From Living Within November, p 17
I am probably amongst the first to complain when the Christmas themed aisle in the supermarket supersedes the one that recently contained picnic goods, when twinkle lights are up in the town centre before the clocks have turned back, or festive baubles are for sale in the garden centre when I have not yet given up hopes of an Indian summer. And yet, here we are, not quite Halloween as I write and November as this goes to press and I am about to counsel the need to think about Christmas.
In my defence, preserving some of the autumn’s bounty against a season of relative scarcity is an art almost as old as time, and long before Christmas became a focal point for this part of the world there were other Yuletide festivals celebrated with a bit of food and drink put by for the occasion as Mankind managed to find something worth looking forward to (not to mention an excuse for at least one day of overindulgence) during the long hard winter months.
So whether you are anticipating the shortest day and the subsequent resurgence of the sun, the birth of Jesus or any other Winterval observance I will make no further excuses for thinking ahead. If you look forward to the prospect of plum pudding, fruitcake or a mince pie or two and are not amongst those attempting to track down a rare Heston pud with concealed central orange, or who are not fond of over-sweetened under-fruited mincemeat, or do not crave heavily sugar-pasted cakes, you need to start getting out your mixing bowls about now.
For me, the baking aisle is currently at its most appealing. The packets of dried fruit have recently expanded in size and extended in range, the boxes of shredded suet are generously piled, and candied fruit and peel are easily available. Why the hurry to get started? Well mincemeat requires at least a fortnight to mature before using (and will benefit from more), puddings about a month after first cooking and fruitcakes will take as long as you can give them between baking and Christmas, with or without additional feeds of alcohol, to taste their best. The traditional marker for the pudding is ‘Stir-up Sunday’, the last Sunday before Advent and this year falling on November 25, legend having it that when the words “Stir-up, we beseech thee” are heard in the collect on that day they will serve as reminder to the baking faithful of their seasonal duty.
If anyone cares to join me in this annual ritual but is lacking a recipe here is one for mincemeat to get you started - the easiest of the three to make. The core ingredients and their proportions in relation to each other should always remain in the same ballpark but feel free to tinker - replace the almonds with other chopped nuts (pistachios, walnuts etc), use different types of alcohol (sherry, rum, whisky even), substitute contrasting preserved or candied fruit (dates, dried figs, prunes, cherries) for some proportion of the fruit or peel, or mix up your own ground spices (cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves) - you can give your imagination a longish leash. Making mincemeat involves little more than assembling and mixing ingredients but the result will taste infinitely superior to anything you can buy on most supermarket shelves and is well worth the small amount of effort involved.
250g each prepared:
suet; raisins; sultanas; currants, and cooking apples,
2 teaspoons ground mixed spice,
125g chopped, mixed, candied peel,
185g soft brown sugar,
30g flaked, nibbed or chopped almonds,
- coarsely chop the suet, raisins and sultanas (with a cook’s knife or, carefully, in a food processor on the pulse setting). Put into a large bowl and stir in the currants.
- peel, core and grate the apples and stir in with the dried fruit and suet.
- add in the spices and the mixed candied peel and the sugar and almonds and stir together.
- grate the zest of the lemon into the bowl and then add the squeezed juice and the brandy.
- stir all together thoroughly. Leave, covered, in a cool place for an hour or so, stir again and then use to fill sterilised jam jars. Cover with a secure lid and leave to mature in a cool dry place or in the fridge for at least two weeks before using.
Whether you are making puddings, cakes or mincemeat, do remember that they all involve long lists of ingredients and there is always a real and present danger of missing something out. My advice? - before you do anything else, write out a checklist of everything to be included in the order in which it is used in the recipe, then check off each item as you go along and you can be sure you won’t overlook anything.
I will leave the final word to Elizabeth David and lay any absolute purist’s minds at rest on the subject of suet out of a box:
“The friend … was very insistent that bought shredded suet should not be used. It would prevent the mincemeat from keeping, so she told me. I am afraid that I disobeyed her instructions and used bought packet suet. (Shredding suet is a terrible task. I cannot make myself spend so much time and effort on it.) The first batch … kept for five years.”