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The dilemma of Christmas pudding

“It is a problem certainly, that Christmas plum pudding. There is here something that I do not understand at all.” Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding

I'm not sure what dessert they eat in Belgium - Hercule Poirot's homeland - for Christmas but it's obviously not Christmas pudding. It's a very British thing and also very ancient. The National Geographic has a pretty comprehensive and readable article written by Sam Bilton - Deconstructing Christmas pudding: secrets of a seasonal staple - that will tell you everything about the history of Christmas pudding, and Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol writes a very famous piece about it:

"Oh! All that steam! The pudding had just been taken out of the cauldron. Oh! That smell! The same as the one which prevailed on washing day! It is that of the cloth which wraps the pudding. Now, one would imagine oneself in a restaurant and in a confectioner's at the same time, with a laundry next door. Thirty seconds later, Mrs. Cratchit entered, her face crimson, but smiling proudly, with the pudding resembling a cannon ball, all speckled, very firm, sprinkled with brandy in flames, and decorated with a sprig of holly stuck in the centre. Oh! The marvelous pudding!" Charles Dickens

And reading his comment about the laundry smell suddenly transported me to Christmases of my childhood - either at home or my grandmother's. Yes I remember that laundry smell. And the silver sixpences, farthings and threepenny pieces, wrapped carefully in greaseproof paper that one might find in your piece of pudding, if you were very lucky. I can even see my grandmother slicing it up which must mean that sometimes we had Christmas at her house. I also used to love helping to make the Christmas pudding a month or so before Christmas itself, and making a wish as you stirred. But it wasn't just the smell, it was the taste too. So rich and moist and dobbed with a little brandy butter. Even we children were allowed some of that. But then we had already had a taste of that in the brandy snaps.

It's all very appropriate for the dark and cold nights of winter in Britain. I'm told by my sister that snow is in the air even now. Christmas was a time for stuffing oneself with all sorts of food - the poor - we were just above the level of poor - must have saved for months for it all.

When I came to Australia I tried to continue this tradition. I remember I would make the Christmas pudding on Melbourne Cup Day, with the children helping, by stirring and wishing, although I don't remember putting in any of those lucky things like coins and charms. It had probably become too much of a health and safety concern by then. But as my children grew they professed their dislike of Christmas pudding, and that, with the inappropriate climate put an end to that. Besides I couldn't get the suet which was one of the crucial ingredients. And so I gave it up, but I have always felt somehow that Christmas wasn't Christmas without it.

"A dark, sticky mass of dried fruit, suet, breadcrumbs and spices, it’s a proper rib sticker; Christmas just wouldn’t seem right without its solid, reassuring presence on the table." Sam Bilton - National Geographic

But then Christmas never seems like Christmas to me here in Australia. I have never got used to Christmas in summer. Everything about it is wrong, from the pagan associations with the turning of the year towards the sun, the Christmas nativity stories, and the hearty, filling and warming food.

There are two reasons for my writing about Christmas pudding. Both the Coles Magazine and the Woolworths Fresh Magazine this month had substantial how-to articles on Christmas pudding - Coles on the left and Woolworths on the right - with Coles opting for the boiled version and Woolworths the steamed one. Both offered lots of tips and both were fairly traditional with the ingredients - except for the suet.

Felicity Cloake, of course, has a go at making the perfect Christmas pudding, though I would have to say that her version, shown here, looks a little dry to me. A proper Christmas pudding should be moist, so I'm not sure she achieved her aim here:

"Christmas puddings are as much about texture as flavour – they should be unapologetically dense, without being solid" Felicity Cloake

The other reason for a Christmas pudding post is that last night the family had a pre-Christmas, Christmas dinner because one family group is heading off to Spain and Portugal for a couple of months for Christmas. And so we stuffed ourselves with turkey and ham, stuffing, roast potatoes and braised cabbage before really going wild with desserts. The two granddaughters, myself and the two other grandparents had all contributed a dessert and so we truly over-indulged - but not in Christmas pudding, although the British tradition of overeating at Christmas time was definitely celebrated:

"there’s always room for a little wedge of fruity stodge on top of the mound of other food." Felicity Cloake

Australia too has a long tradition of eating Christmas pudding at Christmas time and The Conversation has a mini history of this entitled How Christmas pudding evolved with Australia. The historical insights were interesting but I don't really think that it addressed how the Christmas pudding has evolved here at the bottom of the world at the height of the summer heat. Yes you can buy Christmas puddings and lots of people still make their own, but in some ways that kind of tradition has been overtaken by the Italian pannetone, which to my mind is a vastly inferior thing. Yes - heresy I know - but I am really not a fan - much too dry for me.

I think that the Australians are still grappling with the whole concept of the Christmas dinner and are gradually moving further and further away from its British origins. The turkey is gradually being replaced it seems to me by seafood - an abundance of it - and ham. Indeed the current Coles Magazine features the seafood platter on its cover and the current Aldi catalogue is all about ham. Not a turkey in sight.

But I digress from Christmas pudding. You can substitute by mimicking the shape and sometimes the flavour too and at the same time make it lighter - ice cream is a common fix. Here are some examples: ; Christmas fruit pudding frozen nougatine from Lauren Eldridge/Gourmet Traveller; Lamington ice cream pudding from Coles; Tropical fruit summer pudding - also from Coles and the one that I think gets the prize as it combines, the shape and the taste of Christmas pudding with the meringue of pavlova which, it seems to me, is rapidly becoming the Australian traditional Christmas dessert. It's called Christmas ice cream pudding and it's a Curtis Stone recipe. We had a pavlova yesterday - cooked by my granddaughter - with lots of fruit in her case.

A couple of years ago, as a Christmas present I was given Christmas Cooking with the Weekly, which contained several different menus covering themes from classic, to Asian and Italian. I think the most Australian menu was the Barbecue lunch - because, honestly I think that a lot of Australians are turning to this sort of celebration. They may still Weber the turkey - or the ham - but they may not. Anyway the dessert for this particular menu was the quintessentially modern Australian Pavlova with figs and pomegranate - which looked stunning and had no relationship to Christmas pudding at all - except perhaps with the figs and the colour.

If however you are a traditionalist and you did have Christmas pudding you may well have leftovers, for which there are masses of delectable looking suggestions, ranging from humble cookies to elaborate cakes. Here are some: Fruit squares or 'Flies graveyard' from Miss South in The Guardian - I think these are the same sort of thing that we used to call Squashed flies; Eccles cakes with marzipan from Yotam Ottolenghi of all people; Christmas pudding cheesecake - Tom Kerridge/BBC Good Food; Christmas pudding semifreddo from Gourmet Traveller; Frozen Christmas pudding cake from Phoebe Wood/delicious.; Christmas pudding ice cream from Valli Little; Rye Christmas pudding cookies from Rosie Birkett/BBC Good Food; and Iced Christmas pudding mousse from Gary Rhodes/BBC Good Food;

There are lots of other things you can do with the leftovers - trifle; frying slices like French toast, or even just frying them and serving them with eggs and bacon - they said it worked!; crumbled into ice-cream sundaes ... There are heaps of suggestions out there. And maybe you could make some of these with the dreaded panettone as well.

But I won't be needing any of this as we won't be having Christmas pudding for the aforesaid reason that nobody in my house likes it - except for me. So I shall have to think of something else, that isn't pavlova - because I just cannot make pavlova.


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