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December 1998 Issue
What is Tradition?
by Chris Schaefer
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Allow me to paint you a picture.

The last of the cars have arrived and found an available place to park. Coats go flying. Boots go flying. Gifts go flying. All of this and it's still not even 10 o'clock in the morning.

Earlier that morning, a certain hustle demands attention. The food was being prepared. No, first the coffee; then the food. Wake-up juice. Christmas dinner. The scene varies little year to year. The people vary little as well. The atmosphere: congenial, happy, busy, warm.

Christmas songs resound in the background, amidst the noise coming from the kitchen, the living room, and elsewhere. Smells being to enfold all who are present. Turkey. Ham. Stuffing. Cranberries. Fruits. Nuts. And.... dessert. Blessed, sweet dessert. As an Italian-American family, certain foods were expected. Italian cookies primarily. And the ever popular and difficult to make without experience "cannoli."

When I started thinking about how I would approach the subject of holiday desserts, I wanted to share with you a special and very important family tradition: cannoli. A fine, rich, and delicious treat: a wine-fried shell is stuffed with a thick, sweet, white pudding called "bianco cibo." Literally it means "white food." Often the custard filling is embedded with chunks of chocolate and the whole treat is capped with crushed nuts or chocolate fondue. I then recalled these words my mother taught me. She said, "Christopher, if you dare share this recipe with anyone I will disown you." Ah, the tender love of a parent. Well-placed none-the-less. I practically had to steal the recipe in the first place, and I still can't make it correctly.

Out of respect, you, dear reader, will not get the Holiday treat that you may think this is heading to. My sincerest apologies up front.

Instead, I thought I would explore other cultures' traditions of Holiday desserts. Most notably "plum pudding" and the "Yule log." You've heard of these two treasures and yet you and your family may have never experienced them.


Plum Pudding

Neither has it plums, or is it a pudding (by American standards). This Dickens tradition is a hearty pie filled with nuts, fruits, and sweetened with molasses and ale. The pie itself is quite the endeavor: the picking and curing of the fruits to the final cooking with steam from upwards of four hours or more.

It took some research to find an American equivalent; surprising since this treat is easily found both in English old-century homes, and also in early-American tradition.

The dessert speaks of family gathering as romantic images from Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" wander in our skulls.

This is the near-perfect Christmas dinner dessert, richly flavored with a dense but light texture. This pudding is successful made just one week out or even a few days before serving, and it's easy, in spite of its length.

  • 12 oz pitted prunes, chopped
  • 10 oz dried currants
  • 8 oz dark raisins
  • 4 oz glace fruit (candied fruit-peel)
  • 1 large orange, zest only
  • 1/3 c orange juice
  • 1 large lemon, zest only
  • 1/4 c lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp apricot puree
  • 1 tbsp molasses
  • 1/3 c Guinness stout
  • 1/2 c or more cognac or brandy
  • 1/4 c tawny port
  • 1/4 c or more Frangelico liqueur
  • 1/2 tsp (rounded) cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp (rounded) ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp (scant) ground cloves
  • 1 c + 1 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 8 c fresh white bread crumbs from homemade-style sliced white bread
  • 6 oz butter, melted, + additional-as needed
  • Holly sprigs and glace-cherries, for garnish
  • Vanilla-flavored whipped -cream, lightly sweetened
Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, glace fruit, citrus rinds and juice, apricot puree and molasses in a large nonreactive bowl. Add the stout, 1/2 cup Cognac, the port and 1/4 cup Frangelico. Mix well.

Stir in the cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and cloves. Add the sugar and mix very well. Cover bowl with plastic wrap; refrigerate for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. The following day, let mixture stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Fold in the bread crumbs with a rubber spatula, in batches if necessary, until crumbs are thoroughly combined and no white specks are visible. Mixture will be stiff. Let stand for 30 minutes. Thoroughly fold in the melted butter. There should be about 9 cups of batter. Lightly butter two 4-cup and one 2 1/2-cup steamed pudding molds, heat-proof ceramic bowls or stainless-steel bowls. Lightly pack 3 1/2 cups of batter into the 4 cup molds and 2 cups of batter into the 2 1/2-cup mold. Smooth tops with a rubber spatula. Press a lightly buttered round of baking parchment directly onto the surface of each pudding. Cover each mold with its lid or each bowl with aluminum foil. Place molds in pots with boiling water that comes 3/4 of the way up the sides of the molds; cover pots. Steam puddings for 4 hours over low or medium-low heat, so water boils gently. Replenish boiling water as necessary to maintain level. Transfer puddings to wire racks; cool to room temperature. Refrigerate puddings, covered with baking parchment and plastic wrap, for up to 6 days. Brush them lightly once or twice with Cognac or Frangelico, if desired. To serve, let pudding stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Steam, covered with parchment paper and aluminum foil, for 2 1/2 hours. Let cool on a rack for 1 1/2 hours. Pudding should still be warm. Run a knife around the edge of the pudding. Invert pudding onto cake stand or platter. Decorate with holly sprigs and glace cherries. To flambé pudding: Pour about 2 tablespoons hot Cognac over the top. Carefully and immediately ignite it with a match. Blue flames will subside when alcohol has burned off. Slice the pudding and serve with whipped cream.

  • Yields: 2 large puddings, serving 8 to 10 each, and 1 small pudding that serves 6 to 8

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