With just two weeks to go, the countdown to December 25th is well and truly under way. Christmas is all about generosity of spirit and celebrating with family and friends. In our house it is also a very food-centric time of year. I’ve lost count of the number of brownies, biscuits, slices and slabs of fudge I’ve made and wrapped to take to informal gatherings or give away as gifts. The Christmas pudding is made and jars of fruit mince in the fridge ready to be transformed into delicious, buttery pies, or folded through meringue or ice-cream for a quick festive dessert.
There is something undeniably special about Christmas baking. Laden with dried fruits, nuts and heady spices, many recipes are steeped in history and have their roots in medieval traditions. Hailing from a time when life was governed by religious festivals, a strict calendar of feasting and fasting, and access to food determined by social standing.
The grandest feast of all was Yuletide, celebrated over a twelve day period from Christmas Eve (December 24) to The Epiphany (January 6). Marking the time from Jesus’ birth to the Three Wise Men’s visit to the manger in Bethlehem, traditionally recognised as the last day of the Christmas season. Many of our modern festive customs today date back to the medieval beliefs and superstitions of that age.
The earliest mince pies, for example, were made of a mixture of meat and fruit, and baked in small rectangular shapes to represent Jesus’ crib. They were flavoured with three spices; cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, said to represent the gifts proffered by the three wise men. Furthermore, to ensure good luck it was customary to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas.
The history of the pudding is a little more interesting. One school of thought has it that whilst elaborate, celebratory fruit cakes were served in the great houses of the nobility, those of lesser means feasted more frugally on spiced porridge, which eventually became what we now know as traditional plum pudding. Another theory, which appeals to our Australian colonial sensibilities, practically suggests that the modern plum pudding evolved in response to the opening up of new world colonies in the early nineteenth century. Families steamed or boiled fruitcakes to send in Christmas hampers to loved ones who had settled in far flung colonies. Steamed puddings being preferred over traditional baked cakes purely for their keeping qualities. They did not readily spoil and were able to withstand the long voyage by sea.
After more than just a little encouragement, I have been persuaded to collate the recipes from my favourite festive treats into one, easy reference post. The photo gallery above yields a delicious kaleidoscope of colour, taste and flavour. An effortless melding of more traditional recipes with the new, crossing borders and reflecting our society’s wonderfully multicultural roots. Time-honoured puddings, pies and biscuits suited for colder northern hemisphere climates sit beside fresh, modern offerings more suited to our southern hemisphere summer. That’s why on Christmas day, after a long leisurely lunch we sit down to both a flaming, brandy doused Christmas pudding and a more seasonally appropriate fresh berry laden pavlova.
To view the recipes, simply click on an image. As you scroll through the picture carousel a link will appear back to the original blog post. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here’s hoping this Christmas season, your family enjoys the pleasure of the yuletide feast as much as those who went before us in medieval times.