There are a lot of traditional Christmas foods out there. Now if you have heard the song We Wish You A Merry Christmas! you have heard the words figgy pudding. The song demands it be brought out to them. So what is figgy pudding and why would you gather outside someone’s door to demand it? Well there is some interesting history to that and Max Miller not only recreates the dish but also explains its history.
And then there is Wassail that was popular in Tudor England. People sing they are going wassailing but why would they? Well history once again reveals what this dish was and was it really worth making?
And then there is eggnog. Many love or despise it. Like so many things, it has become throughly commercialized and removed from what was once made in the home. The thick custardy eggnog you often get in the store is nothing compared to the smooth tasting variety you can make at home. In much older times though, significant amounts of alcohol were added making it really a boozy drink. People had a high tolerance for alcohol (you drank light beers or fermented apple cider since water was usually not trusted) but even this traditional egg nog in this recipe will send make you quite happy after a few shots.
Chestnuts? They were a popular treat once but you rarely see them anymore. My local store does have Italian chestnuts for sale (so there must be some that still use them) but you rarely hear of them much except in song or when reading old stories. At one time though having roasted chestnuts was common it seems. Many knew how to prep, roast and eat them and were part of feasts. Here is a recreation of how it was done in the 17th century.
Plum pudding (Christmas pudding) was and still is quite popular. There are no plums in it as plum was a common term for raisin. Making it though took effort and lots of time to steam. Today you can buy premade ones and steam for an hour and enjoy. In different times though, it meant waiting quite a while for the delicious pudding to be done and served. Townsends shows how it was made back in the 17th century.
As you can see, many of our Christmas favorites have a history that go back quite a while. Learning how it came about helps us to enjoy them even more today.
We are the beneficiaries of wonderful technology that allows us to have produce, nuts, meats, and dairy year round. A trip to your basic grocery store shows the bounty we enjoy thanks to important developments in food technology both in its preparation and storage. In different times, you literally lived by the season. Food storage was limited to cellars, storing in jars, and even buried in the ground. In places with harsh winters, the necessity of food storage was essential to survive. Nuts and fruits would spoil during the winter so people had to come up with creative ways to keep them around longer. Aside from pickling, drying, or canning,baking cakes was also a popular way of doing this. Fruitcakes or variations of what we call it, had been around for a long time. The ancient Egyptians had a version and the Romans had festival cakes that led to panforte. The version most are familiar with is English style.
English style fruitcake is a dense cake often soaked in a liquid, usually alcohol, to keep it moist. Contrary to popular belief, a fruitcake does not last forever but properly taken care of will certainly last during the winter season. Spices were expensive back then so the rich could afford the more luxurious spices while most had to use what they could afford or find locally. Since most homes back then did not have ovens (the rich did of course), most everything was fried, boiled, or steamed. Anything that had dried fruit was called a plum pudding, which traditionally is served at Christmas. Then it evolved from this to the more current version of fruitcake known today. It became associated with the holiday (though it is often consumed at other times of the year as well) as it became a symbol for good luck and other things. It also had a practical use being a source for fruits and nuts during a time when they were not generally available.
Fruitcakes can vary in sizes, shapes, and ingredients. Today most fruitcakes are not that expensive but widely vary in quality. Often the best source are reputable bakers that make them with fresh ingredients and spices. Many of the industrial ones sold in discount stores are cheaply made. Alton Brown noted a telling fact in his examination of fruitcake: that it is the sum of its parts. Does not matter if you use the best and most expensive alcohol if one of your ingredients is dull or too sweet. Most of the industrial fruitcakes tend to be too sweet and earn the moniker of being called doorstops. But there are many bakers that create very fine fruitcakes. The blog Mondo Fruitcake takes a look at them and some of the best come from abbeys or monasteries where a religious order bakes them as income. A long time ago Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma)discovered a fruitcake made by the Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri. He liked it so much that he put into the Christmas catalog (others now carry it as well) and increasing their popularity so much they do not advertise anymore. That is how much they sell at Christmas time but they make them year round (they take a break in January from all the baking!). And it points out that well made fruitcakes are still part of the Christmas tradition.
So when you see a fruitcake, remember it comes from a time needing to preserve fruits and nuts during the winter months. And how much has changed for the better with refrigeration and modern storage techniques.