The musing about it begins in the middle of November; too soon, I tell the family. Then Ryan Tubridy mentions the date of the Late Late Toy Show and it's set; pudding night.
Since my children were very young we’ve mixed the Christmas pudding on the same night as the toy show. And after the job was done and they had made their wooden-spoon wishes, they’d sit up late, shiny-eyed and watch the first festive programme of the season.
Now in their teens and 20s, they are still willing to be free on the evening of the pudding mix, though only the youngest stays around for the toy show.
The recipe came from my mother, who got it from her mother-in-law along with two pudding bowls, one of which, glaze-mottled, I still use every year. The mix includes all you would expect from the traditional favourite, a blend of fruit, flour and breadcrumbs, suet, sugar, spices, carrots, candied peel, apples, eggs and plenty of booze. But it never came with weights or method; the ingredients written in my mother’s hand in the back of an old cookbook call for a bag of this, a half a loaf of that, and two-and-a-half small bottles of stout. The result is an inexactness that makes our puddings slightly different every year and leaves the head chef with a cold glass of stout to be enjoyed after the clean-up.
I don't know where my grandmother's recipe originated or how long it was in her family. An early version of the pudding is thought to have its roots in the 15th century. It included meat, fruit and alcohol and was prized for its preservative qualities. Victorian cook Eliza Acton was apparently the first to put a recipe for Christmas pudding into a book, Modern Cookery for Private Families. First published in 1845 and reprinted into the early 20th century, the book was described in an advertisement in the pages of this newspaper on December 13th, 1873 as "a system of easy practice in a series of carefully tested receipts" at a price of six shillings. Her pudding included brandy, but not whiskey or stout, both of which are essential to my grandmother's recipe. A later cookbook, claiming to have the British royal family's household recipe, Food In England, by Dorothy Hartley, published in 1954, is also missing these vital ingredients.
As a child, I remember the hiss of the stout as it fizzed through the ingredients, I remember helping to grate the bread, carrots and apples, grazing my knuckles and adding beef suet, the last vestige of meat-based ingredient in the recipe.
I use vegetable suet now and buzz the carrots and apples in the food processor. We gather round the table of ingredients, enough for two puddings, adding the dry ones first, then stirring in the wet ones, while a Christmas CD plays in the background. I sometimes imagine I can hear my mother asking if we’ve forgotten anything.
The mix is left overnight and in the morning, another splash of stout is stirred in before the two puddings are put on to steam. My father visits and ties the layers of greaseproof paper and tin foil with twine, ensuring it stays dry during cooking.
I spend the day minding the pots and topping up the water. And after eight hours, it’s time for my husband to turn them out. The twine is cut and the layers of wrapping removed. He places a plate on top of each bowl and we hold our breaths as he flips each one over and then gently lifts the bowls away.
The moment always brings me back to the first Christmas after my mother died. At home with my father and teenage brother, we tried to make a season of it. I mixed the puddings for the first time without her and when they were turned out they wobbled and collapsed onto their plates. I went to bed and in the morning, found my father had stayed up late to mould them into presentable shapes and tend the fire until they had dried.
These days, when my husband turns them out, the puddings usually stay standing. They are scanned for cracks and comments are passed about the smoothness of their surfaces and their relative darkness compared to other years; the blacker the better. No samples are allowed, except for what can be scrapped from the circle of greaseproof paper that lined the base of the pudding bowl.
One pudding is given away and the other sits on the dresser, untouched until Christmas, a family creation.