If you’re eating a fancy Christmas dinner this year, give some credit to Charles Dickens. Click inside for recipes from the 2008 re-publication of Dickens’ “A Christmas Dinner.” We also interview the historian who created it.
If you’re eating a fancy Christmas dinner this year, give some credit to Charles Dickens.
More than any other writer, perhaps, the Englishman popularized the notion of Christmas as a family holiday, filled with good spirits, sharing and benevolence.
“Christmas was a highly religious ceremony during the Middle Ages, but as the world became more secularized, it became more of a secularized celebration,” said Alice Ross, a New York-based culinary historian who created the recipes included in the 2008 re-publication of Dickens’ “A Christmas Dinner.”
Dickens (1812-1870) was just 23 when his “Christmas Festivities” was published in a periodical called “Bell’s Life in London.” His first Christmas short story, it was republished the following year, 1836, as “A Christmas Dinner.” The story describes a joyous holiday dinner attended by loving family members, similar to the gathering of the Cratchits is his later work “A Christmas Carol.”
Christmas traditions in English and American homes were minimal when “A Christmas Dinner” was written. There were no Christmas trees, no Christmas cards, no bountiful dinners. But the writing of Dickens, stressing the holiday’s communal happiness, started to change that. By the time “A Christmas Carol” was published in 1843, the ideal English Christmas dinner, said Ross, had become enormous.
To create the recipes for “A Christmas Dinner,” she scoured cookbooks from the 1830s and looked for references to Christmas. She includes both vintage recipes from that time, plus their modern versions in the book.
“There was no single traditional Christmas dinner menu in the 1830s,” Ross said. “The turkey was usual but could be replaced. Other poultry or roasted meats might have been served instead.”
Recipes are from Alice Ross in “A Christmas Dinner.”
½ cup flour
½ cup lightly grated breadcrumbs
¾ cup beef kidney suet, chopped fine
¾ cup raisins
¾ cup dried currents
1 large apple, peeled, cored and diced
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons candied orange rind or candied citron
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 ounces brandy
Salt, to taste
Additional flour to dredge the pudding bag, if used
6 ounces brandy for flaming, divided
Mix all ingredients (except additional flour and 6 ounces brandy) thoroughly together. Boil a large pot of water. Dip a cloth pudding bag into it, flour thoroughly and place in a large bowl. Pour in the mixture and tie up securely, leaving an air space to allow for swelling, and a length of cord to hang it suspended into the pot. (A large wooden spoon that bridges the rim of the pot holds it nicely.)
Fill in the small opening left at the knot with a paste of flour and water, to keep the pudding dry. Boil 3 1/2 hours, replenishing with additional boiling water to keep it immersed.
Place the pudding in a ceramic bowl and set bowl on a large metal tray, for safety’s sake. Pour 2 ounces of brandy into the pudding. Heat the remaining 4 ounces of brandy, pour it over the pudding and ignite with a long match just before presentation in a darkened room. Serve with wine sauce.
Makes 12 to 16 servings.
-- Alice Ross in “A Christmas Dinner.”
German Wine Sauce
1 small lemon
4 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
6 ounces water
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon flour
1 cup port wine
Squeeze lemon and reserve juice. Boil together the rind of the lemon, sugar, nutmeg and water for 10 minutes. Remove rind and discard.
Add lemon juice, butter and flour, rolled together in a roux. Simmer until thickened, stirring constantly. Add wine and serve immediately with Christmas pudding.
Makes about 1 cup.
-- Alice Ross in “A Christmas Dinner.”
Kathryn Rem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.