Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Puddings - The Lighting of the American Plum Pudding

Exactly 28 days after its creation, my American Plum Pudding is ready for its fifteen minutes of fame.

In the morning, I busy myself preparing the house for the ten guests who will arrive at 3:00 for the ceremonial lighting and tasting. I have one final piece of preparation. A Christmas Pudding is traditionally served with Hard Sauce. But, I’ve neglected to answer a key question -- What in the world is Hard Sauce?

I go to my most reliable source – Lynne Olver’s “Food Timeline” – where the answers are waiting. Olver cites one resource that says the origin of plum puddings can be traced back to the 15th century. She references another that says the Victorians popularized the cold, hard sauces of unsalted butter, sugar and alcohol. The warm, fruity pudding melts the hard sauce, and the burning brandy is a symbol of the rebirth of the sun. I find one other piece of folklore. A sprig of holly with a red berry was placed on both sides of the pudding in ancient times to ward off witches. Since I grew up on a steady diet of “Bewitched” and I am generally tolerant of witches, I forgo the holly.

So, Hard Sauce is basically a cross between butter cream icing and a compound butter, with a hefty shot of brandy thrown in to liven up the festivities. It can’t be bad. I find the best butter possible – Plugra European Style Butter, which has a higher butterfat content, and I select a Brandy Butter recipe flavored with orange zest, orange juice and brandy. The fluffy mound of Hard Sauce looks like a snowball sprinkled with Grand Marnier.
The pudding, which has been reposing in my refrigerator since December 3rd, is now put back into the steamer for a quick warm-up bath.

My guests are unusually prompt and by 3:00 p.m. they are crowding into my kitchen. I pass flutes of champagne as I make the final preparations for the lighting ceremony. The steaming, coffee-colored dome of pudding is placed at the center of the table, and I warm a sauce pan of brandy on the stove.

We dial up Jill in Ottawa so she can join in the festivities, albeit virtually. After all, it is she, and her family’s antique Grimwade Quick Cooker that were the inspiration for our cross-country culinary collaboration. We do quick introductions, and I suspect that Jill wishes she had a score card to keep track of the folks standing shoulder-to-shoulder in my kitchen.
Cousin Frank prepares for the photo op, and Cousin Megan takes charge of the video camera. I drizzle the warm brandy over the pudding and into the center and light a long wooden match. I sense my guests taking a slight step back. I touch the match to the pudding and it is immediately wrapped in a very subtle cobalt-blue flame. In the background I hear murmurs of, “It’s gonna explode,” “I hope the fire doesn’t crack the plate,” and “Is that a paper plate?”

There is a tantalizing sizzle, and the fragrant aroma of warm fruit, cloves and brandy, with a glistening pool of amber liquid that gathers at the base of the pudding.

I cut the pudding into slices and each guest takes a spoonful of Hard Sauce. The response is enthusiastic and soon there is only less than a quarter of the pudding left on the serving platter. My brother Ken is particularly enamored of the hard sauce. There are luscious flavors of molasses, nutty brandy, citrus and cloves and chunky pieces of sweet fruit drenched in the buttery Hard Sauce. It has been worth the wait.

But more important, this plum pudding, so long in preparation, has the rich taste of centuries of historic holiday traditions, family gathered close and family far away, and new-found friendships.
In the evening, after all has been cleaned up and the guests have returned home, I write Jill one more time and provide a report on the day. I close with the question:

What should we make next?

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Anonymous said...

I thought I commented on this but I guess not. Looks like the lighting went very well! Great job, T.W. ! I know whenever we do some fancy flambe with brandy I always look around to make sure nothing made of paper is around.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Thanks, Veronica! It was really one of the best experiences of the holiday -- so nice to spend time putting something like this together, and then be able to share it with a great group of people! (And I've got a smaller one still in the refrigerator!)

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful tale of culinary adventure with deep historical roots. I understand that the Christmas Pudding was originally prepared in "pudding bags." Does anyone know what effects these bags had on texture and taste and of what materials they were made? In any event, this is a food with interesting spiritual overtones in its history. While prepared for Christmas, it was often made in sufficient quantity to allow for a reappearance at Easter.

Thanks T.W. for a delightful tale of the pudding's appearance as a clearly inspiting "spice" to your Holidays. Thoroughly enjoyed it.