Wednesday, December 17, 2008

HOLIDAY TRADITIONS


…the iconic images of our culture.
Not surprisingly, a good many of my memories concerning holidays are centered on food. As I have been pondering my own experiences, I have also been thinking about other people’s food memories as well as some of the iconic images of our culture.
My question…
Playing with this theme, I decided that it would be fun to take a quick reading of the experiences of the partners at Avanti Savoia: Doug, Ben and Vito. My question to each was, “What holiday food experiences or family traditions stand out in your mind?”
…the treasure was mostly his to relish alone.
Doug, remembering his childhood in Chicago, answered that it was a marvelous 5 pound fruitcake given to his father each Christmas by a now long defunct neighborhood bakery. Doug was the only member of his family to enjoy fruitcakes and so the treasure was mostly his to relish alone. I’ve always loved them as well, and have often wondered why they are the butt of so many jokes and yet so prevalent around the holidays. Somebody, besides me and Doug, must love them too.
…still prepared by his family much to his delight.
Ben’s reply reflected a much more contemporary take on the subject. He remembers Christmas Eve at his grandparent’s home with his aunts providing food for the celebration. A couple of dishes stand out for him. One was a layered concoction of cream cheese, cocktail sauce and crabmeat served with crackers. The other was bacon wrapped water chestnuts served with a tangy sauce. These favorites are still prepared by his family much to his delight.
…centuries of Piedmont tradition…
Now this whole conversation took an entirely different tone when I questioned the very Italian, Vito de Carolis. Vito’s experiences reflect centuries of Piedmont tradition that we Americans can only imagine. He stressed that Italian traditions are very definitely regional and are different in different parts of his country.
“must haves”
Vito states outright that he “can’t have Christmas Eve” without Cappelleti, literally “little hats”. Similar to tortellini, Vito fills this pasta with a savory mixture of cooked beef, mortadella, cheese, spinach and nutmeg. Scapece ranks high on his list of “must haves”, as well. This version consists of pieces of eel, fried with onion, garlic and sage and then marinated in white wine vinegar.
…the de Carolis family feasts
On Christmas day, at their home in the city of Turin, the de Carolis family feasts on the classic Vitello Tonnato, a carefully prepared cold veal dish with tuna sauce. Chocolate Mousse, a white Moscato wine from the Piedmont and of course, the Christmastime favorite, Panettone, which is available now from Avanti Savoia.
…a venerable collection of cookie cutters
As for me, making sugar cookies with my Dad was a holiday treat. Using an old family recipe and a venerable collection of cookie cutters, my father was an accomplished sugar cookie baker. My grandmother always made wonderful candies like Divinity and fudge, but I do not remember the children helping with these projects. I do remember the adults enjoying a “Lemon Stew” at my parents’ home. It was always served in a beautiful German tureen with matching cups, I have no idea where the name originated, but the beverage was simply hot lemonade spiked with a little bourbon.
The Puritans…even outlawed Plum Pudding
Now, I’m going to move onto the “Spirit of Christmas Past, Present and Future” all at the same time. Like most of us, I grew up with the story and imagery of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843. The life and work of Dickens has had an enormous influence on Christmas celebrations both in Britain and America. In the early 19th century the celebration of Christmas in England was in decline. The Puritans had been highly critical of such “displays” and even outlawed Plum Pudding as “sinfully rich.” Dickens championed the idea of a joyous celebration of Christmas for all, especially the English working class as personified by Bob Cratchit. I always enjoyed any and all of the versions of A Christmas Carol that happened to be on TV, but I was intrigued and puzzled by the dramatic serving of the “Christmas Plum Pudding” at the end of the Cratchit family’s Christmas feast.
A pudding made from plums?
Certainly nothing in my family’s world even resembled this curiosity. A pudding made from plums? Somewhere in my career I became vaguely familiar with the dish, but I actually never tasted or made one until about 20 years ago. As a matter of fact, plum pudding never contained plums at all. “Plum” was a term that in the 17th century generally referred to raisins and other dried fruits which are included in the dense, rich pudding. Here is where the story gets a little more interesting and personal for me.
…the answer was yes.
One night in early December a couple of decades ago, I was finishing the last of the orders in a little restaurant in Texas. Just before we “broke down the kitchen” for the night, the captain came to me and said, “Chef, there is a very nice gentlemen with a small group of guests that have just come in the door. Could you please still serve them?” The line was still set, the oven on, the butter clarified, and the mise en place reasonably intact and so of course, the answer was yes.
…the “nice gentleman” wished to have a word with the chef.
In came the orders, out went the plates and the cleanup proceeded. In due time the captain returned and reported to me that the diners were very happy and that the “nice gentleman” wished to have a word with the chef. Out I went and introduced myself to the guests. They offered a round of gracious comments and then the “nice gentleman” introduced himself.
…this clearly was a special man with a colorful personality
In an unmistakable British accent and with the most courtly manners he introduced himself to me as Cedric Charles Dickens, the great-grandson of Charles Dickens (yes, that Charles Dickens)! In the restaurant and catering business one does meet all manner of celebrities, but this clearly was a special man with a colorful personality straight out of one of his famous great-grandfather’s novels.
He…promised me his grandfather’s recipe.
Cedric (pronounced said-drick) asked me to join them over a glass of wine, and we talked and we talked. Certainly one of the main topics was “Dickensian” food. He extolled the preparation, serving and enjoying of Christmas Plum pudding and promised me his grandfather’s recipe. Sure enough, a few days later a copy appeared of Cedric Dickens’ book, Dining with Dickens. Described as “a ramble through Dickensian foods”, the book contained not only a most generous and complimentary inscription to me, but also the original recipe for “A Christmas Pudding’ as prepared by Mrs. Cratchit herself!

A CHRISTMAS PUDDING

6 oz. breadcrumbs
6 oz brown sugar
12 oz currants
8 oz. sultanas
4 oz. muscatels
2 ½ oz mixed peel
7 oz. suet
3 oz. Guinness
pinch of salt
pinch of mixed spice
3 medium eggs
1 oz. Pussers Rum

Thoroughly mix all the dry ingredients with the suet taking care not to overmix. Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk to mix the yolk and white together, then pour in the Guinness and rum while whisking. Moisten the dry mix with all the liquor and leave until next day before placing in a cloth and steaming for 5 hours.

All that I will add is to say that I steam mine in a covered glass or ceramic bowl. I also enjoy allowing the pudding to age for at least 2 or 3 months, drizzled occasionally with a little brandy. To serve, I steam it again for at least another hour. Next, it is unmolded, placed on a tray and flambéed with brandy and has a sprig of holly stuck in the top. Although not mentioned in the original, I always have served my puddings with Hard Sauce.

HARD SAUCE

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
½ cup brandy
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Cream the butter with powdered sugar until fluffy. Add brandy and vanilla extract and mix until smooth. Offer a generous serving with Christmas Puddings or other desserts.

“Ever the best of friends”
CEDRIC CHARLES DICKENS
1916-2006

5 comments:

jLynn said...

Ah yes, thanks for the memories Joseph! My Mum's side of the family is straight off the boat from England. I remember in my growing up years the making of the traditional Christmas Pudding. It was always, always served with Bird's Custard and always, always, there as a silver dime hidden away in the pudding. Whoever got the piece with the dime got the good luck for the new year. Ah, nostalgia - hadn't thought about this tradition for quite a few years!

I'd like to make this for our own family gathering this year.

As a vegetarian, I'm wondering what is an appropriate substitute for suet?

Where would I find Sultanas and Muscatels?

What is a 'pinch of mixed spice'?

Also, you mention that you age your pudding for 2 or 3 months (obviously not an option for this year) - I'm assuming that is refrigerated?

Thanks!
jLynn

Chef Joseph said...

Thanks jLynn,

Not only for sharing your memories about your English “mum”, but also for the good questions that you posed. As much as anything my intention was to share the original Dickens’ recipe as a literary and nostalgic “homage”, so I posted it exactly as it was originally written.

However, when I prepare Christmas Pudding, I sometimes use a few variations in ingredients and procedures. I mentioned a few of them in the last paragraph of the recipe, but because of your interest I will go into the subject a little deeper now.

Just for the record, I’m very familiar with Bird Custard, and although I have not served it with Christmas Pudding, I’m sure that it would be delicious. I also am familiar with your custom of hiding a silver “dime” in the pudding. I choose not to mention it because it was not in the original recipe and I was a little concerned about the safety element.

Now then, The Suet Question. Suet is the hard fat deposits located around the kidneys of both beef and sheep. The beef suet is the only variety that I have found available in this country or that I would want to use. The question of a vegetarian substitution is tricky. Suet has a high melting point and provides structure for the pudding as it cooks and the dough sets. You can try solid vegetable shortening and although I’m afraid that the result will be a bit greasy, at least it will not contain any animal products.

The varieties of raisins listed in the recipe are a little easier to address. Sultans are golden raisins that should be readily available at most grocery stores. The Muscatels or Muscat raisins are not so easily located. Apparently they used to be available through California suppliers but have been discontinued due to lack of popularity. A very traditional Muscatel is produced in Malaga, Spain, but that doesn’t help you much in the short run. The Muscatel is a very sweet and sticky raisin and your best bet for the pudding recipe is just to substitute “regular’ raisins. I have also had good luck by first coarsely chopping the raisins before mixing them with the other ingredients.

“A pinch of mixed spice” can be interpreted in a number of ways and a “pinch” isn’t really enough for me. I actually use the following: 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg, ½ tsp. ground ginger and ¼ tsp. ground cloves. This can be varied according to your taste.

As I mentioned in the post, I steam my puddings in a glass or ceramic bowl. To keep and age them: cover with a piece of wax paper tied with a piece of twine and yes, store in the refrigerator until needed. Every couple of weeks I like to remove the wax paper and drizzle with a little brandy, then recover and return to refrigerator.

Chef Joseph

jLynn said...

Thanks Joseph!! One other quickie question regarding this. Are the units of measure weight or volume?

When I was talking to my Mum about this, she reminded me that the whole affair of the Christmas Pudding was steeped in tradition.

My Gram always started the pudding in October and kept the concoction wrapped in a brandy soaked towel until Christmas.

When *making* the pudding, everyone in the house where it is being made *must* stir the pudding.

If the 'pudding breaks' when removing it from the bowl, there will be a death in the family in the New Year (my Mum doesn't remember the pudding ever breaking).

When serving, the eldest person gets the first piece, the next eldest the second piece and so on.

We had fun reminiscing AND... came to the conclusion that we would wait until next year to make this so the pudding will have time to 'age.'

We'll let you know how it comes out in about 365 days give or take a day or so. :)

Merry, merry to you, Vito, and all the fine folk at Avanti Savoia.

jLynn

Anonymous said...

Howdy jLynn,
The measurements are by weight- I have a good little digital scale that I would recomend for any kitchen.

Thanks for sharing some of your holiday "pudding" traditions. As you may know, I love reading about other people's family customs.

Holiday Cheer!
Chef Joseph

Anne Brogdon said...

For me it's the Christmas cookies that make the season bright. Mom's Pecan Sandies, Cream Cheese Cookies, Brownies, and Chocolate Crinkle Cookies. Mmmmm... Happy Holidays!