According to my calendar, we are now exactly one week away from Christmas Eve, the last shopping/baking/wrapping/assembling day before there is, finally, no more time to dash about or worry over what we’ve left undone.
I’ve always loved Christmas Eve far more than Christmas day, for so many reasons. During my growing-up years, we always went to my grandparents’ house on the evening of the 24th for a light supper before the opening of all the “family” presents. Christmas morning was only for immediate family, my mom, dad, brothers and sister, with all the excitement of the gifts from “Santa,” even though we knew better from a very early age.
But Christmas Eve at Grandma’s was always more exciting than wondering what would be under the tree the next morning, which we had pretty much scoped out well before the event.
No, it was the good old family dynamics at play on Christmas Eve that made for so much fun and excitement. Not that we understood, then, what family dynamics meant; we just did our best to contribute and enjoy the fireworks. There was no way we could ever predict what might happen on Christmas Eve, and every year was different.
Would my Uncle Art, the consummate teaser of all children, manage to have one or more of us in tears before dinner, incurring the ire of my grandmother? Would his wife, snooty Aunt Barbara, find a way to insult my mother (imagined or otherwise), thereby bringing down the icy curtain of my mother’s disdain? And would my mother then be glaring at my father because he didn’t “do something” about it?
Best of all, if my handsome, playful, irrepressible Uncle Buddy was home on leave, would he get into a tussling game with all of us kids (anywhere from six to eight of us) that would have my grandmother ordering us all outdoors, in spite of the fact that it was raining, cold and dark out there?
Would our wimpy cousin Todd still be a wussy tattletale, or would he just possibly have turned into a decent sort? If Todd should, as usually happened, “accidentally” be thumped a good one by one of the cousins during the Buddy tussle, would he run, puling and whining, to snooty Aunt Barbara (his Mom), causing her to declare us, as always, a gang of undisciplined hooligans? Would Aunt Barbara threaten to leave, which she did almost every year, thereby making my mother happy again?
Oh, how I loved those Christmas Eves. So unpredictable, so fraught with peril, so full of tension, all of which was totally ignored by us, the kids who knew that, in our grandmother’s house, we could do no wrong on Christmas Eve.
There is something so inexplicably special, knowing that you are part of a large group of people who love you, love each other, and whom you love, no matter what extraneous little upsets come along on occasion.
Those of us who are left to celebrate together on Christmas Eve will remember; even as our replacements will be very busy making their own set of memories. They won’t have Uncle Buddy to stir things up, but his reincarnation came along a number of years ago, an incurable Pied Piper who now leads all the small ones into disarray.
No, from what I’ve seen of our youngest members, it will be Christmas Eve as usual, anything but calm and quiet. My favorite night of the year.
One element of our long ago Christmas Eves is almost never present now; steamed pudding.
It was part of our Scots/English background always to have steamed pudding for dessert on Christmas Eve and, in my grandmother’s house, it would be unthinkable for it not to be there.
She always carried it in to the table wreathed in dancing blue flames, thanks to my grandfather who doused the pudding generously with brandy and set it ablaze. It was always served with hard sauce, which was my favorite part of the pudding.
Over the years, steamed puddings fell from favor and are seldom made now, but if you have any inclination to try it, here are a couple of my favorite steamed pudding desserts. There will be one on our table this Christmas Eve.
First, my grandmother’s very traditional steamed plum pudding.
CHRISTMAS PLUM PUDDING
8 oz. diced mixed candied citrus peel
¼ lb. suet, finely chopped (ask your butcher if you don’t see it in the case)
1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans
1½ cups raisins (I like a mix of dark and golden)
1 cup currants
1 t. cinnamon
1½ t. ground ginger
¼ t. nutmeg
½ t. allspice
¼ t. salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup strawberry or cherry preserves
2 cups dry bread crumbs
2 T. milk
1/3 cup rum or brandy
1/3 cup sherry
Hard Sauce (recipe follows)
Chop the candied peel very fine. In a large bowl, combine the peel, suet, nuts, raisins, currants, spices, salt, sugar, preserves and bread crumbs.
In a med. bowl, beat eggs until very thick; beat in the milk.
Add the beaten egg mixture to the fruit/spice mixture, along with the rum (or brandy) and sherry. Stir with a large wooden spoon to mix well. Turn the batter into a well-greased 1½ qt. pudding mold with a tight fitting lid. Put lid on mold and place mold on a rack or trivet in a large kettle. Pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the side of the mold. Cover the kettle and steam the pudding for 5 hrs. The water in the kettle should boil gently; add more water as needed.
Remove mold to a wire rack; uncover and allow to cool completely in the mold. When cool, invert onto a wire rack and lift off the mold. Wrap pudding (my grandmother wrapped it in brandy-soaked cheesecloth) in plastic wrap, then in foil and store in refrigerator until you’re ready to serve the pudding. It will keep in the fridge for several weeks.
To serve: return the pudding to the mold, cover and steam as directed above for 40-50 min., or until thoroughly hot. Remove from mold, pour a bit of heated brandy over the top of the pudding and light it immediately. Serve at once, accompanied by hard sauce.
BRANDY HARD SAUCE
In a small mixing bowl beat ½ cup softened butter until smooth. Add 1½ cups powdered sugar and beat on low speed, then med. speed until mixture is light and fluffy. Add 2 T. brandy, or if kids will be eating this, skip the brandy and add 1 t. vanilla. Beat until smooth and chill until serving time.
STEAMED CRANBERRY PUDDING
1 1/3 cups flour
½ t. salt
½ t. baking powder
¼ t. baking soda
¼ t. nutmeg
¼ t. ground cinnamon
1/3 cup molasses
¼ cup sugar
2 T. brandy
2 T. vegetable cooking oil
1 cup cranberries, chopped
1 med. apple, coarsely shredded
¼ cup raisins
Combine flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and cinnamon. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine molasses, sugar, brandy and cooking oil until well blended. Stir in chopped cranberries, shredded apple and raisins.
Add the flour mixture to the cranberry mixture; stir until just blended. Spoon batter into a well- greased metal 6-cup pudding mold (or use any other metal mold shape you may have and/or prefer) and, if using mold, put on lid. If using another type mold, cover tightly with aluminum foil.
Place pudding mold on a rack in a Dutch oven or a steamer. Pour in boiling water to come halfway up the mold. Place lid on kettle. Steam the pudding about 2 hrs., keeping water at a simmer, until a wooden pick inserted in the center of the pudding comes out clean. Remove mold from Dutch oven and let stand 5 min., then unmold onto a serving plate. Serve warm with hard sauce (see above). If you want to make the pudding ahead, wrap it in plastic wrap then foil and refrigerate until ready to use. To reheat, wrap pudding in foil and heat in a 350-degree oven for 30-40 min.