At Christmas, my mother was a traditionalist. With idiosyncratic perfection, she would prepare the turkey, perfectly stuffed with her own recipe of bread stuffing. She would sew up the stuffed cavity with needle and twine. Such time taken to get it just right. and each year, she would whinge and moan about how dry and tasteless this poultry was and how “Did I ever tell you…?” Goose with potato stuffing was the traditional fare for an Irish Christmas before this mass bred import arrived.
Next would come the ham. She would lift the skin off and with such precision, cut the remaining skin into identical squares. She would then stud each and every one of those squares with a clove pressed into the skin. She would cover the entire ham with rings of tinned pineapple secured neatly with cocktail sticks. Glazed cherries placed in the centre of each ring, the ham all liberally covered in brown sugar, she would bake it in the oven until that sugar turned to a caramel covering the ham. And complete, she would place the 18lb ham onto one of the large meat plates handed down through the years. Every year, I would marvel at the result as it looked like the cover of one of those Cordon Bleu magazines she loved collecting.
The vegetables? All traditional. Fresh Brussel Sprouts would be prepared, cleaned, outer leaves discarded and a cross cut into the stem. The Marrowfat Peas would be placed in muslin, soaked in water with a tablet left to dissolve gradually. Carrots cleaned, cut into batons and placed in sugared cold water to keep overnight. The potatoes would be peeled, turned and also left in salted cold water until required.
And the butter? She would take out two wooden panels which belonged to her own mother. Cubing the butter, she would roll each between the wooden panels until it was a perfectly shaped ball with diamond pattern adorning it. Or she would take a more modern gadget. Digging it into the block of cold butter and pulling back, she would create curls of butter. Whatever tool she picked, one thing was for sure – butter would not adorn her Christmas table in a pack, block or tub.
Then there was Cranberry Sauce. Being out of season, she would choose a frozen block of Oceanspray cranberries and work her magic until it was transformed into a bitter tasting accompaniment for the turkey and ham.
The sweet accompaniments of the festival? Every year, she would prepare a Christmas cake. It had a lighter cake mix than the traditional one and she didn’t ice it. Why? She couldn’t be bothered as none of us ate the madeira like cake so icing it seemed silly. She would, however, put a recycled Yuletide frill around it each year to take away the beige-ness of the cake.
And every few years, she would make Christmas Puddings. Rich in fruit and suet (and alcohol), she would place them in plastic bowls, add buttered paper, cover the top and secure each with string. She would boil these puddings until cooked and, when cool, she would seal with a plastic lid, clipped onto the top. There they would lie in the cupboard until required. And I mean that. The amount of alcohol would preserve them indefinitely. Finally released from the plastic bowl, Mum would douse it with brandy, light it and we would all marvel at the burning mass before one by one we would refuse a piece because quite simply, we all hated it. Mum would sit there, solemnly, eating the pudding with the Brandy Butter she had prepared for the occasion.
As the years passed, I grew to love Christmas Pudding – the darker and richer the better. I always wished I could make Mum’s version but I couldn’t find a recipe. In the little notebook of recipes, there it lay. Covered in specks of food from having prepared the puddings with the pages open. Dated 12 December 1955, I give to you ‘Teresa’s Plum Pudding.’
¼ lb, mixed peel
½ lb cherries
¼ lb almonds, chopped
½ lb suet, chopped finely
½ lb brown sugar
¼ lb flour
4 large eggs
1 carrot, finely grated
¾ lb breadcrumbs
Pinch of salt
1 ½ teaspoons of mixed spice
1 generous glass of whiskey
1. Mix all the dry ingredients together
2. Beat the eggs
3. Add in the whiskey
4. Combine the wet and the dry ingredients
5. Place the mixture into well-greased pudding bowls
6. Cover tightly with butter paper and then with cloth tied with twine*
7. Boil for 3 ½ to 5 ½ hours
This amount makes
4 small puddings – cook for 3 ½ hours
3 medium puddings – cook for 4 ½ hours
1 large pudding – cook for 5 ½ hours
On the day of using
Boil for another 1 hours
Thick whipped cream
*In years to come, this would be replaced by parchment paper