Tradition: Christmas Pudding

December 26, 2011

Steamed pudding in its mold.

I cringe a little bit when I hear myself say, “I’d like to start a new tradition,”  well aware that an act doesn’t become tradition until it is repeated so many times it is unnatural not to do it. My Grandma Dorothy upheld her family’s special-occasion tradition of serving czernina, the Borusheski version of the Polish duck soup, using the same green plastic teacup year after year as a soup ladle. My dad has maintained his father’s tradition of making the Hungarian káposztája, stuffed cabbage leaves, every New Year’s Day. J and I have a few traditions of our own, but starting a new tradition is tricky business: Sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t. And there are few things lamer than hearing yourself say, “What ever happened to that tradition?”

Last year I did start what I hope will become a long-standing tradition: Christmas pudding. The recipe I use comes from Nigella Lawson’s book Feast. I first tasted “figgy pudding” when a  former co-worker brought one to a holiday potluck, and immediately I knew I must try this recipe. Sweet, but not too much so. Dense, sticky and rich with layers of flavor. Is that chocolate? Is it a cake? Is it a fruitcake?  And that dollop of rum butter? Oh man.

My copy of "Feast." I wrote that this will be a yearly tradition, so it must be so.

So the weekend after Thanksgiving, I make the puddings. I follow Nigella’s recipe faithfully, though it could be easily tinkered with. And because I don’t have a traditional pudding-steaming vessel  I divide mine into four or five smaller glass containers with covers.  The smaller portions make easy gifting and are easily stackable in the refrigerator. I skip the addition of the coins and tokens, which signify good luck, mostly because of laziness. Instead I send our good wishes along to everyone who enjoys the dish.

Nigella Lawson’s Nonconformist Christmas Pudding

2 cups dried mission figs

1 cup dried blueberries

1 1/2 cups currants (or dried cranberries, in a pinch)

3/4 cup Kahlua

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter

1 cup ground almonds

2 cups breadcrumbs

1/2 cup cocoa

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup packed brown sugar

2 apples

3 large eggs

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 tablespoon pie spice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup vodka

Generously butter the steaming vessel(s) and lids.

Grind the figs in a food processor and put them in a saucepan with the blueberries, currants and Kahlua. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 10 minutes. Cut the butter on top of the simmering fruit and put the lid on, leaving it to simmer and melt for another 10 minutes.

Put the breadcrumbs, ground almonds, cocoa, flour, baking powder, baking soda and brown sugar into a large bowl.

Peel, quarter and core the apples and, as Nigella says,  “bung” them in the still-figgy food processor until finely chopped. Add them to the bowl of dry ingredients along with the buttery dried fruit mixture. In the same unwashed food processor, break the eggs and add the sour cream, vanilla and spices. Process to mix and pour into the pudding, scraping the sides to get all the leftover bits. Mix well with a spoon, and pour into the prepared steaming vessels.  If you’re using covered glass containers as I do, be sure not to overfill, as the pudding expands as it steams.

Now for the steaming: Because I make several smaller puddings, I arrange mine in a large canning pot, resting them on the rack. Cover and steam for four hours, checking the water level periodically. After four hours, turn off the heat and allow them to cool in the pan. Transfer the puddings to the refrigerator. (Some people allow them sit on the kitchen counter.) The more time you allow them to mature the better, which is why these are traditionally prepared toward the end of November. (That lazy Thanksgiving weekend, therefore, is the perfect time.)

The day you want to eat the pudding, steam it for another 1 1/2 to four hours — the longer it steams, the richer it will be. (A friend of mine steamed hers in a crock pot — a great tip.) Unmold the pudding by inverting it onto a plate, and stick a sprig of holly on top. In a saucepan, warm the vodka and strike a match to light it and pour over the pudding. “Then,” Nigella writes, “in absolute discordance with all possible health and safety initiatives, bearing it aloft make a dash for the dining table so everyone can see this fabulous, flickering spectacle.”

Makes me smile every time I read it.

Serve with rum butter.

Rum Butter

1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup ground almonds

1/2  teaspoon vanilla extract (my addition to the recipe. Optional)

3-plus tablespoons good-quality rum (to taste)

Put the sugar in the food processor and process to remove any lumps. Add the softened butter and cream it with the sugar. Scrape down the sides, add the ground almonds and process again. With the motor running, add the vanilla and the rum to taste. Taste as you go along. I prefer more rum in my butter, but some might find my preference too strong for their liking.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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Warm and comforting meatloaf and spaghetti squash gratin.

I can’t say meatloaf was my favorite food growing up. By my logic, if you were going through the trouble of hand-shaping ground beef, why not make meatballs (with spaghetti, duh)? And, if I remember correctly, the meatloaf of my childhood was usually accompanied by some objectionable vegetable like broccoli, adding insult to my pasta-less injury. (No disrespect to my mother’s meatloaf, of course. It just did not appeal to young palate. People change. Love you, Mom!)

A few year’s back, in the midst a dangerous, experimental mac-and-cheese stage (old habits die hard), I was perusing my cookbooks for an accompaniment to what I considered the night’s gooey, cheesy main attraction. That’s when I ran across a recipe for old-fashioned meatloaf in my golden go-to, The Gourmet Cookbook. A departure from the meatloaf Mom baked in bread loaf pans, this version was mounded free-form into an oval dome on baking sheet and slathered with ketchup. It sounded interesting enough, so we gave it a try, and a few year’s later it’s now a wintertime staple. While I have served this many times alongside a creamy pot of macaroni, it’s a star in and of itself. On a recent Sunday, though, a spaghetti-squash gratin was the side to what I consider to be a magnificent meatloaf. Pasta-less and still craveable? Whoodathunk it?

Old-Fashioned Meatloaf (Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)

2 cups onions, finely diced
1 rib celery, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
3 green onions, minced
2-3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup ketchup

2 pounds lean ground chuck
1 pound ground pork
1 cup dried breadcrumbs
2 eggs beaten lightly
1/3 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, sautee the onions, celery carrots, green onions and garlic in olive oil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent and the carrots are tender. Season with salt and black pepper. Add the Worcestershire sauce and 1/3 cup ketchup and stir, cooking for one additional minute. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, combine the the beef, pork, eggs, breadcrumbs and parsley. Incorporate the vegetable mixture into the meat, mixing with your hands. (Don’t over-mix.) Turn the meatloaf mixture onto a shallow baking pan, forming it into a mounded oval, about 10 by 5 inches. Spread the remaining 1/3 cup ketchup on the top. Bake in the oven for 1 hour or until the internal temperature reads 155 degrees. Remove from oven and loosely cover with foil. Let the loaf rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

Spaghetti Squash and Tomato Gratin (Adapted from Cooking Light)

1 medium spaghetti squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce canned whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
3 sprigs fresh oregano
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 15-ounce tub low-fat ricotta
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper

With a small, sharp knife, pierce the surface of the squash about 1-inch deep to prevent it from bursting. Put the whole squash in a microwave and cook on the highest setting for 6 to 7 minutes. Using oven mitts, turn the squash over and cook for an additional 8 to 10 minutes, until it feels slightly soft when pressed. Remove the squash from the microwave, and allow it to cool. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, and remove and discard the seeds from the middle. Run the tines of a fork through the flesh creating long spaghetti-like strands. (Should yield about four cups.) Set aside. (This step can be done ahead.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook stirring for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, crushed red pepper, oregano sprigs and thyme sprigs. Add salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for 20 minutes until thickened. Remove and discard the woody stems of the oregano and thyme. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the ricotta and the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Add the chopped oregano and thyme and season with salt and pepper.

In a 9 by 13 casserole, make a base layer of spaghetti squash. Follow with a layer of tomatoes, spreading evenly over the squash. Top it off with the cheese mixture. Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes, or until lightly browned on top.

(Alternatively, you can layer the squash, tomatoes and cheese in eight 8-ounce ramekins as called for in the the original recipe.)