"In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top." Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Festive food plays a huge role in British Christmas traditions, from the extravagant roast dinner served on the day to the sweet treats enjoyed throughout the season. Visiting family and friends for a cup of tea and a mince pie is a Christmas tradition enjoyed across the country. This article covers three of the most traditional sweet Christmas foods; mince pies, Christmas cake, and Christmas pudding. And yes, there is a lot of dried fruit involved.
Mince pies are small round pies made with shortcrust pastry and filled with mincemeat. Despite the name, modern mincemeat does not contain any meat. It is made primarily with dried raisins, candied peel (lemon and orange zest) and chopped apple soaked in brandy and mixed with several spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Other dried fruit such as dates and prunes may also be added. The fruit is combined together with shortening or some kind of fat. Traditionally, beef suet is used, though modern mince pies use vegetable shortening, making most mince pies sold in shops suitable for vegetarians.
Recipes for mince pies in England go back as far as the 15th Century. The spices that flavor the fruit were brought back from the Middle East by the Crusaders. Originally, mince pies contained beef, venison, or mutton. Mince pies have been known by many names over the centuries, including mutton pies, Christmas pies, and minched pies.
The Victorians would prepare the dried fruit mixture months in advance of Christmas, as mincemeat tastes best when it is aged, and would leave out the meat at the final stage. Mince pies used to be large and oblong, designed to be sliced into servings, but today it is most common to find individually-sized round pies.
Modern variations include mince pies with no pastry lid, instead topped with white frosting. Puff pastry mince pies are also becoming increasingly popular. Mince pies are best served warm, with whipped cream and a cup of tea.
Christmas pudding is a rich, dark, moist cake made with lots of dried fruit, spices and brandy. Its dark color is thanks to the addition of molasses or black treacle. Traditionally, they are steamed, which can take a very long time, though modern Christmas puddings can be cooked in a microwave in a fraction of the time.
Christmas pudding is believed to date back to medieval England, though the earliest recorded recipes only date back to the 1600s. Traditionally, Christmas puddings were made four to six weeks before Christmas. Similar to mincemeat, the flavor of a Christmas pudding is best when aged. Even to this day, homemade Christmas puddings are made well in advance and can be left to mature for up to a year. In the past, they were wrapped in cloth to store them, and then steamed in the same cloth when cooking.
The Victorians referred to the Christmas pudding as "plum pudding". They never contain plums as we know them; "plum" is actually a Victorian term for raisins or general dried fruit. It is a tradition when making a Christmas pudding to have each child in the household stir the mixture and make a wish while doing so. Another tradition involving Christmas pudding is hiding a silver coin inside, usually a threepence or sixpence. If you were lucky enough to find a coin in your serving, you would receive great wealth in the coming new year.
When serving Christmas pudding, it is common to pour some high-proof brandy over the top and light it. It is then brought into the room with the lights off to enjoy the blue flames. Christmas pudding is best served hot with brandy sauce or rum sauce.
Christmas cake is a rich fruit cake, often iced with marzipan and royal icing. They are frequently decorated with Christmas scenes. They are made with the same mixture as a Christmas pudding, only with extra flour added and baked into a cake. There is a Scottish variant known as Dundee cake, which is uniced and topped with almonds. Dundee cake tends to be lighter than the rich, dense Christmas cake.
Up to the 1600s, Christmas cake was served on Twelfth Night, and was known as a "Twelfth cake". Twelfth Night is January 5th, and marks the twelfth day after Christmas and the end of the festive season. Twelfth cake, along with mince pies and other Christmas celebrations, was banned by Oliver Cromwell during the 1650s as a symbol of "Catholic idolatry". The British people instead made Twelfth cake into Christmas cake and ate it on Christmas Day.
The marzipan used to top the cake has a long history in Europe as a Christmas staple. It is thought to have been introduced to Europe through the Turks, or through trade between Italy, Spain and North Africa. It spread across Europe and to the UK. Aside from being used to top Christmas cake, marzipan is also formed into fruit-shaped sweets. Marzipan is also baked into the German stollen fruit bread, which is very popular in the UK at Christmas.