Doc Yale

George Orwell, Christmas (Plum) Pudding, and Fruitcake

George Orwell, the patron saint of oxymorons (think “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength”) was not, to my knowledge ever exposed to the modern fruitcake—that inedible concoction that is recycled as a gift at Christmas year after year.  But if he had, I suspect he might have managed to insert an additional oxymoron into his celebrated novel 1984 –“fruitcake is plum pudding”.  And wheras they share some ingredients they are about as similar as say “war and peace”.  We do know from history that George was fond of plum pudding as can be seen in these unpublished notes of his.

Now, the Brits are notorious for their unexemplary cooking and Doc Yale is not one to disagree.  He once acquired a recipe from Margaret Thatcher and made it – afterward wondering why someone would advertise such a bland, tasteless dish.  George himself, in his unpublished essay “British  Cookery” opens with a quote from Voltaire, who wrote that Britain has “a hundred religions and only one sauce.”

But there are exceptions to every rule, and we should thank the Brits for plum pudding.  Doc Yale is not overly fond of super sweet, super rich desserts but will admit that there is a time for everything under the sun.  He made this dessert for Christmas a few years ago and one of the visitors at the table, a young man in his 20’s, who was working for him at the time, talked about it every time he saw him for what seemed like the whole next year. 

There are, of course, no plums in “plum pudding”.  This is due to the pre-Victorian use of the word “plums” as a term for “raisons”.  For the working class of the British Isles the pudding had the great merit of not needing to be cooked in an oven, something most lower class households did not have.   And the traditional recipes were made with suet instead of butter which was far more expensive.  But DY agrees with Mr. Orwell that the pudding is best if made with butter. 

Colm Toibon  described how his Irish working class family pirated the recipe from the “one percenters”  living in the neighborhood castle.  Wheras the normal Irish recipe used suet, the castle recipe used butter. He describes the difference.  “Christmas pudding with suet could be dark in color and somewhat bitter, even greasy; with butter, it was sweetly textured, some of it melting on your tongue while the rest—the nuts and raisons and candiet fruit—remained firm and chewy.  Even now, thinking about it I want some.”[1]

This following recipe is modified from an old Betty Crocker cookbook; the main modification is substitution of butter for suet.

Plum Pudding

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp soda
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • ¾ tsp mace
  • 1.5 cup raisons
  • 1.5 cup currants
  • ¾ cup citron
  • ½ cup candied orange or candied lemon
  • 1.5 cup breadcrumbs
  • 2 cup butter (1/2 lb)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs

Blend first six ingredients.  Mix in fruits, walnuts, crumbs.  Mix remaining ingredients; blend in.  Pour into well greased two quart mold.  Steam six hours.  Serve hot with hard sauce. 

DY is a little ambivalent about serving with hard sauce.  Christmas pudding is typically made days to weeks ahead and then doused with brandy (or rum or whiskey) and then brought out and reheated prior to serving.  Hard sauce is intended to be served over something hot.  If you are not serving it hot then don’t use the hard sauce.  Traditional hard sauce is also made up with the same ingredients in the pudding (lots of butter and sugar, and often some brandy (or other liquor)).  It is thus a little redundant and probably unnecessary as you and your guests will be unlikely to be needing extra sugar, butter or liquor at this point to satisfy their required daily caloric intake.  

[1] Christmas Pudding by Colm Toibon, The New Yorker, November 22, 2010, p113