You may feel as stuffed as the poor old turkey, but somehow there’s always room for a helping of Christmas pud, or just one more mince pie.
The sweet treats that fill our festive table are delicious, yes, but there’s something to do with their status as ‘traditional’ that makes them even more irresistible at this time of year. Yet they haven’t always looked, tasted or been consumed as they are today.
Take the mince pie. It dates back to Medieval times and, as its name suggests, the mincemeat inside did at that time contain meat, which was eked out with dried fruit, flavoured with spices and preserved using large amounts of sugar.
By the 16th century mince pies had become a Christmas speciality and were made in an oval shape to echo the manger of the baby Jesus, with the pastry top representing the swaddling clothes.
The meat content of the mince was slowly reduced, so that by the mid-19th century all that remained was the beef suet still often included today.
Like the mince pie, the Christmas pudding once counted meat among its ingredients. It started life in the 15th century as ‘plum pottage’, a soupy concoction of beef or mutton, onions, root vegetables and dried fruit. Expensive items like sugar, spices and alcohol would be added for special occasions, such as Christmas, and by the 1670s ‘Christmas pottage’ was a festive staple. Early in the 17th century the pudding cloth was invented by British cooks, and the pudding we know today began to take shape, wrapped in a cloth and lowered into boiling water, to emerge as a steaming ball.
Christmas cake was not originally eaten on Christmas day at all, but twelve days later, as part of the Twelfth Night feast, to honour the visit of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem. The feast itself actually predates Christianity and has links to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, where social roles were reversed and chaos was celebrated. On this ‘Feast of Fools’, as it was also known, the ‘King Cake’ contained a bean that bestowed the power of rule upon its recipient for the rest of the evening.
When Queen Victoria declared these revels unchristian and deleted the feast day from the British calendar, Victorian bakers simply rebranded the dense, fruit-filled cake as Christmas cake.
Victoria is not the only ruler to have acted in a decidedly Grinch-like fashion, however. The overtones of popery and the general gluttony of the season led Cromwell’s Puritan parliament of 1652 to ban Christmas overindulgence altogether. But with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, feasting was back in fashion and, happily for us, it’s stayed that way.
Make it now, devour it on Christmas Day
85g each sultanas and currants
50g glacé cherries, quartered
85g candied peel, chopped
50g blanched almonds, chopped
1tsp each cinnamon and mixed spice
pinch each grated nutmeg and ground cloves
½ tsp ground allspice
3 eggs, beaten
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
Grated zest of ½ lemon
5 tbsp brandy
Sunflower oil, for greasing
1 Put all the fruit, peel, almonds, breadcrumbs, suet and spices into a bowl and mix. Stir in the eggs, then add the orange juice and zest, lemon zest and brandy.
2 Spoon the mixture into an oiled 1 litre pudding bowl and cover with greaseproof paper, making a pleat across the middle to allow for rising, and securing with string.
3 Steam in a covered saucepan of boiling water, filled halfway up the sides of the bowl, for 4½ hours. Check every hour or so and top up with boiling water when necessary.
4 When cooked, remove from the water, allow to cool, and re-cover with fresh pleated greaseproof paper. Store in a cool dark place. To reheat, steam for 1½ to 2 hours before serving.
If you don’t fancy all that weighing and stirring, visit Stoke Newington Farmers’ Market and pick up one of Naomi’s Christmas cakes, available every Saturday until 20 December. Laden with organic fruit, spices and lashings of rum, the cakes come in three different sizes and can be pre-ordered until Sat 13 December.