( Theguardian) – The aroma and satisfaction you get from being well-prepared for the big day is enough encouragement to make your own cakes and puddings. But don’t skimp on the brandy
like to make my own Christmas puddings and cakes because the smell alone makes me feel psychologically prepared for the forthcoming festivities. It’s a bit of a ball ache, to be honest, and I’ve tried to replicate the smell with candles – but for some reason, the scent doesn’t seem particularly edible.
That said, I don’t really like eating any of this stuff. I don’t like the heaviness of the cake, the booziness of the pudding or the crushing disappointment when you bite into a delicious mince pie and find it full of mincemeat.
But on the other hand, if you take the sense of plenty you get from having two full, two-litre puddings on your shelf; add in the self-righteousness of a cake that is mostly made six weeks before you need it, rather than half an hour; and spend a second ruminating on what a great host you are, you understand why you might have given several full days of your life over to making this stuff, without ever feeling moved to put it in your mouth.
First, go back in time and start your preparations in October. There must be a tipping point when fruitcake stops getting better and starts getting worse, but it is definitely fine for nine months, otherwise the two-tiered wedding cake – one tier for the nuptials, one for the christening – would never have been invented. So two months is better than six weeks, but we are where we are.
Now, carefully scour all the available recipes for Christmas pudding, ditch them all and use Nigel Slater’s; do the same for Christmas cake: ditch them all and use Delia Smith’s. This isn’t the time or place to innovate, since you can’t taste innovation under all that dried fruit.
I will make one exception, which is by the ale-writer Richard Boston, via Jane Grigson, for a Guinness Christmas pudding. It is a very thoughtful variation if you have friends who really, really like Guinness, which is surely all of us.
One of many things I love about Slater’s writing is the way he subtly enjoins you to not use cheap brandy, without rubbing your nose in your own parsimony; he’s like a geography teacher of the old school, merely noting how much more you will get out of the subject if you put some work into it.
The simple fact is, you will never use a whole bottle of brandy on this, or any other pudding (there are only two other booze-puddings I’ll have in the house, rum baba and Diane Henry’s cake made with prunes in armagnac), and you don’t want to have to wait a year to use it again.
Look, I despise connoisseurship in all its forms; I’m not saying spend a fortune: I’m just saying, for your own sake, use a brandy that’s good enough to drink.Advertisement
Never get whole candied fruit and slice them yourself; it sounds quaint and artisanal, but it takes about 700 hours. The standard advice on coins is to wrap them in silver foil, which I thought was incredibly prissy, until the time I didn’t do it and someone refused to eat the pudding on grounds of hygiene.
At the risk of continuing on a theme of my own tightness, it is weird that I will put at least seven high-value coins in a Christmas pudding, even though part of the reason I’m making it is that it is approximately £7 cheaper than buying it.
Whatever you do, buy a plastic pudding basin with its capacity stamped on the side, with a fitted lid, from an industrial caterer, for £1.99. If you think an enamel one looks classier, picture yourself in 55 minutes time, still trying to fashion a cover with greaseproof paper and string.
Owing to the bizarre demands of its own density, the pudding has to be steamed for three hours when you first make it, then three hours again on Christmas Day.
If you allow the pan to boil dry, the entire thing will burst into flames and the burning plastic will fill the house with acrid smoke, and at this point you will be thinking maybe it would have been better to use an enamel one after all. But who knows, maybe that would have exploded too?
If you follow Smith to the letter – and really to the letter, including the weird injunctions about wrapping brown paper round the outside of the cake tin – you can’t go wrong with the cake until it comes to icing it, and then it’s carnage.
I once made such an incredible mess with a fruitcake – failed to smooth out the knobbly top, marzipan both thick and uneven, unexpected colour seepage from the cake through to the snowy surface – that I had to give up making a Christmas scene and turn it into a golf course. I actually sourced a tiny plastic golfer to stick on the side. So it was all good.