December 11, 2015

Fruitcake

Fruitcake is a cake made with chopped candied fruit and/or dried fruit, nuts, spices, and, occasionally, soaked in spirits. In the United Kingdom, certain rich versions may be iced and decorated. Fruit cakes are often served in celebration of weddings and Christmas. Given their rich nature, fruit cake is most often consumed on its own, rather than with butter or cream.

The earliest recipe from ancient Rome lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added. They soon saw popularity over Europe. Recipes varied greatly in different countries throughout the ages, depending on the available ingredients as well as church regulations forbidding the use of butter, regarding the observance of fast. Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) finally granted the use of butter, in a written permission known as the ‘Butter Letter’ in 1490, giving permission to Saxony to use milk and butter in the North German fruit cakes. In the 16th century, the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits created an excess of candied fruit, thus making fruit cakes more affordable and popular. Fruit cake, though plain, is sometimes covered in thick icing or has a layer of icing sugar on top of it.

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Another holiday favorite is plum pudding. Plum pudding is a type of pudding traditionally served as part of an English Christmas dinner. It has its origins in medieval England and is sometimes known as Christmas Pudding. Despite the name “plum pudding,” the pudding contains no actual plums; the name is from the pre-Victorian use of the word “plums” as a term for raisins. The pudding is composed of many dried fruits held together by egg and suet, sometimes moistened by treacle or molasses and flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and other spices. The pudding is aged for a month to a year; the high alcohol content of the pudding prevents it from spoiling during this time.

There is a popular myth that plum pudding’s association with Christmas goes back to a custom in medieval England that the “pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every family member stir it in turn from east to west to honour the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction.”

Lisa (right) showing the extra ingredients to a visitor in 2012's Lamplight Tour. Ingredients include a button, thimble and ring.

Lisa (right) showing the extra ingredients to a visitor in 2012’s Lamplight Tour. Ingredients include a button, thimble and ring.

Along with everyone getting a chance to stir the pudding there are also three objects that are stirred into the pudding that a lucky person may find: bachelor’s button, if a single man found it, they would be a bachelor for the following year; spinster’s/old maid’s thimble, if a single woman found it, they would be a bachelorette for the following year; and the ring, if a single person found this, it meant you will get married in the following year; it can also mean you will be rich for the following year. The recipes for plum puddings appear mainly, if not entirely, in the 17th century and later. Prior to the 19th century, the English Plum Pudding was boiled in a pudding cloth, and often represented as round. The new Victorian era fashion involved putting the batter into a basin and then steaming it, followed by unwrapping the pudding, placing it on a platter, and decorating the top with a sprig of holly. Initial cooking usually involves steaming for many hours. To serve, the pudding is reheated by steaming once more, and dressed with warm brandy which is set alight. It can be eaten with hard sauce, brandy butter, rum butter, cream, lemon cream, ice cream, custard, or sweetened béchamel, and is sometimes sprinkled with caster sugar.

Many households have their own recipe for Christmas pudding, some handed down through families for generations. Essentially the recipe brings together what traditionally were expensive or luxurious ingredients — notably the sweet spices that are so important in developing its distinctive rich aroma, and usually made with suet. It is very dark in appearance — effectively black — as a result of the dark sugars and black treacle in most recipes, and its long cooking time. The mixture can be moistened with the juice of citrus fruits, brandy and other alcohol; some recipes call for dark beers such as mild, stout or porter. The plum pudding is a most interesting and essential part of the Christmas season; long steeped in tradition, and alcohol.

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