This article first appeared on The Circle on 18 November, 2018.
Photos by Rachel Zammit Cutajar
Christmas is getting closer and it’s about that time of year when we really start planning for the big day. The Christmas pudding, mincemeat for mince pies and the Christmas cake need time for the flavours to really develop so now’s the time to get your apron, gather your family and friends and get stirring. After all this is the day when wishes are said to come true.
Stir up Sunday, which falls on 25 November this year, is a tradition in the UK that harks back to Victorian times when the family would gather together to stir the Christmas pudding five weeks before Christmas.
The opening words of the Book Of Common Prayer, used on the last Sunday before Advent, reads: "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people," so the tradition stands that this is the day to get started on your Christmas preparations!
The first thing to do is choose your recipes, not only for the pudding, but also for the Christmas cake, and the mince pie filling. The ingredients are similar and it makes sense to buy what you need and prepare the three things that benefit from being made sometime before Christmas (and the Christmas rush!)
By now, the shops should all be stocked with the seasonal ingredients. So make your list.
As a guide, and following the recipes in my Christmas chapter on ‘Pippa’s Festa’ here are the ingredients and recipe for the mince pies, also the ingredients list for a large 1.2 litre traditional Christmas pudding and a 28cm Christmas cake.
· 400g apples
· 400g mixed candied peel (ideally Italian candied cedro), or make your own candid peel out of long marrow (qaratwil) Recipe in my book: 25 Years in a Maltese Kitchen, or the Maltese edition Fil-kcina ma’ Pippa)
· 400g currants
· 400g sultanas
· 400g raisins (black or golden, or a mixture of both)
· 400g sugar
· 50g blanched almonds, chopped
· 400g beef or vegetable suet (either from your butcher or in packets under the brand name Atora)
· 3 Maltese lemons, zest and juice
· 3 Maltese oranges, zest and juice
· 3 local tangerines, zest and juice
· 2 ‘lumicel’ (sweet lemons found in old Maltese gardens), zest and juice
· 1 whole nutmeg
· 2 tumblers brown rum
The shortcrust pastry
· 500g plain flour
· 250g fat – (250g butter or 125g lard (like TREX) and 125g STORK)
· 2 egg yolks
· 125ml cold water
· Squeeze of lemon juice
1. To make the mincemeat, get a large clean bowl and just mix all the ingredients together.
2. When all the flavours have blended well, put the mixture into clean, dry, preferably sterilised jars and press down firmly. Store in a dry cool place till needed for mince pies, at least two weeks and up to the following year.
3. When ready to make the mince pies make the pastry, mix the cut up fats in the sifted flour with your fingertips and when resembling breadcrumbs.
4. Add the egg yolks and lemon mixed in half a teacup of cold water (approx. 125ml).
5. Bind well and knead gently.
6. Put in fridge for ½ hour then bring to room temperature.
7. Roll pastry out on floured surface to 0.3 cm thickness.
8. Cut out rounds, with a 7cm fluted cutter for the base, and the same amount of rounds with a 6cm cutter for the lids.
9. Line greased patty tins with the large rounds. Fill with a heaped teaspoon of your prepared mincemeat.
10. Dampen edges of small rounds with water, milk or beaten egg.
11. Place on top and press top and bottom together. Make a small cross with a knife on each one.
12. The pies are now ready to freeze in their patty tins overnight and then taken out and put in layers with greaseproof paper between and left in the freezer till needed when you bake them straight from the freezer into the oven.
13. Alternatively, pre-heat oven to 200°C or and bake pies for 15-20 minutes till pale golden.
14. Serve warm dusted with icing sugar.
The Christmas pudding is steeped in tradition, however it was not always the Christmas dessert we know it today. It started out in the 14th century as a porridge called frumenty that was made from beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wine and spices that was more like a soup and eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for Christmas. It wasn’t until the late 1500s that it changed to the plum pudding we know, thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs and dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits.
Over the years a number of superstitions have surrounded the Christmas pudding. Traditionally it was made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples and was mixed by every member of the family with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men.
Putting a silver coin in the pudding is an age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that found it. Other items placed in the pudding are said to have special meanings. A single man that found a bachelor’s button would remain single for the following year. A single woman who found a spinster’s thimble would be single for the following year and any single person that found a ring in the pudding would be married the following year.
Making your own Christmas pudding is worth the effort and because you make it so far in advance it gives you plenty of time to deal with the rest of the meal (as well as the family). These are the ingredients you will need to make the Christmas pudding. Get your hands on Pippa’s Festa for the method.
· 110g shredded suet (ATORA)
· 50g self-raising flour
· 110g white breadcrumbs
· 1 tsp ground mixed spice
· Some grated nutmeg
· cinnamon powder
· 225g soft dark brown sugar
· 110g sultanas
· 110g raisins (dark ones)
· 275g currants
· 25g homemade candid peel
· 1 cooking apple
· 1 orange
· 1 lemon
· 2 eggs
· 150ml lacto stout
· 2 tablespoons dark rum
1. Take a large mixing bowl and mix the suet, sifted flour, breadcrumbs, spices and sugar and mix thoroughly.
2. Gradually mix in the dried fruit, mixed peel and nuts followed by the chopped apple and grated orange and lemon zests.
3. In a separate bowl measure out the rum and stout.
4. Add the eggs and beat thoroughly.
5. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well. This is where, as tradition goes, the family each take turns at beating the mixture and making a wish for the year to come.
6. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave overnight.
7. On the following day, put the mixture into a lightly greased pudding basin and vocer with double sheet of greaseproof paper and a sheet of foil, tying securely with a string around the rim and making a handle over the top so that you can easily pull the pudding out of the boiling water.
8. Place into a large pot and pour water half way up the pudding bowl.
9. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook for four hours, topping up the water as necessary.
10. Once the pudding is cooked and allowed to get cold remove the wet paper and foil and place new paper, foil and string over the bowl.
11. Keep in a cool place until Christmas Day.
12. Just before serving, place in a pot of boiling water for two hours.
13. Remove the paper and foil and turn out onto a serving plate.
14. Heat some brandy in a pot with a silver gravy spoon placed in it.
15. When boiling pour over the pudding set alight with a match.
16. Serve immediately with cream, brandy butter or rum sauce.
Luxury Christmas cake
There are many varieties of the Christmas cake, light or dark, spongey or wet, round or oblong and decorated with marzipan or frosting or both. Made with more or less the same ingredients as the Christmas pudding, the exact recipe differs from region to region.
The Christmas cake is made in November and stored upside down in an air-tight container. Small holes are made in the cake and brandy is poured onto the cake every week – a process known as feeding the cake – which gives the Christmas cake its rich, boozey flavour. These are the ingredients I use for my tried and tested Christmas cake. Get Pippa’s Festa for the method.
Luxury Christmas cake
· 300g plain flour
· 250g butter
· 250g brown sugar
· 8 eggs
· Mixed spice
· 1 lemon
· 1 tangerine
· 400g currents
· 400g sultanas
· 200g raisins
· 150g candied peel
· 100g blanched almonds, roasted and chopped)
· 1 orange
· Brandy or rum
· Vanilla extract (NOT essence)
· To decorate: pecan nuts, almonds and green and red cherries if not icing the cake.
· Icing sugar, egg whites and glycerine if you choose to ice it.
1. Grease the bottom and sides of a 28cm springform tin.
2. Cut two strips of paper and line the inside circumference of the tin, cutting the strips 4cm higher than the height of the tin. Fold the excess and snip at intervals (to be placed at the bottom of the tin).
3. Grease one side of the strip (to face inwards),
4. Fit the strips into the tin, folding the snipped flap into the base as you go along.
5. Cut three rounds of greaseproof paper to fit the bottom of the tin. Grease one side of one round and fit two of the circles at the bottom of the tin, with the greased side touching the cake mixture. The remaining circle will go on top halfway through baking.
6. Preheat the oven to 150°C.
7. In a large bowl beat the butter and the sugar until light and creamy.
8. In another bowl beat the eggs.
9. Mix all the dry ingredients in another bowl.
10. A little at a time add the egg mixture and the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, alternating between the two.
11. Add the treacle, orange juice, alcohol and essence, folding in one at a time.
12. Mixt altogether and put into the prepared cake tin.
13. Place the baking tray, with the cake on it, into the oven and bake for two ours until set.
14. Carefully top with a pattern of nuts and glacé fruit if the cake is not going to be iced.
15. Place the last circle of grease proof paper over the top and continue to bake for another two hours, until a skewer placed in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
16. Allow the cake to cool in the tin, then remove from the tin and remove all the papers and leave the cake on a wire rack until completely cold.
17. Wrap in cling film and set aside until Christmas.
18. Once a week remove the cling film from the cake and “feed” it by making holes on the underside with a skewer and pouring over a little rum or brandy.
19. Wrap it again and repeat the following week.
As Christmas approaches you will need to ice the cake if you haven’t decorated it with nuts and glacé fruit.
Like these recipes? Get more of Pippa Mattei’s recipes in her cookbooks 25 Years In A Maltese Kitchen which has also been translated into Maltese and Pippa's Festa. Pippa's Festa is on special offer this Christmas, reduced from €35 to €25. Both books are available at leading book stores or online from Miranda Publishers. Click here for Pippa's Festa and here for 25 Years in a Maltese Kitchen. Free delivery on orders to Malta and Gozo addresses.