Monday 11 December 2017

Crackers for yule

It’s time to make the traditional Christmas desserts, says Brenda Costigan, who suggests designating the preparation as a family event and getting everyone, even the tots, involved

The making of the Christmas pudding was a big event in my family home. My mother took great pride in making a big, football-sized pudding. It was a serious business, and it was all hands on deck to help prepare the fruit.

This was a night’s work in itself as, in those days, there was no pre-washed or prechopped fruit available.

The washed fruits were spread out on trays to dry as we picked off any tiny stalks. The ceremony of stirring the pudding mixture was a ritual: everyone, even the youngest, had to stir and make a wish, as the beguiling aromas of the spices and the stout wafted up from the bowl.

Then, the large pudding cloth was retrieved from storage, and scalded with boiling water. On cooling, the cloth was spread thickly with butter, dusted with flour and the dark, fruity mixture was piled in the centre. The cloth was then drawn up around the pudding mixture to make a ball shape, and it was tied tightly with twine.

The prepared pudding was suspended by a length of string from a hook on a shelf, and it dangled down into a large Burco boiler in the utility room — this was its sole function once a year — where it cooked for 12 hours. Finally, when it was cooked, the pudding was left, hanging from a hook, to mature in the cool air for at least two months.


This is a very fruity pudding, which is based on my mother’s wonderful recipe, though it’s much smaller and it’s cooked in a pudding bowl. It can be eaten within 3-4 weeks, or stored for a few months. The list of ingredients is long and so, to simplify matters, I have divided the ingredients into three bowls. Serves 8.

For bowl one, you will need:

225g (8oz) raisins

225g (8oz) sultanas

110g (4oz) ready-soaked apricots or prunes, chopped

1 carton (100g) mixed peel, chopped

1 carton (100g) glace cherries, chopped

110g (4oz) dried figs, chopped

110g (4oz) dried dates, chopped

1 packet (100g) blanched almonds, chopped coarsely

½ medium cooking apple, peeled and grated

Finely grated rind of ½ lemon


Check the raisins and sultanas in case an odd little stalk remains.

For bowl two, you will need:

110g (4oz) flour, not self-raising

110g (4oz) brown sugar

110g (4oz) suet, or 110g (4oz) butter (see note)

110g (4oz) breadcrumbs

About 1 rounded teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves


If you’re using butter instead of suet, cut it into small lumps and rub it through the flour and the brown sugar until the mixture becomes like fine breadcrumbs. Then add in the breadcrumbs and the cinnamon, nutmeg and the ground cloves. Don’t be mean with the spices!

For bowl three, you will need:

3 large eggs

150ml (¼pt) stout

2-3 tablespoons whisky

Juice half lemon

To assemble:

Using a large bowl or basin, empty in the contents of bowls one and two and mix them together. Then add in the contents of bowl three. Stir everything together thoroughly, and let everyone have a turn — one wish for every three stirs! Put the mixture into a well-greased 1.75-litre (3pt) pudding bowl. Cover the top of the bowl with a double layer of baking parchment, which is greased on the side nearest to the pudding. Make a fold or a pleat down the centre of the parchment to allow for the expansion of steam as the pudding cooks. Tie the parchment in place with string. If you like, the prepared pudding can be left overnight and cooked the next day.

To cook:

Place the prepared pudding into a steamer, which, in turn, is sitting over a saucepan of gently boiling water. Cover the steamer with a lid. If you prefer, the pudding can be cooked standing in the saucepan of gently boiling water. If you’re using this method, stand the pudding bowl on a metal scone-cutter, or something similar, so that the pudding bowl is not in direct contact with the saucepan. The water should come two-thirds of the way up the sides of the bowl. Cover the saucepan with a loose-fitting lid placed at a slight angle. Constantly check the level of water, and top it up when necessary with more boiling water. Cook the pudding for about 5-6 hours. If you like, the pudding can be cooked for longer, as the longer it’s cooked, the darker it gets. Once the pudding is cooked to your liking, cover it again with fresh baking parchment and store it in a cool, dry place. To serve, steam again for about one hour. Serve with brandy butter, see recipe below.


There is nothing to beat the flavour of home-made brandy butter. Serves 4.

You will need:

110g (4oz) butter

175g (6oz) caster sugar

2-4 tablespoons brandy or whisky

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Beat the butter to soften it. Then add the caster sugar and beat the butter and caster sugar together until they become soft. Then stir in the brandy or whisky, whichever you are using, and add the lemon juice, and mix thoroughly. Pile into a serving dish. Cover the brandy butter and chill it before serving.


My traditional, rich Christmas cake has plenty of fruit. The more fruit there is in a cake, the longer it will keep, as the sugar in the fruit helps preserve it. When you’re beating together the butter and sugar, don’t overbeat, as this introduces too much air into the mixture. Once the cake is put into the hot oven, the air expands, and if you’ve overbeaten, the cake will rise too much and the fruit will fall down.

For the cake, you will need:

225g (8oz) raisins

225g (8oz) sultanas

150g (5oz) glace cherries, chopped coarsely

110g (4oz) ready-soaked dried apricots, finely chopped

110g (4oz) mixed peel, chopped

25g (1oz) crystallised ginger, finely chopped

½ tin strawberries, drained (see note)

Zest of ½ lemon and ½ orange, finely grated

3 tablespoons whisky

110g (4oz) blanched almonds, chopped

110g (4oz) ground almonds

250g (9oz) white flour, not self-raising

½ teaspoon each ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon and ground cloves

225g (8oz) butter, at room temperature

225g (8oz) brown sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature


Drain the juice off the whole tin of strawberries and use half of the fruit that’s left — a very small amount.

For the icing, you will need:

350g (12oz) ground almonds

225g (8oz) caster sugar

110g (4oz) icing sugar

1 large egg yolk, organic and free range

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1-2 tablespoons whisky

¼ teaspoon vanilla essence

¼ teaspoon almond essence

Apricot jam, softened 1-2 packets of instant royal icing

Christmas-cake decorations, to serve Use a round cake tin, 23cm (9in) in diameter, or a square, 20.5cm (8in) tin. Grease the inside of the tin with butter and then line it with a double layer of baking parchment. Greasing will help keep the lining paper in place. Put the raisins, the sultanas, the coarsely chopped glace cherries, the chopped, ready-soaked dried apricots, the mixed peel and the crystallised ginger in a bowl.

Then add the drained strawberries, the finely grated lemon and orange zest, and the whisky. Stir everything well, then cover the bowl and leave the mixed fruit to stand overnight to mellow and plump. If you are really short of time, pop the covered bowl of fruit into the microwave on high for one minute, stir, and then repeat for another minute. This will plump up the fruit. Then transfer the fruit to a cold bowl to help it cool down faster.

The next day, or when the fruit has cooled, stir the chopped, blanched almonds and the ground almonds through the mixture. In a bowl, sieve together the white flour, the ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon and the ground cloves. In a separate bowl, beat the butter to soften it a bit and then add the brown sugar and beat until soft and creamy. Make sure you don’t overbeat, especially if you are using an electric mixer.

Beat in the eggs one at a time to the butter-and-sugar mixture, adding a spoon of the flour-and-spice mixture with each egg. When all the eggs have been added, stir in the remaining flourand- spice mixture by hand. The finished mixture should be soft, but stiff enough so that it will drop off a wooden spoon when the spoon is shaken gently. If the mixture is too soft, then add an extra spoon of flour.

Be cautious, though: if too much flour is added, the finished cake is liable to develop a crack on the top. Now add in the fruit mixture, stirring gently but thoroughly. Then spoon the prepared cake mixture into the greased, lined cake tin and spread it out evenly. Preheat the oven to 170°C, 325°F, Gas 3.

Set a fan oven 10 degrees lower, or follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you’re using an electric oven, put a small ovenproof bowl of water into the oven during baking to prevent the cake from drying out. This is not necessary in a gas oven, as gas gives off some moisture as it burns.

Put the cake in the centre of oven. Bake it for about 1½ hours until the cake looks set. It is important not to open the oven door during this stage. Once the cake has a set look, though it may appear quite pale, you can reduce the heat to 150°C, 300°F, Gas 2, and then bake it for a further 1-2 hours. Ovens vary, so it is necessary to use your own judgement about the temperature and time. When the cake looks nice and golden, test that is is cooked through by pushing a skewer into the centre.

If, when you remove the skewer, it has any dough-like bits attached to it, cook the cake for a little longer and then check it again. If necessary, cover the whole top of the cake with a piece of foil —ensure the foil rests on the baking parchment and not on the surface of the cake.

Once it has cooked, stand the cake, still in its tin, on a wire tray and let it cool. Sprinkle a little whisky over the top. When the cake is completely cool, sprinkle a little more whisky on top. Remove the tin, but leave the baking parchment on the cake and wrap it in tin foil. Store in a cool, airy place until you are ready to ice it.

To make the icing:

Mix the ground almonds, the caster sugar and the icing sugar together. In a separate container, whisk together the the egg yolk, the lemon juice, the whisky, the vanilla essence and the almond essence. Add enough of the egg-yolk mixture to the almond mixture to make a stiff, moist paste, mixing well. Gather into a ball.

To serve the cake, carefully remove the lining paper. Place the cake on a cake board that is 5cm (2in) wider than the cake. Brush the top and sides with the softened apricot jam. Roll out the almond icing on a board that has been dusted well with caster sugar, rolling out the icing larger than the top of the cake. Place the almond icing on the cake and, using a table knife, spread and tease it down the sides. The almond icing will be thinner on the sides than it is on top. Make up the instant royal icing and spread it over the whole cake, patting with a palette knife to give the effect of snow. Decorate with Christmas-cake decorations. Leave to set. If you like, you can put the cake — still on its board — into a large, see-through plastic bag, such as a turkey roasting bag, and this will keep it fresh and free from dust until you’re ready to eat it. L

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