The Contemporary New England Witch

The Contemporary New England Witch
Ms Faith

Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas Pudding and Divination for the Upcoming Year

 Evening Greetings,

I spent the better part of the evening last night preparing and cooking the Christmas pudding.  As a modern day pagan we might wish to call it Yule pudding, but its not traditionally called that.  As far as Yuletide and Christmas is concerned modern Wiccans celebrate along with everyone else this time of year and we'll spend this next month discussing all sorts of Christmas and Yuletide traditions.

As I've just finished making a Christmas pudding also known as a Plum pudding, I wanted to share the history, legend and lore of this special dish with you.  I'm going extremely traditional this year it seems! To start with it has its meager beginnings somewhere in the 1400's, and I feel it's important to know a bit about the way people consumed food in the 15th century to truly understand this traditional dish.  It also has a fun magickal component, which is kind of necessary for things in my life. I just love the magickal in all things, don't you?!   

Because of the nature of the world during the 15th century, food was prepared and preserved quite differently than what we do today.  At the end of the harvest season, having little grain to feed the animals, as most was utilized for human consumption, many of the animals would be butchered for the winter, to help sustain the village or castle keep.  The natural refrigeration of winter made it somewhat more successful in keeping perishables like meat fresher longer.  People also heavily salted meats, as well as pickling meats in brine, and drying meats for consumption throughout winter. .  This was important as food poisoning was just as prevalent in these times as now. Most likely more so.When food went to waste it was not readily replaced and it could have meant the difference between survival and starvation and often did. 

So a common manner to make small amounts of food go further, meats, vegetables and grains were first mixed together in what today we would call a soup or stew.  It was called pottage. Pottage was made and recorded throughout history from at least the 15th century, and likely before. You might remember an old nursery rhyme from years ago:

Pease Porridge hot,
Pease Porridge cold,
Pease Porridge in the Pot
Nine Days old

The word pease was an old version for the plural form of pea.  Originally in the 1700's the rhyme used the word pottage instead of porridge.  Pottage was made in a large cauldron or soup pot with water or broth as a base. Then oats, and other grains such as millet was added making it like a porridge.  Ah, but then it went awry (in this witch's humble opinion).   You read the line in the nursery rhyme, 9 days old?  Yes, it went terribly wrong.

For you see, it was common to then add to the oats cooking in the cauldron bits of meat, some root vegetables would be added, suet (which is the fat from a slaughtered animal. mmm yummy!) and then it was cooked and cooked and cooked. Consumed by the family,  at times for every meal of the day, taken off the heat, allowed to cool and then without refrigeration left to sit until the next day, when it would be reheated and more scraps of meat added, perhaps some leftover vegetables and another handful of oats. Add more water, stir and re-heat. So on, and so on. Nine days worth if the rhyme is anything to go by!

This might have been an interesting and not bad tasting dish when first made. But this daily method of reheating and adding to the pottage would continue for days if not weeks before a new batch would be made.  Again, I wonder as to the constitution of 15th century people because the potential for food poisoning with these cooking techniques was great, and humans are pretty much the same today, biologically speaking,  as we were then.  I find it hard to believe that severe stomach aches at the very least, were not daily occurrences.

Pottage was the forerunner of today's Christmas pudding. Over generations dried fruits were added to the mixture and when the addition of dried plums or prunes were added it became so popular the term plum pudding was adopted and has stuck ever since, even though many recipes today do not include prunes. The addition of sugars and alcohols like brandies, whiskeys and dark beers such as stouts and porters not only added to the taste, but with the alcohol also helped kill bacteria and aided preservation. And if the cook decided to re-soak the final dish with additional brandy before serving,  people tended to feel pretty good about their Christmas pudding. It soon became the one item always found at a Christmas dinner, regardless of whatever else was typically served either regionally or familially.

This may have been a reason those 'no fun at all' Puritans, along with Christmas and Yule, outlawed Christmas pudding.  Seriously! It wasn't enough to talk badly about it, or strongly preach against the over-indulgence in, but they passed a law in 1646 which decreed :

A Christmas dinner with more than three courses was illegal and which forbade the consumption of “abominable and idolatrous” Christmas pudding and mince pies on December 25th.*
The addition of breadcrumbs as a thickener finely brought the pudding to the recognized consistency of what today we would call a cake. Let me explain some early culinary terms and how we might look at the same today.

In the 16th and 17th centuries what the people commonly referred to as cake was what we would call today in America a sweet bread. Made out of a yeast flour mixture and kneaded, it was a baked loaf of bread but with fruits, sugars and sweets inside and frosting or sweet glaze outside.  An early Colonial American 'cake' would be closest today to our cinnamon roll loaf or even some of the sweet Polish fruited breads found around Easter today.  They did have bread, and it was hearty, plain wheat flour and yeast risen bread or corn bread, both very similar to what we would recognize today.  

In contrast the 'puddings' of the time would be more similar to the cakes we are used to today. Delicate, sweet and lighter, as the invention and development of leavening, aside from yeast, was being introduced,  Used as a dessert.  So Christmas puddings became cake-like in appearance and taste, and over time the meat was eliminated in favor of more dried and sweet fruits and a heavy dose of spices such as cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg.

An interesting side note. Many people are aware of the reputation of spices in ancient times having the value of currency, and the spice route through the far east and the Orient was growing stronger and spices were becoming more popular.  Many have suggested that the spices were used to make the food of the day, remember the pottage, taste more pleasant.  I don't believe this to be the only reason.  I believe the flavor enhancement was a nice benefit, but the reason, in my opinion, that the spice trade flourished is the medicinal qualities of these spices when it came to food consumption.

Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg , mace, ginger and black pepper all have similar qualities of having microbial benefits of being  anti-bacterial and anti-fungal working in the intestines to keep one from succumbing to the ravages of severe food poisoning. In addition,  these spices have very strong preservative qualities which I believe in combination became very important to the health of the ruling classes, which at times were the only people who could afford these luxuries. 

I believe the ancient wise women and the cunning men  knew of these properties after their introduction to the Western world, because they were skilled at determining the medicinal, magickal and food value of the foods and herbs they worked with.   Most likely by putting them through the same sorts of testing to determine the magickal,  medicinal qualities of a plant, as they would have any herb, plant or flower they worked with.

Sometime in the 17 or 18th century, the exact timing has become obscure, the addition of silver coins and rings and other small things were added to the pudding while it was being prepared to help divine the futures of the dinner guests at the Christmas dinner, during the upcoming year.

 Silver coins were added for prosperity, rings for love and happiness and if the recipient was single then a possible engagement or marriage within the upcoming year was fortold, a wishbone from a small chicken or duck was added for good luck and a thimble or button would prophecy poverty and spinsterhood. Nowadays people tend to leave the thimble and buttons out. I don't blame them. What a downer. Oh Merry Christmas, oh! so sorry you'll be poor and alone for the upcoming year. Well Cheers everyone!  I chose not to include thimbles or buttons in my pudding this year.

When mixing the pudding up appx 4-5 weeks before Christmas everyone in  the household traditionally takes a hand at stirring the pudding a few times, in a clockwise direction and each can make a wish. Then the pudding is steamed. Some do the traditional version and put it all in a cloth sack and steam it, but I purchased a Christmas pudding basin or pan (it looks like a modern bundt cake pan) and steamed it for seven hours.  You really do have to babysit it for seven hours.  Adding water when the level drops, adjusting the heat to keep up the steam, but by the end you have a 'responsibility' to this pudding.  It becomes almost precious!

The recipe I used has raisins, brown and golden, dried currants, dried cranberries and cherries and chopped raw almonds. Fresh diced apples, orange and lemon zest and brown sugar. I substituted rice flour bread crumbs instead of regular to make this recipe gluten free, as some family members have food allergies and its nice for the whole family to enjoy a dish like this. I recommend searching the Internet for a recipe that appeals to you.   I've also included a picture of the ingredients right before I mixed it all together and put it in to steam.  The large glass bowl is filled with dried and chopped fresh fruit and nuts that have been soaking in brandy for several hours, along with orange and lemon zest.

There is also another important component to this recipe. Brandy. You put about 4 Tablespoons of brandy in the batter and of course the alcohol cooks out after seven hours of steaming. Then today after it had cooled, I pricked it with a skewer and doused it in brandy again, almost 8 Tablespoons this time, covered it in greased paper, covered it securely with its metal top and placed it in a cool, dry cupboard where it will sit, quietly getting soused until the end of December.

I, at one time, in a previous incarnation in this life, was a culinary school trained chef. Believe me I looked over many of the sanitation and food safety rules with this traditional recipe and it is safe, the addition of the brandy is a  form of preservation as there's no refrigeration in the curing process.  Some traditionalists actually make next years Christmas pudding this year, and allow it to sit for a year in its brandied bliss.  By not having any meat present and using vegetable shortening instead of animal based fats also keeps it safer.

For those worried about the inclusion of brandy, no worries as this dish is suitable for children, and no little Johnny won't get a hangover! For you see before serving, this early English version of a fruit cake, but oh so much more tasty, needs to be steamed at least an hour or more before serving, effectively eliminating any raw alcohol.   It can be served with a heavy sprinkle of sugar on top, or a glaze of confectionery sugar and milk. Some people add brandy to this sweet glaze, but this is a danger for children, so eliminate brandy in the topping if little ones are present.

Also, and this is VERY IMPORTANT. Everyone must be told about the inedible coins or rings you've included. People even familiar with this tradition have been known to break their teeth because of not carefully checking for the coins first. IT IS A CHOKING HAZARD for CHILDREN,  so please eliminate the addition of the trinkets if children will consume this dessert.  If you add the trinkets, I recommend that everyone be told, and when everyone has a serving in front of them, have them search through their pudding to make sure they find a coin or ring if its present.  I put two rings and three coins in my pudding, and no one will get to taste a bite until I personally see all five bits of silver reappear.

The person that finds the trinket gets to keep it also. A side note, make sure you scrub clean with soap and water any coins or rings you intend to use, even ones purchase especially for this. In England they sell these trinkets just for the Christmas pudding tradition. Then put the trinkets in the water you intend to steam your pudding over for 10 minutes or so.  This will sterilize them and make them safe for addition to the pudding.

Some folks serve this traditional Christmas dish doused again in brandy, and light it and present it in the dining room after the lights have been shut off.  I would again be careful of this if children will sample this dessert as yes, the brandy that is alight will burn off alcohol but the cake itself will absorb a goodly amount that wouldn't be affected by the flame. It's not nice to get the little ones drunk dear.  So a nice alternative that any child and adult will enjoy,  is serving your piece of Christmas pudding, with a couple of big spoonfuls of fresh, homemade whipped cream.  And, no! The all-ready prepared, in an aerosol can whipped-cream is not worthy of this most ancient of holiday dishes.

I'll have a photo of the finished dessert in  .  .  .  about a month!

Peace and Happiness

Some of the information I presented in the above discussion can be found in the following website:

© 2010 Enchantments, LLC Portions of this blog posting may include materials from my book “Enchantments School for the Magickal Arts First Year Magickal Studies.” For more information, see 

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