The Homepride Book of Home Baking is something I've seen around in the kitchen at home for so long that I was a bit confused to find that it's not something you find in every kitchen, like a sink or an oven. Of course, our current kitchen doesn't have an oven yet, but it does have the Homepride book, thanks to my sister's generosity and eBay skills (don't worry, she got herself a copy too). If you're looking for your own copy, it looks like this (published 1970, SBN 900869054 — don't be misled by later editions; they're utterly different). It goes through the basics of baking, the different methods ('rubbed-in method', 'all-in-one method') and representative recipes, and there's a troubleshooting bit at the end of each section. Each recipe is short and uncomplicated, four one-column recipes to a page, measurements given in metric and imperial ("It's the first metric book of flour cookery in Britain ... Before very long, all other cookery books will become obsolete," raves the introduction). Okay, the recipes are very 1970s, but they're also very tasty. If there has been little innovation in the field of steamed puddings and stodgy cakes in the last 40 years it's because they were just fine to start with.
So, time for pudding. Fortunately I had a pudding-basin (the plastic sort, saved from a previous shop-bought pudding, which had been used in the interim as a general tupperware and even had 'stew soup' faintly scratched into it), and even more fortunately, this morning the local Co-op had most of the requisite ingredients. The newsagent next door filled in the gap of self-raising flour, and I cycled to Tesco to try to find almonds. They didn't have any chopped or blanched almonds — a good thing, as it turned out, because it meant that I bought their much nicer organic almonds and blanched them myself. I don't think I'd ever done this before — I was resigned to using them with skins and all — but the Homepride Book's casual instruction to "Blanch almonds (see page 16)" reassured me that it'd be easy. Turns out all you do is put boiling water on them and leave them for a few minutes, after which time the almonds' skins have loosened and you can just squeeze them off. Who knew? Okay, okay, you probably all knew. Humour me.
There was a minor crisis when I discovered that the packet of suet which I'd briefly hefted and judged to be at least a third full turned out to have less than the necessary ¼lb, and the Co-op (close enough to home to encourage this sort of disorganised shopping) turned out not to stock any, but in the end I substituted finely-diced butter instead and crossed my fingers that Saint Delia would forgive me. After some wishful stirring, I ladled it into the bowl, put the boil in the big pan of water, and proceeded to steam the thing for six hours, which does not make for interesting blogging material so I'll just use it as an excuse for a bit more rambling.
There's a poem which I always think of when I think of Christmas puddings; I reproduce it here in its twee entirety:
Our Christmas pudding was made in November,I only know it because we had to learn it in the Elocution classes that I (briefly) attended at one primary school. I don't recall any training in diction (though the teacher's name was Mrs Dixon — my dad thought this was hilarious and then had to explain the joke, which is how I learned the word 'diction'), but I do recall having to learn a poem every week, first writing it out in our best handwriting and illustrating it, and then reciting it before the rest of the class.
All they put in it, I quite well remember:
Currants and raisins, and sugar and spice,
Orange peel, lemon peel - everything nice
Mixed up together, and put in a pan.
"When you've stirred it," said Mother, "as much as you can,
We'll cover it over, that nothing may spoil it,
And then, in the copper, tomorrow we'll boil it."
That night, when we children were all fast asleep,
A real fairy godmother came crip-a-creep!
She wore a red cloak, and a tall steeple hat
(Though nobody saw her but Tinker, the cat!)
And out of her pocket a thimble she drew,
A button of silver, a silver horse-shoe,
And, whisp'ring a charm, in the pudding pan popped them,
Then flew up the chimney directly she dropped them;
And even old Tinker pretended he slept
(With Tinker a secret is sure to be kept!),
So nobody knew, until Christmas came round,
And there, in the pudding, these treasures we found.
—Charlotte Druitt Cole
The thing is, though, I don't actually have any memory of making Christmas puddings at home; I'm not sure we ever did, and we certainly never made them in November. We made Christmas cake (always made to this recipe), and stirring it was certainly an occasion; but as far as I can remember it was usually only a few days before Christmas. My mum would ice the cake, ruffling the royal icing into snow-like peaks with a knife, and then my sister and I would add every plastic cake-decoration we owned, until it looked like an explosion at Santa's grotto. My mum only once made her Christmas cake in advance; when we unwrapped it from its foil to ice it, we found that it had gone mouldy. She blamed the organic (and hence, supposedly, preservative-free) dried fruit. Thereafter we went back to making Christmas cake just before Christmas, or even just after — okay, then we called it 'New Year cake' instead, but it was the same cake. Nobody ever felt like eating cake after Christmas dinner anyway.
So, the moral I derive from this story is that you can't store your cake and eat it, and you can't eat your cake and pudding. Only kidding — there isn't really a moral! There are just a handful of key techniques, and a selection of good recipes, and some tasty ingredients, and occasional long periods of waiting, and things you do again year after year because they work, and all these things are just rattling around in a box of terrible analogies like the little plastic cake decorations in the biscuit-tin on the top shelf that I had to stand on a chair (or, if nobody was looking, on the kitchen unit) to get to.