I am part of the Canadian Food Experience Project that is underway for 12 months spanning 2013-14. Each month, food bloggers have an assigned theme to write about and link to their particular region of the country. The theme for December 2013 is A Canadian Christmas: A Tradition From Your Region.
I thought I knew what the most traditional Christmas food on Prince Edward Island would be. In fact, when I saw what the December theme for the project was, I was sure I knew what this blog posting would be about. However, for fun, I decided to use social media to ask Islanders what one food has to be on their tables over the holidays in order for it to be Christmas. Sure, there were responses that mentioned fruitcake, Scotch cookies, seafood chowder, and meat pies and several other seasonal treats. However, there was one food item that was repeatedly showing up and that is the traditional plum pudding. Now, my informal survey is, by no means, scientific at all. However, it gave a reasonably good indicator that was sufficient for me. So, this posting is about plum pudding, the traditional Christmas dinner dessert in many Island households.
Plum Pudding Trivia and Symbolism
Plum pudding seems to have its origins in England and has been a popular food for centuries. In preparation for this story, I did some research and discovered some interesting information about the Christmas pudding, or simply “pud”, as it is sometimes called. How much of this is truth or superstition or folklore, I don’t know, but I found it interesting nonetheless.
The making of the pudding was apparently often made on what was referred to as “Stir-up Sunday” which would occur 4-5 weeks prior to Christmas, timed to coincide with Advent. This allowed time for the flavors in the pudding to blend and mature in time for Christmas. One theory was to have 13 ingredients in the pudding to represent Christ and the 12 disciples. It was also customary for each member of the family to give a stir to the batter and make a wish while doing so on the premise that the wish would then come true. Each person was to stir the batter from East to West to commemorate the three Wise Men who traveled in this direction to find the Christ child lying in a manger. It seems that it was common to mix some tiny charms, coins, tokens, or favors into the pudding batter. Each of those was said to have some significance to the person who discovered them in his or her piece of pudding. For example, these might have included a ring (signifying marriage prospect), an anchor (safe harbour), mini horseshoe (luck), a coin (wealth), or a thimble (thriftness).
The pudding was often decorated with a sprig of holly, believed to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when he was crucified. The holly was also believed to have healing powers and would bring good luck. When the pudding was served to the table, it was often soused with liquor and set aflame and this was to signify the passion of Christ. Who knew that plum pudding had all this symbolism!
While many Islanders make their own plum puddings, there are several opportunities on PEI to buy them. I checked around with some Island bakeries to see if they produced plum puddings and many do.
However, to find out just how popular the puddings are, year after year, with Islanders, I consulted with Pat Robinson of Charlottetown. For the past 12 years, Pat has been producing plum puddings in her home kitchen for sale in aid of charity and support to non-profit organizations. In 2012, Pat made over 500 puddings. From the pudding sale proceeds, Pat donated $4,000 to the Community Legal Information Association, $1,500 to the PEI Humane Society, and $250 to an Island family in need.
Pat believes that plum puddings have remained so popular because they are nostalgic. They are typically only served at Christmas so that makes them a special once-a-year treat. The aroma of the steamed pudding triggers warm memories of a traditional way of life and, for many, brings back fond memories of their childhood and of mothers, grandmothers, or aunts making the family plum pudding at Christmas. If you would like more information or to place an order for one of Pat’s plum puddings and support local charities at the same time, call her at (902)566-4388, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plum pudding has been the traditional Christmas dinner dessert in my family and, in my younger years, it was my grandmother’s role to make the pudding along with the brown sugar sauce to serve over the “pud”.
There are no plums in plum pudding! Supposedly, several centuries ago, raisins (a primary ingredient in the pudding) were considered as plums. Combinations of raisins may also be used – I use Lexia (big sticky raisins) and sultanas. Currents are also a common ingredient and I do add them to my pudding.
While some cooks use only sultana raisins in their pudding, a variety of dried or candied/glazed fruits may also be added. I use mixed peel (lemon, orange, and citron) in my pudding.
The raisins and fruit are bound together by eggs, flour, breadcrumbs, and suet (raw beef fat). Suet is often available frozen. However, my preference is fresh product and I am lucky enough to live near a great butcher shop at the Riverview Country Market so I was able to pick up some suet there.
A combination of sweet spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and cloves are common in the pudding and give it its flavour. I also add mace and cardamom. Sugar and molasses are the typical sweeteners used. How much molasses is used will also determine the color of the final product. Some puddings are almost jet-black in color while others, like mine, are more of a medium brown color. I also add a small amount of strawberry jam for both flavor and moistness.
Not all plum puddings contain alcohol but it is a common ingredient with either spirits or stout being the most typical used. Citrus juices may be used instead of alcohol, if desired. The alcohol is believed to increase the shelf life of the pudding. The featured Island product I use in my plum pudding is Strait Rum produced by Myriad View Artisan Distillery in Rollo Bay, PEI.
The batter for a plum pudding will be almost like a fruit cake consistency.
Special molds of decorative shapes are available for plum puddings.
You do not need a special mold, though. A metal bowl or clean tin cans can be used. If you are not presenting the full pudding at the table, the tin cans are an ideal alternative as they make the pudding easy to slice.
However, if you are looking for presentation, a specialized mold will give an attractive shape.
Some still make the pudding in a cloth sack. I know one cook who simply lays out a large square of a heavy cotton fabric on the counter, sprinkles the cloth with flour, then pours the batter onto the center of the cloth. Leaving some head room for the pudding to expand, she gathers up the cloth and ties it tightly with string, then places it on a rack in a huge pot of boiling water. Amazingly, the pudding batter does not leak out nor does water seep into the batter during the boiling process and make the pudding overly wet or soggy.
Plum pudding can be either steamed or boiled. Both involve a hot water bath. This keeps the pudding moist.
If using a mold, cover it with its cover or, if using a metal bowl or tin can, cover with a double layer of tin foil and secure it with string tied around the top of the container.
Place a wire rack on the bottom of a large pot.
Place the pudding mold on the wire rack and add boiling water to reach the level of about ½ to ⅔ the way up the side of the pudding mold or tin. Bring the water back to a full boil, then immediately reduce the heat to a gentle boil. It is important that the water boil gently during the cooking/steaming process, not be a rolling boil. The pudding will generally take 3-4 hours to cook, depending on the size of mold you are using. The pudding is done when a cake tester or skewer inserted into the center of the pudding comes out clean. Plum puddings are meant to be very moist, not dry consistency. Be sure to let the pudding cool to room temperature in the mold before removing it.
To boil the pudding in a bag, the process is similar. A rack is placed on the bottom of a large pot of boiling water. The pudding bag is set on the rack. After the pudding is placed on the rack, the water is brought back to a rolling boil, then the temperature is immediately reduced to allow the water to boil gently. The pudding is done when it is firm to the touch, usually after 2-3 hours, depending on the size of the pudding. The bag is removed from the hot water bath, the pudding removed from the cloth sack, and transferred to an ovenproof pan. The pudding can then be placed in a warm oven, set on a very low temperature, for about 5 minutes to dry off any excess moisture remaining on the pudding.
Wrap the cooled pudding tightly in plastic wrap and store in a sealed plastic bag. The pudding will keep for about 3 weeks in the refrigerator or may be frozen for longer storage.
The pudding may be put back into its pudding mold and reheated for 1-2 hours in a hot water bath at the time of serving. However, the easier way today is to simply microwave the pudding for just a few minutes until it is heated. While you can heat the entire pudding in the microwave, it is quicker to cut the pudding into slices for reheating.
There are many different sauces/toppings served with plum pudding – brown sugar sauce, spiced cream, ice cream, or even a dollop of yogurt or whipped cream. However, in our home, the tradition is to serve the pudding with a basic brown sugar sauce.
To give the sauce a little “kick”, I sometimes add a dash of rum to deepen the flavor. This, of course, is completely optional. The liquor can be omitted; however, to maintain the same consistency, simply increase the amount of water equal to the amount of liquor called for in the recipe.
For many Islanders, they will finish off their Christmas dinner with plum pudding served with whatever topping is traditional in their household.
I am sharing my recipe for plum pudding with a brown sugar sauce, lightly flavored with rum distilled right here on PEI.
Is plum pudding one of your Christmas traditions? Does it bring back memories for you? What do you serve with the plum pudding?
My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Plum Pudding
1 cup sticky raisins (Lexia)
1 cup sultana raisins
1 cup currants
⅔ cup mixed peel (lemon/orange/citron)
½ cup rum
1 cup flour
¾ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
⅛ tsp mace
⅛ tsp nutmeg
⅛ tsp allspice
¼ tsp ginger
⅛ tsp cardamom
1 cup fine breadcrumbs
1 cup suet
¾ cup brown sugar
⅓ cup molasses
¼ cup strawberry jam
½ cup milk
Grease or spray 8-cup (2-quart) pudding mold with cooking oil.
In bowl, combine raisins and mixed peel. Add the rum. Stir. Set aside while preparing other ingredients.
In separate bowl, combine flour, soda, baking powder, and salt.
Add breadcrumbs. Stir well to combine.
Stir the raisin and mixed peel mixture into the dry ingredients.
In another bowl, combine the suet, molasses, brown sugar, milk, jam, and eggs. Mix well.
Pour the wet ingredient mixture into the flour and raisin mixture. Stir to combine.
Spoon mixture into prepared mold, filling mold about ¾ full. Cover.
In large stock pot, place a wire rack. Place filled mold on rack. Pour boiling water into stock pot, filling to about ½ to ⅔ the way up the side of the mold. Bring water back to a boil and immediately reduce heat to a low boil over low heat to steam the pudding. Cook for about 3 hours or until cake tester inserted into the center of the pudding comes out clean. Make sure the water level stays at the ½ – ⅔ mark throughout the cooking process, adding more water as needed.
Remove pudding mold from the hot water bath and cool on a wire rack for a couple of hours. Remove cover.
Invert pudding mold over a wire rack to remove pudding.
Wrap pudding in plastic wrap or in foil and place in a sealed bag. The pudding will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks or it may be frozen for longer storage.
To reheat, either place the pudding back in its mold and heat in a hot water bath for 1-2 hours or, more simply, slice pudding and place slices on plate then microwave approximately 30-45 seconds per slice. Serve with desired sauce.
Yield: Apx. 12 servings
Buttered Rum Brown Sugar Sauce
¼ cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 cup water
2 tsp vanilla
¼ cup rum (optional)
¼ cup melted butter
In large microwave-safe bowl, mix flour, sugar, and salt together. Add remaining ingredients. Stir to mix well. Microwave on high for 3-4 minutes until thickened, stirring after each minute. Serve hot over plum pudding.
Yield: Apx. 10-12 servings
As we (participants in the Canadian Food Experience Project) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice.
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