14 November 2014
“Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up…”
– Julius Caesar
To overstate the obvious, Britain is baking mad. Although it has always been a nation of bakers, Britain is now a nation that is baking obsessed! The British baking industry is worth more than £3.4 billion, and the effect is evident in the high street. Marks & Spencer have reported sales increases of up to 20% for baking ingredients, particularly in specialist sugars and cake decorating equipment. At John Lewis, purchases of cake tins and muffin trays have increased by 15%, while sales in vintage-style cake tins and stands have more than doubled.
This chain of events is due largely to the phenomenal success of the BBC’s baking competition show, “The Great British Bake Off”. Each week, some four million plus viewers tune in to watch the dynamic duo of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood critique the calibre of contestants' cupcakes and croquembouche. But, this you know – unless of course you have been living on the planet Mars for the past four years!
What you may not know is that there was a time in Britain when baking could land you in prison! In 1664, Olivier Cromwell’s Puritans banned Christmas pudding, along with mince pies and a whole host of other festive holiday foods (and beverages, church services, and…!). The humble Christmas pudding became the focus of Puritan attack on the “lewd” and “debauched” festive celebrations that were "unfit for God-fearing people". Anyone caught making a fruit-studded, brandy soaked dessert was carted off and punished severely.
King George I (1714-1727) reestablished the custom of serving it as part of the royal holiday feast in 1714. That is, despite objections voiced by the Quakers, who regarded Christmas pudding as "the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon". We have that great guardian of Victorian family values, Prince Albert, to thank for returning the lowly and much-maligned Christmas pudding, much as we know it today, back on to the holiday map.
Recently, I discovered another great, British, Christmas Pudding tradition that has come down to us from the time of Albert and Victoria: “Stir-Up Sunday”. Stir-up Sunday is the last Sunday before the season of Advent. (This year’s date is 23 November.) The term “Stir-Up Sunday” comes from the opening words of the Collect for the day (the "The Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Trinity", or, the fifth Sunday before Christmas) in the Book of Common Prayer:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
This exhortation was apparently a timely reminder to the ladies of the congregation of their need to bring forth their plenteous fruits (suet and brandy) and to get stirring! What a wonderful way to enter into the spirit of the season of Advent – a time of expectant waiting and preparation before the festivities of Christmas and the Nativity.
Traditionally, Stir-Up Sunday was a family affair, with parents and children gathering in the kitchen to make the Christmas pudding together, every member of the family taking a turn stirring the bowl, whilst uttering a wish. The puds and wishes were then carefully wrapped in brandy soaked cloths to mellow over the coming weeks until Christmas Day.
It is a sad truth, thanks to the ease, convenience and quality of store-bought Christmas puddings, that two-thirds of British children have never experienced stirring or making a Christmas pudding.
Getting everyone huddled in the kitchen for Stir-Up Sunday is a Victorian fantasy, to be sure. But, one well worth reviving, I think, particularly, in the midst of our avid Baking madness.
Prince Albert's Christmas Pudding
For 8 helpings: 1 Ib prunes; 1 pt water; 1 lemon; 1 oz Barbados sugar; butter for greasing; 2 large eggs; 4 oz butter; 4 oz soft light brown sugar; pinch of salt; 4 oz soft wholemeal breadcrumbs; 1 oz semolina; brandy butter (Guard Sauce) made with 3 oz butter; 4 oz icing sugar and 1 oz ground almonds.
Steep the prunes in the water overnight. Grate the rind of half the lemon and pare the rest. Squeeze the juice. Simmer the prunes with the water, pared rind, juice, and Barbados sugar until soft. Drain. Cut the fruit in half and remove the stones. Crease the inside of a 2 pint pudding basin thickly with butter. Press enough prunes into the fat, cut side down, to line the basin completely. Shred any prunes left over. Separate the eggs.
Beat the 4 oz fat and soft brown sugar until creamy, and beat in the egg yolks and salt. Mix in the grated rind, breadcrumbs, semolina and any shredded prunes. Whisk the egg whites until they hold firm peaks and fold them into the mixture. Turn into the basin, cover tightly with greased foil and steam for 2 1/2-3 hours.
Firm in the basin for 6 minutes, then turn on to a warmed serving dish. Serve with chilled brandy butter and whipped cream. Note: If you wish, make the steeping liquid of the prunes into a sauce with 1 teaspoon arrowroot and 1 tablespoon brandy to each 1/2 pt liquid.