) and bake for 45 minutes, turning down the heat to 180°C when the pastry is a nice golden brown.
I mention this only because none of it would have happened without you, dear reader: it’s the followers, and the comments and shares that make the blog popular, and makes me want to write year after year…
…and what a year! 2021 saw the blog’s 10th birthdayand a record number of views! Gosh.
The top 10 posts are below; it is nice to see two seasonal posts getting high views – simnel cake and Twelfth Night cake have never made it into the top 10 before. It is, of course, very good to see puddings and offal represented there too.
So thanks for reading, liking, listening and watching; it really does mean a lot. Also: a massive thank you to anyone who had pledged me a virtual coffee or pint, or become a regular subscriber. It is getting increasingly expensive just to have a blog and podcast. It really does help, and it means that I can make more online content.
I’m gonna stop gushing now: I’m a Yorkshireman for goodness sake.
The first part of the new year ahead looks pretty busy: A Dark History of Sugar will be out at Eastertime and my second book will be handed to publisher at the end of January. I’m going to take a few months off from writing books after that – two in two years has been pretty full-on – and concentrate on the blogs and podcast. I have a large backlog of posts, and I really want to get those final Jane Grigson recipes cooked!
I really do hope that by the time we are approaching wintertime 2022 there will be a better looking – dare I say normal? – year ahead of us. But for now, we shall soldier on, eat plenty of puddings, and read more cookery books.
Merry Christmas! I hope you are all able to have some fun in yet another strange Yuletide.
At Christmas we often receive bottles of booze we don’t really like as gifts. My most hated alcoholic drink is whisky, but it is delicious in a hot toddy. Well I was recently gifted some and that’s why it is this year’s Christmas boozy drink post.
What do you think of when imagine a toddy? I think of Scotland, whisky. I think of lemons and spices, and its warming effects on those who have just come in from the cold.
There is a popular myth that the drink was invented in the early 18th century at Tod’s Well Tavern, Edinburgh, to warm up the very cold patrons1, but I found that the hot toddy’s history is a little more complicated. The trouble is, toddies were not created in Scotland, not were they hot, and nor were they laced with whisky.
Whenever I am researching the vintage of a recipe, I always visit The Foods of England website – even if the recipe is Welsh, Scots, or Irish. It’s definition is I would say standard: ‘Spirit such as whisky with hot water, sugar, lemon and sometimes spices such as cloves.’ On the webpage is a quote from the 1788 book Grose Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which states: ‘Toddy, originally the juice of the cocoa tree, and afterwards rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg.’2
Going by that quote, the drink looks like it has its origins in the West Indian plantations. Note it is not a hot drink.
It turns out, however, to have its roots in the East, rather than the West, Indies, or rather the British Raj. There was a Hindi drink known as taddy, which was made from slightly fermented palm sap since at least the early 17th century. During the British occupation of the country in the 18th century, the fermented juice was used to ‘water down’ expensive beer3: expensive because at the time it was difficult to make in hot climates, and therefore had to be imported (this is before the invention of Indian pale ale, or IPA).
By 1820 the drink had evolved into a mixture of alcohol, sugar, ginger and lime.4 It wasn’t hot, but the delicious drink spread through the British Empire, changing depending upon what was available. The palm sap swapped for ‘the juice of the cocoa tree’ in the West Indies, and perhaps the Scots were the first to think of warming it up? Who knows?
However it became the classic whisky-based drink, it certainly became popular as a cure-all for colds and flu. And why not? There’s the lemon with its vitamin C, honey or sugar making the drink viscous and soothing, and hard liquor – nature’s anaesthetic. There may be an element of practical truth to this; those who drink a moderate amount of alcohol are able – on average – to fend off colds better than those who drink heavily, and those who do not drink at all.5
So what should I put in my recipe? I turned to another favourite of mine: the classic and comprehensive Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). Disappointingly, there are just three toddy recipes, and of those only one is hot and contains no whisky (Calvados is the booze of choice) and uses roasted apples. The cold toddies contain whisky only as an option.6 In the end I came up with my own, I had a play around and I think I have the proportions of ingredients just right. I also tried the Calvados toddy, which was also a great success.
Here are my recipes for both cocktails. Let me know if you give them a go.
Whatever you do, be safe, eat and drink plenty, and do as little as possible this Christmas. Thanks for reading my posts, trying the recipes, leaving comments, listening to the podcast, and for supporting me this year. I have the best followers! I’ll be back on 1 Jan 2022 with my usual review of the year.
Put whiskey, honey or sugar, lemon juice and most of the hot water, or tea, into a small glass or coffee cup. Stir with a cinnamon stick, or a spoon, to dissolve the honey.
Taste and see if you need to add more water (I go with the full 100 ml).
Garnish with a lemon slice, the cinnamon stick and a few rasps of freshly-grated nutmeg.
Calvados hot toddy
This is adapted from the entry in The Savoy Cocktail Book. I always buy a bottle of Calvados at Christmastime, but I think rum or brandy would be good substitutes.
1 dessert apple
400 ml hot water or tea
2 tbs sugar
4 shots (100-120 ml Calvados)
Freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Take your apple and make an incision around the apple two-thirds of the way up, cutting just the skin. Place on a baking sheet and roast until, pale brown and the juices have begun to caramelise, around 40 minutes.
In a small saucepan add the hot water, sugar and cloves. Slice the apple in half, roughly chop one half and place in the pan. Keeping the heat very low, allow the flavours to steep in the hot water for around 10 minutes.
Place a shot of calvados in four small glasses, and divide the hot steeped liquid between the four cups, passing through a tea strainer or small sieve.
Garnish each with a clove and a neat piece of roasted apple cut from the reserved piece. Grate a little nutmeg over the top and serve.
Schofield, J. & Schofield, D. Schofield’s Fine and Classic Cocktails: Celebrated Libations & Other Fancy Drinks. (Octopus, 2019).
This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.
I used to believe that brandy butter – that infamous accompaniment to Christmas pudding and mince pies – was far too rich and sweet, and always preferred custard. I made a traditional Christmas pudding from a 19th century recipe and because it wasn’t as rich as modern day puds, I found the buttery sauce complemented the dessert perfectly – though I still prefer the rum butter.
Subscribe to get access
Read more of this content when you subscribe today.
I fed the pudding a couple of tablespoons of rum (but brandy is also good) twice, and I found the best way to do this was the untie the pudding, open the top and sprinkle in the rum, before retying with fresh string.
On Christmas Day, get your big pot of boiling water just like you did for the first boiling. Simmer the pudding for 2 hours, making sure the pudding doesn’t touch the base of the pot and scorch.
When ready, remove from the pan and gingerly cut away the string and carefully unwrap the pudding; don’t worry too much about it breaking because it develops a skin made from the flour that had been dredged on the cloth before its first boiling, keeping it all together. Pop it on a serving dish with a sprig of holly.
When you want to serve it, flame with rum or brandy, turn the lights down and carry it into the dining room. There will be applause.
I served the pudding with rum butter, but you can also serve it with brandy butter (which I must admit, I don’t like as much as the rum butter), or good old custard. I’ll be publishing a post tomorrow with my recipe for brandy or rum butter.
The pudding was delicious, I must say, and it will forever be my standard, so thanks again to Sam Bilton for her letting me use the recipe.
Listen to the podcast episode for more information, including the history and folklore surrounding Christmas pudding, plus a cooking spot, and a handy guide to flaming your pudding safely and effectively!
This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.
Today is Stir Up Sunday, traditionally the day Christmas pudding is made. The day was also a cue to local grocers to begin to make their orders and get ready for the 12-day long Christmastide feast.1 As they mixed, the children would sing:
Stir up, we beseech thee
The Pudding in the pot,
And when we get home,
We’ll it it all hot!
Stir Up Sunday is always the Sunday before Advent; which isn’t 1 December despite what manufacturers of Advent calendars would have you believe. Advent actually begins on the sixth day before Christmas, so this year (2021) Advent begins on 28 November. The day has a deeper meaning beyond reminding us to prep our puds; the children’sl song was sung on the day comes from a hymn: Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord the wills of my faithful people… and is call for everyone to stir up their pious and spiritual feelings in preparation for Advent – a period of fasting and reflection before the festivities begin.
When you make your Christmas pudding (whichever day you make it on) there are various superstitions which should be held. First, each member of the family should add at least one ingredient to the mix, give it a good stir and make a wish. The stirring must either go from east to west (like the Sun).2 The pudding should be made up of 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples.
There are trinkets too of course: a sixpence to represent financial success or good luck in the New Year, a ring to represent romance or marriage, or a thimble – bad luck! No romance for you, spinster!
I love Christmas pudding, but whenever I’ve made my own (I have used Delia Smith’s and Jane Grigson’s recipes in the past) I’ve always been rather disappointed. I reached out to Twitter for inspiration and food historian (and podcast alumnus) Sam Bilton very kindly let me use her Great Aunt Eliza’s recipe taken from her handwritten recipe book. Sam has cooked it for a demonstration at Petworth House, West Sussex.3Click here to find out more about Sam’s Great Aunt, and how she adapted and recreated the recipe. Here’s the original:
Note there are indeed 13 ingredients!
I decided to adapt the recipe myself, only later looking at Sam’s interpretation and we took a similar approach, which is pleasing.
I took the recipe and converted it into metric and then divided everything by 3, making a huge pudding with a 15 hour boiling would have been craziness. I could have made one good-sized pudding from my one-third mix, but decided to make 2 smaller ones. I used vegan suet because I already had that in. Fresh beef suet would have been best, but there’s no point buying more if there’s some already in the cupboard.
I hedged my bets on the plums and used half prunes and half raisins, and swapped out almond extract for the bitter almonds. Feel free to toss in some slivered almonds for texture though.
Making a Christmas pudding batter couldn’t be easier: mix all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl, i.e. everything on the list from plain flour down to the soft dark brown sugar, then add all of the remaining wet ingredients to a jug and give them a good whisk.
Make a well in the centre and pour in the eggy mixture then stir until combined. If after a few minutes’ mixing things still seem a little bit dry, add an extra slug of milk, brandy or rum. Mine needed a bit more rum.
Cover the mixture and leave it somewhere cool overnight to let the flavours develop – if you’re in a rush, leave for an hour.
Next day (or next hour) make you puddings. First get a large pot of water on the boil; deep enough for two puddings to cook without touching the base of the pot. Next, cut two pieces of muslin (cheesecloth) into rectangles of around 30 x 60 cm, place in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. When cool enough to handle, remove one and squeeze out excess water. Fold it in half to make a square shape, then lay it in a bowl.
Dust the muslin very well with plain flour, leaving no bare patches, then spoon in half the mixture, then gather up the corners and twist to tighten. Use some good quality string to tie the pudding tight. If there are folds in the cloth, they can be easily smoothed out. Repeat with the other piece of cloth.
Tie a longer piece of string to your puddings, drop them in the boiling water, and tie them so that they are nicely bobbing about in the water and not touching the bottom. Cover, bring the water back to a boil, and let things cook on a simmer for 2½ hours.
Remove and cool on a cooling rack and keep in a tub or tin. You can feed the puddings a few times if you like with more brandy or rum by untying the top and pouring some in, or by rolling them in a few tablespoons – they quickly absorb it!
Then it’s just a case of giving it a second boil on the big day…I’ll post that a few days before Christmas Day, along with a recipe for brandy or – even better – rum butter to go with.
1. Simpson, J. & Roud, S. A Dictionary of English folklore. (Oxford University Press, 2000).
2. Kerensa, P. Hark: The Biography of Christmas. (Lion Hudson Ltd., 2017).