What joy the diligent farmer has now that all his work is done for the time being, there is plenty in the barns and household, and good neighbors to celebrate it with.. Thomas Tusser describes “Christmas Husbandlie Fare” in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry,”
“Good husband and huswife now cheefly be glad,
things handsome to have, as they ought to be had;
They both doo provide against Christmas doo come,
To welcome good neighbor, good cheere to have some.
Good bread and good drinke, a goof fier in the hall,
brawne, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall.
Beefe, mutton, and porke, shred pies of the best,
pig, veale, goose and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples and nuts, joly Carols to heare,
and then in the countrie is counted good cheere.
What cost to good husband is any of this?
good houshold provision onely it is.
Of other the like, I doo leave out a menie,
that costeth the husbandman never a penie.”
I have set forth Mr. Tusser’s little Christmas diversion in full here, because with Christmas, we will bid a fond farewell to his wit and homely wisdom. His words have been our guide through the last twelve months of culinary exploration. Beginning next month we will leave him busily husbanding his prosperous farm, and will look to a year of exploring, with twelve months of recipes from the rest of the world. I will do my utmost to fill the coming year with recipes collected from anywhere BUT England and France. But before we depart on our “grand tour”, please allow me to leave you with one last English, and very Christmasy, treat.
Set a quart of good morning Milk upon the fire, having seasoned it with Salt, and sliced or grated Nutmeg. When it beginneth to boil, take it from the fire, and put into it four peny Manchets of light French bread sliced very thin (If it were Kingstone-bread, which is firmer, it must be grated) and a lump of Sweet-butter as big as a Wall-nut, and enough sugar to season it; and cover the possnet with a plate to keep the heat in, that the bread may soak perfectly. Whiles this standeth thus, take ten yolks of New-laid-eggs, with one White, and beat very well with a spoonful or two of Milk; and when the Milk is cooled enough, pour it (with the bread in it,) into the bason, where the beaten Eggs are, (which likewise should be first sweetened with Sugar to their proportion,) and put about three spoonfuls of fine flower into the composition, and knead then well together. If you will, you may put in a spoonful of Sack or Muscadine, and Ambared Sugar, working all well together; as also some lumps of Marrow or Suet shred very small: but it till be very good without either of these. Then put this mistion into a deep Woodden dish (like a great Butter-box) which must first be on the inside greased with Butter, and a little Flower sprinkled thereon to save the Pudding from sticking to the sides of the dish. Then put a linnen cloth or handkercher over the mouth of the dish, and reverse the mouth downwards, so that you may tye the Napkin close with two knots by the corners cross, or with a strong thred, upon the bottom of the dish, then turned upwards; all which is, that the matter may not get out, and yet the boiling water get through the linnen upon it on one side enough to bake the pudding sufficiently. Put the Woodden-dish thus filled and tyed up into a great Possnet or little Kettle of boiling water. The faster it boils, the better it will be. The dish will turn and rowl up and down in the water, as it gallopeth in boiling. An hours boiling is sufficient. Then unty your linnen, and take it off, and reverse the mouth of the dish downwards into the Silver-dish you will serve it up in, wherein is sufficient melted Butter thickened with beating, and sweetened to your taste with Sugar, to serve for sauce. You may beat a little Sack or Muscadine, or Rose, or Orange-flower-water with the Sauce; a little of any of which may also go into the Composition of the Pudding. If you put in more Flower, or more then one white of Egg to this proportion, it will binde the Pudding too close and stiff.
TRANSLATION: Heavens bless Sir Kenelme for writing in mostly modern English; it makes my literary life so much easier!
REALIZATION: This is an old fashioned, plain, unfruited version of what became British plum pudding for Christmas. We will make half of Sir Kenelme’s recipe. Cut the crusts from a sizeable loaf of French bread, sweet, not sourdough. Day-old bread is best; it should be firm enough to cut into ½-inch cubes without crushing. You should have about 1-½ cups of cubed bread. You may use bread crumbs, as Sir Kenelme suggested, but white bread gives a prettier result here. Scald two cups whole milk in a large saucepan with about ½ tsp. of ground nutmeg, 2 T. brandy or rum (optional), ½ cup sugar and 1 tsp. of salt. When it barely comes to a simmer, remove from the heat and add the cubed bread and 3 T. butter. Cover the saucepan, and let stand until lukewarm. (You should be comfortably able to hold your hand on the bottom of the pot.) While waiting, in a large bowl beat four egg yolks plus one whole egg until thick and lemon-colored. Beat in about ¼ cup of additional milk, and ½ cup sugar. When the milk/bread mixture is cooled, pour into the eggs and add 1/3 cup flour, with your additions: you may add ½ cup chopped suet ( or marrow, if you can find it), or a small amount of dried fruit, perhaps a generous ½ cup. Stir gently until the eggs and flour are incorporated, without crushing the bread cubes excessively. We will depart from the Digby recipe here, although I will discuss his boiling technique later. Turn into a greased and floured bowl large enough to hold the mixture comfortably, or if you have access to one, a greased and floured lidded pudding mold. If you use a bowl, tie a towel over the top of the bowl. If you think the towel might sag enough to touch the pudding, GREASE AND FLOUR IT AS WELL! (Rub shortening generously into the center of the cloth and dust with flour on the side which will be toward the pudding batter.) Place the bowl on a rack in a large pan of boiling water, which should come one-third to halfway up the sides of the bowl, but not touch the towel. Steam over boiling water for 5 hours (yes, five hours!), adding water to the pan as necessary. Remove the bowl from the pan, remove the towel, and invert onto a serving platter. Try your hand at Sir Kenelme’s sauce, which is butter and sugar creamed to taste with flavoring of choice, or use any recipe for “hard sauce” from a modern cookbook – they are essentially the same thing. Serve warm.
This pudding is flavored like a modern “bread pudding”, and will taste much the same. It is, however, more of a custard than you expect. Sir Kenelme is correct in his name for the recipe. When you first turn it out, it will quiver almost like Jello, but do NOT be tempted to test this! Especially when warm, it is VERY tender, and will split and run all over your table.
Now to the history of boiling puddings. Digby’s pudding was boiled in a “butter-box”, which was a three-sided open box for molding butter. Think “wooden shoe-box” and you have it. It will float much like a boat, being wooden and closed on three sides, but in rapidly boiling water, it will roll over from time to time. The towel tied around the box kept the pudding from falling out when it rolled, and the wet towel kept the pudding moist as it steamed. Not enough water soaked in during the cooking process to hurt the pudding, and the heat was gentle (212°) and steady. All in all, boiling gave a much more reliable result than baking, where the temperature was often too hot or too cold, and NEVER controllable. If you wish to know how the practice matured, get a copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol”, and read the account of the Cratchett’s Christmas. By the eighteenth century, the greased and floured towel was put into a bowl, the pudding was poured into the towel, diagonal corners were tied together, and the resulting ball was lifted from the bowl and suspended in a huge covered pot over boiling water, with nothing but the towel to shape or contain it.
The blessings of myself and all the household of Dane’s Rath be unto all of you at this joyous time of year. May your New Year be full of tasty treats, and many visits to my literary kitchen!
Ambared Sugar: Crumbly non-gem-grade amber (which is nothing but tree sap, after all) ground with sugar, often melted smooth and crystallized. It is sweet with a fragrant and resinous overtone. Cannot be found today, to my knowledge, and too expensive and too much trouble to make. Substitute crystallized flavored sugar.