By Jennifer Scerra
“Hmm, I think I’m going to make a Christmas Pudding. Yeah, that’s it! A Christmas pudding!”
Reader, she did not make a Christmas pudding.
It turns out that an important ingredient of a traditional Christmas pudding is suet, the crumbly fat from around the kidneys of a cow. And even in so cosmopolitan a place as Los Angeles county, suet was surprisingly difficult to track down. Oh, I could have driven to a British import shop in Riverside county, or ordered it from the robber barons online, but in the end, I decided to save that historic culinary adventure for another year. With eight hours of cooking time and two weeks of resting, the pudding, the slowest of slow foods, was not going to be ready for Christmas anyway. Whamp Wah.
But… luckily pretty much every list of “traditional” Christmas recipes that I found from the early 1900s had steamed pudding as part of a trifecta that included two other now neglected staples: fruit cake and mincemeat. With around two hours and four hours of cooking time respectively, they aren’t that much faster than the pudding. But hey, history and holidays—we suffer for both.
“’An old-time Christmas’ is an expression that can be used in a relative sense only when speaking of this holiday in the United States. It was not until the very late ‘50s that keeping Christmas as it is understood today could be called the custom of the country. Among the influences that brought about this change were…newly arrived families from Great Britain and Germany. Puritan prejudice was compelled to yield in the nature of the celebration…”
From the La Habra Star, 30 November 1923.
This La Habra Star newspaper article takes a rather East Coast-centric view of history even as it reminds everyone that the old-fashioned Christmas of the day (1923) had only developed in the mid-1800s. It might sound obvious, but when they say that the Puritans prevented Christmas celebrations from taking place, they don’t mean here in Los Angeles. That was happening in New England, while California was still part of the Spanish Empire and celebrating Christmas without impediment. But by the 1850s the world had changed: The United States had seceded from England and conquered the West Coast. Despite divorcing from the British Empire, Victorian Christmas traditions like Christmas trees still managed to spread throughout the US and fruit cakes, steamed puddings, and pies, became the sort of symbolic holiday treat that candy canes are today.
Noting the previously mentioned cooking times of these treats, it was with good reason that cooks of the early 1900s might not have wanted to put in the labor needed to make a steamed pudding or fruitcake. This created a market for tinned and canned versions.
But for those who found compulsion or joy in such things, there were plenty of recipes available. After contemplating their various merits, I went with an article from the Dennison Party Magazine written by cookbook author and home management lecturer, Carolyn Webber Bixby, who reminded readers that “the good cook…can think of many friends to whom home-made dainties are a rare treat.” It’s a polite way of acknowledging the work involved and saying you could use these recipes to show off.
The Fruit Cake.
Carolyn Webber Bixby might have taught cooking classes, but whether it was for space reasons or otherwise, the recipes in this article have almost no directions given and therefore, require some educated guessing and prior baking knowledge. If you have ever seen an episode of the Great British Baking Show where they have to make a recipe with only the list of ingredients and no instructions, that is what making this fruit cake was like. The only instructions were for the thing I thought most obvious, which was to cut the fruit and nuts before adding.
Imperial Fruit Cake
1 cup butter and lard
2 cups of sugar
4 yolks of eggs
1-1/4 cups milk
4 cups of flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup raisins
1 cup candied cherries
1/4 cup angelica
1 cup candied pineapple
2 cups nut meats
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon rose extract
1 whites of eggs, beaten stiff
Cut fruit and nuts (walnuts, pecans and almonds mixed). Bake 1-1/4 hours at 325° F. Makes 3 loaves about 8 x 4 inches in size.
I started by separating the eggs and then beating the egg whites and putting those to the side. Then I creamed together the butter and sugar, and incorporated in the egg yolks, milk, and vanilla extract (I realized too late that I didn’t have rose water, so I had to omit that). I made a choice when I was shopping that the ¼ cup of angelica that was called for was meant to be Angelica wine and not angelica the celery-like herb, but quite frankly I’m still not sure that’s correct. However, the sweet dessert wine that I added didn’t seem to do any harm. But if you make this and decide to sub a ¼ cup of celery, please tell me how that goes.
Once the wet ingredient were together, I mixed the flour, salt and baking powder in a separate bowl and then added them to the batter. Lastly, I gently folded in the egg whites and chopped fruits and nuts until just combined.
My loaf pans were a little bigger than called for, at 9” x 5”, so I only used two and lined them with parchment paper before baking for an hour and a half.
Kid 1: “It tastes just like cake…with nuts.”
Adult 1: “It’s by far the best fruit cake I’ve had. The crust is delicious. It think I would like it better with just the nuts.”
Adult 2: “Tasty. It’s got a nice crispy outside crust. It’s lighter than I was expecting. Delicious.”
Adult 3: “It’s kind of like a breakfast muffin. I like it. But, its not soaked in brandy, or two weeks old. Is that the difference?”
Adult 4: “Pleasant!”
The mincemeat recipe, like the fruit cake, is short on direction; but this time it is a little more reasonable. Mix everything together and cook. Ok!
2 cups chopped meat
3/4 lb. raisins
6 cups chopped apples
2 teaspoons salt
5 cups sugar
3/4 cup molasses
1/3 cup vinegar
3/4 cup shortening
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup liquor from meat
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
a teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
Mix all ingredients. Cook 3 or 4 hours very slowly. Makes 5 pints.
The only thing I found lacking in this recipe was the description of chopped meat. What kind should I use? Looking at other recipes, they often recommend a lean cut of beef, boiled. I cooked a roast in a slow cooker, but I think stew meat almost certainly would have been better, as the lean meat fell apart into tough bits after cooking for so long.
I probably did this recipe a bit of a disservice by having my family taste it when it was just the mincemeat and not yet incorporated into a pie. But a person only has so much time and the magazine actually suggests gifting the canned mincemeat alone, I assume so that your friends can make their own pies. So that is how we tested this, straight from a jar.
Kid 1: “It doesn’t taste very good for a pie filling. More soupy, or like gravy or stew.”
Adult 1: “I feel like with some crust it would be really tasty. Mmm.”
Adult 2: “Sauce is good. Is the jerky-like texture the meat? It’s actually quite tasty—meat dessert.”
Adult 3: “I love the spices. But it’s a little heavy on the molasses.”
Adult 4: “Sweet and Savory!”
So, with two big loafs of fruit cake and a stockpot worth of mincemeat, I am counting this holiday cooking experiment to be a success. Neither of the recipes are quite as glamorous as a steaming pudding placed at the center of a decorated table, but my family will be incorporating both into our hodgepodged Christmas meal this week.
Earlier I mentioned the La Habra Star article from November 30, 1923 about having an old-fashioned Christmas dinner. If we continue reading, it informs us that modern cooks have been led astray to think that December is the time for making spice cake, mincemeat, plum pudding, and all the Christmas goodies. A self-respecting housekeeper of the 1859 or ’60 would have had it all cooked and packed away around Thanksgiving. Now I know!