The proof is in the pudding
AT THE risk of being called bad names, I have to inform you that September is the time to make Christmas puddings.
This is not, I promise, a chain-store moment, where the Easter eggs are trotted out the second the mince pies are off the shelves, and tinsel follows hot on the heels of Father's Day cards.
The optimum period to for a plum pudding to mature before the big day is three to four months. That means making it sometime in the next couple of weeks. It's a good idea for another reason - who wants to be chained to a stove when the temperature is in the high 20s, let alone 30 degrees or above?
Puddings and cakes, filled as they are with dried fruit, are not cheap, but this recipe makes enough for two puddings. I make this every two years and freeze the second pudding for the following year. It freezes well and halves the workload.
TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS PUDDING
Makes 2 puddings, each serving 6-8
2 cups sultanas
1 cup raisins
1 cup dried currants
1 cup finely chopped pitted dried dates
3/4 cup finely chopped red glace cherries
1/2 cup mixed peel
2 tbsp finely grated orange rind
250ml (1 cup) brandy
250g unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra to grease pudding basins
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
4 large free-range eggs
3 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs made from stale bread (NB don't use packet breadcrumbs)
1/2 cup plain flour
1 tbsp mixed spice
Combine dried fruits, mixed peel and orange rind, and pour the brandy over. Cover and leave at least overnight, preferably for two to three days. I use a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid so I can turn the fruit over a few times during the soaking period.
Grease 2 x 1L pudding basins with melted butter.
Use an electric beater to beat the butter and sugar in a bowl until pale and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, until combined. Add to the dried-fruit mixture and combine gently.
Add breadcrumbs, flour and mixed spice and stir to combine. Divide mixture in half and spoon into prepared basins. Smooth surface.
Fill one-third of two large saucepans with boiling water and bring to a simmer over low heat.
Place each sealed pudding basin in a large oven bag and seal well to keep out the water.
Alternatively, cut squares of baking paper and foil large enough to cover each basin. Place paper on top of foil and fold to make a pleat in the centre. Place over basins, foil-side up. Tie a doubled length of cook's string tightly under rim of basin to secure. Use a double piece of string tied loosely over the basin to form a handle. Fold paper and foil up over the rim to keep them out of the water.
Use handle to lower basins into saucepans. Add enough boiling water to reach two-thirds of the way up the side of the basins. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat, adding more boiling water when necessary, for five hours.
Remove from saucepans and cool. Remove from basins and wrap in several layers of cling wrap or foil; store in the fridge. You can freeze one for next year. To serve, repeat the cooking process for a further two hours.
Makes one cake
DON'T run and hide - the Silly Season will seek you out wherever you bury yourself.
It's still several months away, but September is the perfect time of year to make Christmas cakes and puddings.
This year, why not try making your own Christmas mince with a versatile recipe that can be used to make a delicious cake (recipe below), with some left over for mince pies or gifts.
My old friend Jill makes this mince recipe each year and gives it to friends for Christmas; I always look forward to receiving a jar. Hand-made gifts are lovely, particularly if they're made with Grand Marnier. If you want to cut down on costs a little, you can use brandy (or any other spirits) instead.
If you make this up now, allow it to mature for several weeks then use it in your usual cake or pudding recipe (reserve two cups for pies); or you can leave it in a dark cool cupboard for a few months then seal in sterilised jars for gifts.
250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
120g brown sugar
5 large free-range eggs
60g cooking chocolate, melted
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp almond essence
2 tsp glycerine
2 tbsp raspberry or blackberry jam
Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
250g plain flour, sifted
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup blanched almonds (optional)
1 quantity fruit mince from recipe (see below), minus 2 cups (use for mince tarts)
1/2 cup brandy
Grease a 20cm round cake tin and line it with baking paper, cutting a fringe along one long edge of the side and folding the fringe so it sits on the base. Fit the circle for the base over the fringed edge.
Preheat oven to 150°C (see note below). Beat butter until pale, then add brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each egg.
Stir in melted chocolate, essences, glycerine, jam and lemon rind and juice.
Sift the flour, mixed spice, ground ginger and salt together. Add 1/3 prepared fruit to butter/sugar mixture, then 1/3 dry ingredients, mixing gently. Repeat with another third fruit and flour, then add the remainder. Add almonds if using and mix until combined.
Put batter into prepared tin; lift tin and drop onto a hard surface to break up air bubbles. Tie a tripled strip of newspaper around the tin with string to help stop the outside of the cake from burning.
Bake in the centre of the oven at 150°C for 3-31/2 hours; test with a skewer to ensure it's cooked through.
Remove from oven and prick the entire cake with a fine skewer; pour brandy over the cake. Remove newspaper wrapping and cool cake in tin, then remove, leaving the baking paper on. Wrap in two layers of foil and seal in an airtight container. Store in a dark cool place for at least a month.
You can ice this cake or brush with a little boiled jam and decorate with dried fruit and nuts, if desired.
NOTE: If you are cooking in a fan-forced oven, reduce temperature by 20°C, and bake for a further 15-20 minutes. If your cake tin is dark rather than silver, reduce the temperature by 10°C, and extend cooking time by 10-15 minutes.
250g dried dates, seeded
250g prunes, seeded
250g glacé cherries
115g glacé pineapple
125g dried apricots
50g glacé ginger (optional)
375g dried currants
200g candied mixed peel
3 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and grated coarsely
1 x 250g jar marmalade
2 tbsp finely grated orange rind
60ml lemon juice
2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 tbsp mixed spice
350ml Grand Marnier, Cointreau, brandy or other spirits or liqueur
Finely chop the dried fruit. Use a sharp knife and spray the blade with a little non-stick cooking spray to make the job easier, otherwise the fruit will stick to the blade. Take care not to spray the handle. Sharp kitchen scissors or shears can also be used.
Combine all ingredients in a large plastic container with a lid. Leave in a dark place for at least four weeks, shaking the container every few days.
Bottle in sterilised jars for gifts, or use for a pudding, cake or mince tarts for Christmas.