I was rearranging my bookshelf the other day, and rediscovered my mother’s cookbooks. For many years they stood on the bottom shelf of the built-in cupboard in her farmhouse kitchen. Well-worn, their spotted and yellowed pages contain her handwritten notes telling me which recipes are “good” and how to modify them if improvements were needed. Mom’s cookbooks span at least eight decades, including a Betty Crocker cookbook that must have been a wedding present in the 1940s, a variety of Amish cookbooks, cookbooks assembled by Lutheran church women, and crockpot and microwave cookbooks.
And then there’s the cookbook Grandpa made for Mom when she still lived in Kansas–two pieces of stained wood tied together with a shoestring. The grain is prominent, and I wish I could travel back in time to ask what wood he used to make it. Inside are yellowed pages holding hundreds of recipes clipped from the newspaper and countless others in my mother’s even handwriting. Her recipe for “economical raisin pie” and the section of “Recipes to Stretch your sugar ration” suggest she started the cookbook in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
I doubt I’ll ever make “Corn Syrup Cake,” but I am curious about “Yum Yum Gems,” “Black Devil’s Food,” “Penuche” and “Sea Foam.” Without a doubt, Mom had a sweet tooth. More than three-fourths of the book’s pages are filled with recipes for cakes, cookies, pies, candy, and jams.
Turning the pages, I spy Mom’s handwritten recipe for “Christmas Plum Pudding.” The recipe originated with my great grandmother, a native of England who went into service when she was fourteen. By the time she immigrated to Kansas in the 1890s, she was cooking for a “ladies school” in London.
I always associate plum pudding with Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two times a year we ate it. When I was small, my grandmother made the pudding and brought it to our house on Christmas day. I watched in anticipation as she unveiled the pudding, boiled (or steamed) in a cotton cloth four four hours. After she sliced it, we analyzed its surface and the distribution of the fruit inside. Then Grandma supervised preparation of the hard sauce in a double boiler, a simple mixture of milk, sugar, salt, nutmeg, butter, and flour. I wondered why it was called hard sauce when it contained no alcohol. Perhaps my great grandmother, a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, removed an ingredient from the recipe.
The day finally came when Grandma could no longer prepare the plum pudding, and Mom took up the task. I remember her setting out on a quest to acquire beef suet from a butcher and currants, citron, and almonds (not everyday ingredients in our pantry). At first, her puddings tasted much like Grandma’s. Like Grandma, she agonized about how tight to tie the bag in which the pudding steamed, but I don’t remember any failures.
Then came the day when Mom grew concerned about cholesterol. The next thing we knew, she started making the pudding from healthier alternatives. I don’t know what she substituted for beef suet, but I do recall her using Egg Beaters instead of eggs. And if it was difficult to locate currants or almonds, she omitted them. We watched as our beloved pudding morphed into a less tasty Christmas tradition until my brother intervened, telling Mom to use the original ingredients since we only had the pudding once or twice a year.
Over the years, we had a number of visitors to our table who were not familiar with Christmas plum pudding. “Put on lots of sauce,” we advised. An acquired taste, most took a small bite and opted instead to have a piece of pumpkin pie. I could never understand it because I loved the fruit-laden pudding with its clove-infused sauce, and the ceremony surrounding its preparation and consumption.
I helped Mom make the pudding a few times, but by the time she grew too frail to manage the heavy bag of pudding in the boiling water, I had moved away. My brother took on the challenge and maintained the tradition until the year she died. I haven’t had plum pudding for five Christmases now because palates have changed and everyone is counting calories. But I have the recipe…