The Christmas countdown has well and truly started so, if you enjoy making your own puddings and cakes, it’s time to set aside one or two days when the weather makes it a nice idea to stay in your warm kitchen and get stuck into the baking. Puddings used to be made in September to allow them to mature for Christmas, but a month or so seems to be fine – perhaps the ingredients we use today are lighter and blend together more easily.
However, it’s worth remembering that Christmas puddings still keep really well and should never go to waste - if you happen to have one left over and never get around to using it , it will still be fine next year if stored in a cool dark place. If there are children in the house, try to choose a time when they can help – there’s nothing they like better than the old-fashioned fun of helping with the baking, and who ever forgets the taste of the Christmas pudding or cake mixture scraped out of the mixing bowl?
It’s the perfect time to have a clear out too - get rid of those half packs of old dried fruit and last year’s spices and replace them with juicy fresh supplies of sultanas, currants, raisins, glace fruits and aromatic spices; local grocers and supermarkets have everything required, of course, but for really outstanding results - succulent textures and the deepest flavours - buy top quality baking ingredients from specialist suppliers like Peter Ward’s Country Choice, Nenagh, Co Tipperary (+353 (0)67 32596) and Jim Tynan’s The Kitchen & Foodhall, Portlaoise, Co Laois (+353 (0)502 62061).
But if you don’t have time for this most enjoyable job - which is very straightforward - Peter and Jim are among a number of small companies which supply excellent hand-made puddings; another is ‘My Own’, handmade in Carrick-on-Suir and offering gluten free and diabetic options, and also a large log-shaped pudding which is handy for serving large numbers more easily.
Quality shops like Kilkenny Kitchen, Nassau Street, in Dublin, also sell puddings made to their own recipe, either individually or in one of their very desirable hampers. Commercially produced Christmas puddings are much better than they used to be too; big names like Marks & Spencer offer high quality large-scale production, for example, and the oldest manufacturer of Christmas puddings, the Derbyshire company Matthew Walker, offers a wide range of speciality products on-line (www.traditional-christmas-puddings.co.uk), including organic, low-fat, vegetarian and gluten-free options – and one sold in a tin that makes a lovely postal gift; the company started off like many of our own artisan producers - Matthew, a Derbyshire farmer’s son, started business in the 1890’s producing a range of preserves and Christmas puddings from his mother's special recipes; an old school friend called Hodgkinson, ran a grocers shop and agreed to sell Matthew Walker’s products through his shop – a story that is being re-told all over Ireland today with the rise and rise of artisan food production.
Wholefood Plum Pudding
This is a variation on the traditional pudding, but equally delicious and I make it very few years for a change - it's a rich golden brown, but it will darken with longer cooking in the same way as the traditional mixture. Quantities make one large (3-pint/1.8 litres) or two medium (11/2 pint/850 ml), giving a total of at least 12-14 servings.
2 oz/50g dried dates, stoned
4 oz/100g dried figs
4 oz/100g dried apricots
4 oz/100g almonds, blanched
2 oz/50g shelled Brazil nuts
2 oz/50g shelled walnuts
l oz/25g pine kernels
8 oz/225g seedless raisins
4 oz/100g currants
6 oz/175g wholemeal breadcrumbs (yeast bread)
l teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and grated nutmeg
1/2 coffeespoon ground cloves
4 oz/100g glace cherries
4 oz/100g candied peel
4 oz/100g soft brown sugar
Pinch of salt
Grated rind and juice of l lemon
4 oz/100g butter
3 large eggs.
Chop the dates, figs, apricots, brazils and walnuts. Toast the pine kernels in a hot oven for a few minutes until golden brown. Put into a large bowl with the breadcrumbs and spices. Wash and dry the cherries if they are very sticky, then halve them and add to the bowl. If using whole candied peel, chop finely with a very sharp knife, then add to the mixture.
Add the sugar, salt and finely grated lemon zest, then mix everything together thoroughly. Melt the butter and honey together, whisk eggs lightly and add to the honey mixture then add all the liquids, including the lemon juice, to the dry ingredients and stir thoroughly.
Butter one large or two medium pudding bowls, base-line with a disc of buttered greaseproof paper and three-quarters fill with the mixture, pressing down to eliminate air pockets. Cover as in the previous recipe and steam or oven-steam for 4-6 hours, depending on the size of the pudding.
Store in a cool place until required then, to re-heat, steam for another 2-3 hours.
HINT: Although a steamed pudding can very easily be under-cooked (if the cooking water is allowed to go off the boil unnoticed) it is hard to imagine one being over-done if cooked by conventional methods, so err on the side of generosity when timing - but make sure the pan is not allowed to boil dry.
SHORT RECIPE: Cranberry and Vodka Coulis
This pretty sauce makes a refreshing change from the traditional rum and brandy sauces, and is a good alternative for people with sensitivity to dairy products. Serves 6
300ml/ ½ pint cranberry juice
125g/ 5 oz caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
100ml/ 4 fl oz water
250g/ 9 oz fresh or frozen cranberries
2 tsp arrowroot
3 tbsp/45 ml vodka
Put the juice, sugar, and cinnamon stick into a large saucepan and heat gently to make a syrup, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
Add the cranberries and cook gently for about 10 minutes, until they are very soft. Allow to cool.
Remove the cinnamon stick, then press the fruit mixture through a non-metallic sieve, or pulverise in a blender, to make a puree. Return to the rinsed pan.
Blend the water and arrowroot together, then add to the puree, Gently bring back to boiling point stirring all the time, and simmer until thickened and clear. Remove from the heat and stir in the vodka
If making the coulis in advance it will thicken when cold. To use, warm and add whisk in a little more cranberry juice to give a pouring consistency.
[To serve: Heat 1 small (1 lb/454g) Christmas pudding and serve sliced or shaped in six individual moulds. Serve the cranberry coulis poured around at room temperature, or warmed in the microwave, as preferred.]
INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: VODKA
What Is It?
Vodka is a spirit without any distinctive character, aroma, taste or colour; it is generally distilled from a single source such as rye, wheat or potatoes. Quality depends mainly on distilling and filtering to remove impurities, and most premium vodkas are distilled at least three times and filtered with great care.
Where Does It Come From?
Vodka is of Eastern European origin, and closely identified with Russia – Russian historians claim it was first distilled there in the fifteenth century.
Where Can I Get It?
There should be a choice of several brands available from your local off-licence – and the better ones will offer a wide choice, with advice on their different characteristics. Although the differences are subtle, comparative tastings will reveal variation in flavour: rye vodkas are notably robust, wheat vodkas are smoother, and potato vodkas have a slightly creamy texture.
What Can I Do With It?
Served as a drink, vodka should always be chilled, but it should not be poured over ice (except in cocktails), as the ice will melt immediately, diluting rather than chilling the vodka. However it will keep in the freezer without freezing, or can be served in iced glasses (i.e. glasses chilled in the freezer). In Russia, it is traditionally drunk with salty dishes of potato or seafood, but it is also a versatile ingredient in cooking and marries especially well with fruit. Like other alcohol, it is useful in marinades and casseroles, to tenderise tough meats and enhance the flavour; it can be added to sauces (eg cream sauces and custards) to lower the boiling point, so they curdle less easily; and it is used for drama too – eg to flambe dishes. The Vodka Cookbook by John Rose (ISBN 1-85626-639-7; GBP16.99; www.vodkacookbook.com
) was published earlier this year to celebrate 175 years of Smirnoff – in it you’ll find dozens of tried-and-tested ideas for using vodka, including some very appealing recipes.