Local history with Monica McGill: Thanks for the Christmas pudding memories, Granny!
A Christmas wall-hanging. Photo by Monica McGill

Local history with Monica McGill: Thanks for the Christmas pudding memories, Granny!

There was nothing small or timid about my Granny’s Christmas puddings.

The ingredients included a sack of flour, another of carrots, pounds of softened, full-fat butter, good beef suet, a cooper each of Smithwick’s or Bass ale, a cooper of Guinness stout, a bottle each of Hennessy’s brandy and Irish whiskey, loaves of batch bread (slightly stale was best), fresh eggs, nuts, candied lemon and orange peel, and lots of spices – cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, a “good pinch” of salt.

Sugar in different forms: white granulated, unrefined brown, and dark molasses that moved slowly like lava. All the richness of the world before us. A fantastic childhood memory. Christmas started now.

Preparations began the afternoon before making day. We thoroughly washed all the equipment before Granny scalded it all with boiling water from the kettles on the Aga.

I stood well back, as instructed. Steam billowed around her as the boiling water gurgled down the sink. Then everything was left to drain overnight.

Next, we inspected the sultanas and raisins, removed all stalks, then soaked the fruit in cold tea (made using real tea leaves) in a big bowl and covering it with a cloth.

We pounded the sliced almonds and walnuts until the pieces were tiny. All the other ingredients awaited us next morning.

Extra-finicky personal hygiene started the procedure on Making Day. We were like surgeons before an operation. Hair well tied back. Sleeves rolled up and secured. Hands, face and fingernails washed and scrubbed using plenty of hot water and Lifebuoy soap. Arms likewise to the elbows. Unlike surgeons, we blew soap bubbles in the air. We popped them before they fell to the floor. We put on clean aprons. We were ready.

First, we grated the breadcrumbs and carrots; then the nutmegs. We put the cloves and cinnamon in a clean cloth and pounded them mercilessly on the breadboard using a hammer until they were reduced to small pieces.

Exotic smells, like incense, rose around us. This was sacred. Granny was the priest. I was her small acolyte, standing on a chair.

Mixing the dry ingredients in the huge bowl was easy and we could use wooden spoons. Treating the flour roughly sent white particles everywhere and we’d end up laughing, flour on our faces.

Candied lemon and orange peel had to be tasted “for quality” before being added to the bowl. No shop-bought sweets ever tasted so good.

Cracking the eggs was more necessary vandalism. Golden yolks and silvery whites slid aside in their Pyrex bowl, making room for the others as I dropped them in.

Aberrant bits of eggshell were removed immediately, the slimy feel of cold egg-white on my fingers as I hunted for the one piece visible but not caught yet. Using a spoon never worked for this.

Then, whip the eggs with the whipper until your arm ached. Change hands and repeat. Now Granny took over. The eggs were well beaten.

As Granny added the first liquids to the dry ingredients, they became difficult to mix using the wooden spoon, so we had to use our hands.

A great excuse to squeeze the mixture through my fingers.

Some things are the same, yet somehow different

Things got a bit easier as Granny added more liquid ingredients and a wooden spoon could then be used, but you’d have to wash your hands first.

Otherwise, the spoon became too difficult to control. Lift some of the mixture up, then plop it back into the bowl – an important sound. Granny felt the “heft” of the mixture in the spoon, observed how it rejoined the main mixture. All were vital characteristics of the final product – or maybe we were just having fun.

The house was filled with the smell, the excitement of Christmas. Anyone not directly involved in making the puddings was lured to Headquarters (the kitchen) by the delicious aroma. Granny and I were in the thick of it, the creators of it.

Non-involved visitors wanting to taste the pudding mixture first had to stir it and make a silent wish. Only then could they taste it and give their opinion (which Granny always welcomed, and then ignored).

Like connoisseurs at a wine-tasting, we examined our mixture for smell, taste, texture, colour and general behaviour. Carefully, we added more of whatever Granny instructed, mixed it in thoroughly and then re-tasted.

This we repeated until everything was just right.

Other bowls were on the table now, but they only provided a shape for the puddings. Each bowl had its own layer of buttered greaseproof paper, floured muslin, and linen cloth. Into each we poured our voluptuous pudding mixture.

Granny tied each set of cloths, lifted them out of the bowls and hung our puddings in the pots of boiling water bubbling on the Aga.

There they boiled for hours. After draining, they were suspended by string from hooks in the ceiling, replacing the puddings we’d made this time last year.

Granny always kept her Christmas puddings for 12 months before releasing them for consumption. She’d regularly take them down to inspect them.

She’d poke them with a skewer, add brandy or whiskey to them and change their pudding cloths as necessary.

The puddings we made last year were the ones we’d eat and share this coming Christmas, after more boiling for hours in a huge pot on the Aga.

Oh, the wonderful taste and texture – the sight of our pudding surrounded by flaming brandy as it was carried to the Christmas table!

Did I ask Granny to write down her recipe? Of course not. I was too busy having fun helping her, having our final “wish-stir” of the mixture and solemnly saying our Hail Mary together over it for blessings and good luck.

She never used a weighing scales. She measured everything by hand and we relied on all our senses. Those were the days when raw eggs didn’t carry salmonella and a child could lick the pudding bowl.

Thanks for the memories, Granny, and God bless you.

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