Carol wilson shares some of her favourite festive recipes and talks about the history behind traditional Christmas food

The midwinter festival has been celebrated with special foods and feasting since time immemorial. The coming of Christianity saw the ancient Yule celebrations of the pagan Vikings replaced with the Christian celebrations of Christ’s birth, but many pagan traditions were incorporated too, such as decorating the house with mistletoe, holly and ivy. Later, the sumptuous medieval feasts of the nobility and later still, the elaborate Christmas dinners of the Victorians also contributed to the traditional Christmas foods that many of us enjoy today. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 1865 that special attention was given to Christmas in a cookery book, when Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Everyday Cookery observed: a noble dish is a turkey, roast or boiled. A Christmas dinner with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey. She also included two recipes for plum pudding – a plain one for children and a richer version for adults, with the comment that this was seasonable on the 25th December and also at Christmas time.

Turkey Turkeys native to the Americas were introduced into Europe by the Spanish, who came across the birds in Mexico in 1519.  They first arrived in England in the 16th century and Archbishop Cranmer provided the first written record of the birds in 1541. A popular rhyme of the day went:

Turkies, carps, hopes, piccarell and beereCame into England all in one yeare

As the birds became cheaper, their popularity increased, and turkey gradually replaced the swans, peacocks and boar’s head served at the great feasts of the day.  Less well off people ate beef, venison or ham. In the 17th and 18th centuries, turkeys became farmyard fowl and great numbers were walked to London markets after the harvest – a journey which took three months from farms in Norfolk and Suffolk.  Traditionally accompanied by stuffing and bread sauce, large fowl such as turkey were filled with stuffing to prevent the meat from drying out during the long cooking time. Chestnut stuffing was a particular favourite in the 18th century. Bread sauce can be traced back to the Middle Ages when bread was beaten with the meat juices and spices until smooth and served with meats such as venison. Nowadays, bread sauce is rich and creamy and traditionally spiced with mace, cloves and pepper.

Christmas puddingPlum pudding  originated in the 15th century, when a thick soupy mixture of beef, wine, onions, dried fruits herbs and spices was thickened with breadcrumbs. Dried plums (prunes) were a Tudor addition and were so well-liked that ‘plums’ became a generic term for all dried fruits. By the 17th century, this mixture had become a special Christmas dish called Christmas or plum porridge, often laced with alcohol. By the end of the 18th century, the plum pudding that we know today had replaced the porridge.A rich plum pudding was served to George I on his first Christmas in England in 1714, which greatly contributed to its popularity. In fact, King George enjoyed puddings so much that he was nicknamed the pudding king. His example was quickly imitated, and everyone who could afford it enjoyed plum pudding after their Christmas dinner. For the majority of people at that time, compared to today’s richly fruited pudding, plum pudding was plain and lightly fruited due to the expense of the ingredients, but as overseas trade brought cheaper supplies of dried fruits and spices, the puddings became richer. Christmas pudding recipes in old cookery books often list grated carrots in the ingredients – this was originally a thrifty measure to reduce the amount of expensive sugar and dried fruits.Plum pudding began to be called Christmas pudding in 1836 and became the symbol of Christmas cheer, mainly due to Charles Dickens’ wonderfully evocative description in A Christmas Carol: …the pudding like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of a quartern of ignited brandy and belight with Christmas holly stuck in the top. Christmas pudding, packed with fruit and spices is the crowning glory of the Christmas dinner.The Sunday nearest November 30 is the traditional day for making the pudding and is known as Stir up Sunday because the prayer reading for that day begins Stir up we beseech Thee O Lord…  Everyone should have a turn at stirring the mixture from east to west, in honour of the Magi who supposedly travelled in that direction. Charms or coins are traditionally placed in the pudding before cooking.

Christmas cakeThe modern iced fruit cake is a direct descendant of the sumptuously spiced 14th century Twelfth Night Cake. The Twelfth Night supper marked the end of the Christmas festivities and was celebrated with masques, plays, dancing, singing and gambling. The centrepiece of the supper was the Twelfth Night Cake, not iced but decorated with jewel-coloured candied fruits. A bean and a pea were baked inside the cake and the man who found the bean in his slice became king of the festivities for the evening and the woman who found the pea was queen. In later years, charms with symbolic meanings were also hidden in the cake.   Marzipan, a delectable confection of almonds and sugar, is an essential part of English celebratory cakes, usually concealed under a thick layer of royal icing. Marzipan has a long and fascinating history, dating back to ancient Persia where it was flavoured with rose water and was a hugely popular sweetmeat. Elizabeth I was very fond of marchpane and an ornately modelled marzipan showpiece, often gilded with gold leaf was the focal point of court banquets.   The covering of snow white icing was a Victorian invention, along with Christmas cards and decorated Christmas trees.

Mince PiesThese fruity, spicy pies have their origin in the Christmas pies of the Elizabethan era. Shredded meat (usually beef or mutton) was mixed with suet, spices and dried fruits and cooked in a pastry ‘coffyn’. The pies were also known as shred or minced pies due to the shredded meat used. Spices, sugar and dried fruits imported from the East were enormously expensive and their use was an ostentatious display of the host’s wealth.  Christmas pies were banned as idolatrous, during Cromwell’s rule, but later returned with the Restoration and over the years, apples and alcohol were added to the filling.  It was discovered that the mixture could be kept for months in sealed pots as long as the shredded meat was added just before putting into the pastry case. However, it wasn’t long before the meat was left out altogether and today, the only remnant of the meat content is the suet, which is still included, although of course now there is the option of using vegetable suet. Mincemeat will keep for a year in a dry, cool place as long as enough alcohol is added to preserve the ingredients.

Mulled wine or aleLong ago, Yule logs were blessed with wine by parish priests throughout Britain and even the farm animals found ale or spirits mixed in with their feed! Priests also blessed wine and beer and strong ‘church’ ales were sold in churchyards to welcome in the coming year.  The custom has survived to the present day, when glasses are filled and a toast is drunk. The practice of toasting is named after the pieces of toast that were floated in the wassail bowl, a communal bowl filled with hot spiced ale on which roasted apples and pieces of toast floated. The name wassail comes from the Anglo Saxon wes hal meaning ‘good health’. Everyone present drank from the wassail bowl as a sign of friendship.Although these days virtually everything from cakes to stuffings and sauces is available ready made, it’s far nicer to offer family and friends something homemade – and well worth the time and effort involved.  An attractively wrapped homemade Christmas pudding, eye-catching Christmas cake or prettily packaged chocolate truffles also make lovely Christmas gifts.RECIPESGUAJOLOTE CON MOLE POBLANO(Turkey with Chilli and Chocolate Sauce)The unlikely sounding combination of ingredients produces a pungent, spicy dish.  The chocolate adds a deep rich flavour, although no one will guess it’s there! It would make a tasty meal over the Christmas holiday. Mexicans enjoy this dish at Christmas accompanied by tortillas and rice.4 boneless, skinless turkey breasts3 tablespoons vinegar1 teaspoon saltpepper1 teaspoon sugar2 cloves garlic1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 large onion, chopped4 tablespoons oil75ml tomato purée750ml turkey or chicken stock50g good quality plain chocolate, chopped2-3 tablespoons chilli powderpinch of sugar25g sesame seeds50g almonds, chopped50g seedless raisinsPlace the turkey portions in a bowl, sprinkle with the vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar, cover and leave for 1 hour. Meanwhile, blend the garlic, onion and cinnamon to a paste in a food processor blender or with a pestle and mortar. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pan and cook the onion paste, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add the tomato purée, stock, chocolate, chilli powder and sugar. Remove from the heat. Put the sesame seeds and almonds in another pan and dry fry them, stirring, until golden. Heat the remaining oil in a large heavy-based casserole and cook the turkey pieces until golden. Remove from the heat and add all the remaining ingredients, stirring well.  Cover the casserole and cook for about 1-13/4 hours Gas4/180ºC, until the turkey is cooked, stirring now and again during cooking.

TRADITIONAL RICH DARK CHRISTMAS PUDDINGA full- flavoured pudding that mellows with keeping – it can be made in early December and will still be delicious on Christmas Day.  If you wish to include charms or coins, wash them first and wrap them in greaseproof paper, before placing in the uncooked pudding mixture. Don’t forget to tell everyone that they’re there!225g sultanas110g raisins110g currants50g candied peel, chopped50g prunes, pitted and chopped90ml stout or dark beer75ml rum or brandy2 eggs, beaten110g shredded suet110g fresh breadcrumbs50g self-raising flour225g molasses sugar1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon1/4 teaspoon ground gingerpinch of ground cloves1 teaspoon ground mixed spicefinely grated zest 1 orangePlace all the fruits in a large mixing bowl with the stout and rum or brandy, cover and leave to soak overnight. Next day, stir in the rest of the ingredients, stirring well to combine. Spoon into a 1.2 litre greased pudding basin (leaving room for the pudding to rise) and smooth the top. Cover with a lid or a double thickness of pleated greaseproof paper, then with a double thickness of pleated foil. Tie securely and place in a large pan and pour in boiling water to come about halfway up the basin. Cover and cook for 6 hours, topping up with boiling water as needed. Allow to cool completely, in the basin, then wrap in fresh greaseproof paper and foil. Store in a cool, dark place until needed.  The pudding will keep for 3 months. To reheat: steam the pudding for 2 hours.LIGHT CHRISTMAS PUDDINGA lighter, more digestible version of the traditional British favourite, which can be made as late as you like (even on Christmas Eve!) as it doesn’t need time to mature.110g plain flourpinch salt1 teaspoon mixed spicepinch each of nutmeg and cinnamon110g fresh breadcrumbs110g light muscovado sugar110g butter3 tablespoons mincemeat1 eating apple50g candied peelgrated zest and juice of a small lemon2 eggs, beaten70ml brandy or rumSieve the flour salt and spices into a mixing bowl and stir in the breadcrumbs and sugar. Rub in the butter, and then stir in the mincemeat. Peel and grate the apple and add to the mixture with the candied peel, grated lemon zest and juice. Stir in the beaten eggs and brandy and mix well. Place the mixture into a buttered 1-1.3litre pudding basin and cover with a double thickness of foil, pleated in the middle to allow for expansion. Place the basin in a steamer or in a large pan of gently boiling water and steam for 3 hours, topping up with boiling water as needed. When the pudding is cooked, allow to become cold then turn out and wrap well in greaseproof paper. Freeze the pudding if you’re making it well ahead of time. To serve: steam (thawed if frozen) for 2 hours.

TRADITIONAL SHERRY SAUCEA smooth creamy sauce, with a mellow flavour40g unsalted butter40g plain white flour600ml whole milk150ml single cream50g golden icing sugar, sifted4 tablespoons sherryfreshly grated nutmegMelt the butter in a pan over a low heat.  Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the flour. Return to the heat and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Slowly add the milk and cream whisking continually. Bring to the boil and simmer for gently for 1-2 minutes. Take off the heat and stir in the sifted golden icing sugar, sherry and nutmeg to taste. 

HOT SPICED CREAMA delectably, spicy creamy sauce to accompany the Christmas pudding.600ml double cream4 teaspoons ground ginger4 teaspoons ground cinnamonpinch of freshly grated nutmeg4 tablespoons light muscovado sugarPut all the ingredients into a non-stick pan and heat gently, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 2-3 minutes before serving.

CREOLE CHRISTMAS CAKEThis is a very fruity and boozy cake that is so rich it needs no icing, and so moist you could serve it as a dessert. 70ml dark rum70ml brandy70ml port70ml cherry brandy70ml water1/2 tablespoon Angostura bitters1 teaspoon ground cinnamon1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg1 teaspoon ground cloves1/2 teaspoon salt225g currants225g raisins110g pitted ready to eat prunes, chopped55g whole mixed citrus peel, finely chopped2 teaspoons vanilla essence225g unsalted butter375 g dark muscovado or molasses sugar5 eggs225g self-raising flourGrease a 20cm round or a 23cm square deep cake tin thoroughly with butter. Line with greaseproof paper, and then grease the paper. Pour the rum, brandy, port, cherry brandy, water and bitters into a medium pan and add the spices, salt, dried fruits and vanilla. and sugars. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. If time allows, keep this mixture in a screw-top jar for a week before making the cake. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but the taste will be even better. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until soft and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time and gradually stir in the flour until fully combined. (This can be done in a food processor or mixer.) Using a wooden spoon, combine this mixture thoroughly with the cooled fruit mixture. The mixture will be a fairly sloppy consistency.  Pour into the cake tin and cover with a piece of greaseproof paper to prevent burning.  Bake for 3-4 hours Gas 1/140ºC until cooked through. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes before turning out on to a wire rack. Leave to become cold. To store, wrap in greaseproof paper and store in an airtight tin.

CRANBERRY, ORANGE AND ALMOND CAKEA light moist cake for anyone who doesn’t like the traditional rich fruit cake225g unsalted butter225g golden caster sugar4 eggs plus 1 egg yolk75ml fresh orange juiceFinely grated zest 1 orange 110g cranberries225g self raising flour1 teaspoon baking powder75g flaked almondsTo finish: golden icing sugar cranberriesgolden caster sugar.Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and yolk, one at a time, followed by the orange juice and zest. Sift in the flour and baking powder and gently fold into the mixture with the cranberries. Spoon into a 20cm greased lined cake tin. Scatter the almonds on top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, Gas 4/180ºC until cooked through (when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean). Leave to cool in the tin for a few minutes then finish cooling on a wire rack.  This keeps well in an airtight tin for up to 5 days. Just before serving, sift over the golden icing sugar and scatter with frosted cranberries. To frost the cranberries – brush the berries with lightly beaten egg white and toss in the golden caster sugar. Leave to dry on non-stick baking paper.

TROPICAL FRUIT MINCEMEATMade with tropical fruits and coconut, this mincemeat makes unusual mince pies and puddings.finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon200g dark muscovado sugar1kg total weight of dried mango, papaya. bananas, dates, figs and pineapple, chopped finely350g total weight of pineapple, physallis, guava, finely chopped110g creamed coconut, grated50g blanched almonds, chopped1 teaspoon each, ground cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and mace2 -3 tablespoons dark rum Thoroughly mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and leave to stand overnight for the flavours to blend. Pack into sterilised jars, seal and label.

RICH MINCE PIES WITH CINNAMON CRUMBLE TOPPING250g plain flour25g ground almonds150g butter75g golden caster sugar1 egg yolk, beatenmilk to mix2 jars mincemeatTopping: 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 25g chopped walnuts or almonds 1 teaspoon milkSift the flour into a mixing bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the ground almonds and sugar. Reserve 3 generous tablespoons of the mixture for the topping. Bind the remaining mixture with the egg yolk and just enough milk to form a soft but firm dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for 20 minutes. Roll the pastry out thinly and cut into 24 rounds with a 6cm cutter. Line 24 patty tins with the pastry, place a teaspoon of mincemeat in the centre of each. Stir the topping ingredients into the reserved crumble mixture and spoon over the filling.  Bake for 15-20 minutes Gas 5/190ºC until tinged with gold. Cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to become cold. 

CHRISTMAS SYLLABUB A lusciously rich dessert for Boxing Day or a lighter alternative to Christmas pudding.75g caster sugarfinely grated zest and juice of 1 lemonfinely grated zest of 1 orange100ml sherry or port50ml brandy450ml double creamground cinnamon and flaked almonds to decorate (optional)Place all the ingredients except the cinnamon and almonds in a large bowl and whisk for about 12 minutes until the mixture is soft and mousse like. Spoon into 6 serving glasses and chill for up to 4 hours. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and flaked almonds just before serving.

EGG NOG ICE CREAMIn the US, egg nog is a popular festive drink served cold in glasses. A rich mixture of milk, cream, eggs, nutmeg and alcohol, usually rum or bourbon, it’s sold ready made in dairies and supermarkets. Here, the classic ingredients make a luscious ice cream for a special occasion dessert.450ml creamy milk450ml whipping cream2 teaspoons vanilla essence7 large egg yolks175g caster sugar1 teaspoon grated nutmeg2 tablespoons brandy2 tablespoons rum50g candied peel, chopped110g glacé fruits (cherries, pineapple melon, etc) chopped50g flaked almondsIn a large saucepan combine the milk, cream and vanilla essence and bring to boiling point. Cool slightly. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a bowl, then pour on the cream mixture in a steady stream, still whisking. Return the mixture to the pan and cook gently, stirring until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Don’t allow to become too hot or boil or the mixture will curdle. Remove from the heat and allow to cool then add the nutmeg, brandy and rum. Cover and chill overnight.  If you have an ice cream maker, freeze the mixture in this, stir in the fruits and nuts and  transfer to a freezer-proof container and store in the freezer. Or freeze the mixture until semi-frozen then whisk thoroughly to break down any ice crystals. Stir in the fruits and nuts and freeze until solid. Soften in the fridge for about 20 minutes before serving.

RICCIARELLIThese light, sweet and delicious almond cookies hail from Sienna. They’re sold in large supermarkets as a Christmas speciality, and are very expensive, but aren’t difficult to make. You must allow time for them to dry overnight before baking, though.   250g ground almonds250g caster sugar1 egg white, lightly beatenfew drops vanilla essenceicing sugarrice paper to line the baking trayMix the ground almonds with the caster sugar then rub through a sieve. The mixture must be fine. Add the egg white, and then the vanilla and enough icing sugar to make a soft, smooth paste. Place tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the rice paper, 2.5cm apart, and flatten out with a flat knife dipped in icing sugar. Leave overnight at room temperature to dry out. Next morning, place the biscuits in the oven Gas 2/130ºC for 20-30 minutes until dry but still white. Sprinkle with icing sugar and leave to cool. When completely cold, store in an airtight tin.

CHOCOLATE LIQUEUR TRUFFLESSmooth, rich and creamy these are delicious with a cup of strong hot coffee120ml double cream175g plain or milk chocolate (at least 60% cocoa solids,) chopped2 tablespoons liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or AmarettoCoating: 4 tablespoons sifted cocoa powder, chopped nuts or chocolate vermicelliHeat the cream in a medium pan and slowly bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until smooth and completely melted. Stir in the liqueur. Pour the mixture into a bowl and leave to stand for 30 minutes. Whisk the mixture until it holds its shape and becomes slightly paler. Chill the mixture in the fridge for at least an hour, or until firm enough to handle. Take teaspoonfuls of the chilled mixture, roll into small balls, in the coating of your choice. These will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.

CHRISTMAS PUDDING TRUFFLESIf you have some pudding left over, make these scrumptious truffles.225g Christmas pudding50g ground almonds2 tablespoons rum or brandy110g good quality plain chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)Crumble the Christmas pudding into a bowl, add the ground almonds and rum and mix thoroughly. Using a teaspoon, scoop up some of the mixture and roll between your palms into 16-18 small balls. Break the chocolate into a small bowl and melt over a pan of simmering water or in a microwave oven. Stir until smooth and cool slightly. Speak each truffle on a skewer or fork and dip into the chocolate to coat. Place on a sheet of non-stick paper to set. Alternatively, roll the truffles in grated chocolate, or use white or milk chocolate instead of plain.

WASSAIL CUPWard off winter chills with a piping hot glass of this hot spiced ale4 eating apples2.5 litres brown ale2 tablespoons soft light muscovado sugar1 cinnamon stick, broken1 teaspoon grated nutmeg1/2 teaspoon ground ginger5 clovesPlace the apples in a baking dish with a little ale or water and bake for 30 minutes Gas 6/200ºC until the flesh has a woolly texture. Meanwhile, heat the ale, spices and sugar in a large pan over a low heat until very hot but don’t allow to boil. Strain into a large bowl or heatproof glasses. Scoop out the apple pulp with a spoon, remove pips and pile on top of the hot ale. 

JEWELLED SHORTBREADRich, buttery shortbread studded with candied fruits makes a colourful addition to a Christmas tea table.110g butter50g caster sugar175g plain flourpinch of salt50g multi coloured glace cherries, washed and chopped50g flaked almonds, chopped25g angelica, choppedCream together the butter and sugar until just blended, then work in the flour and salt, followed by half the cherries, almonds and angelica. Knead lightly and chill for 15 minutes. Roll out a rectangle 10cm wide and about 6mm thick, cut into fingers about 2.5cm. Place them onto greased baking trays, decorate with the remaining cherries, almonds and angelica, and prick them lightly with a fork all over. Bake for about 20 minutes Gas 3/170ºC until pale gold, but don’t allow to brown. Place carefully on a wire rack to cool.GOLDEN ROAST TURKEY

If you buy a frozen turkey, always make sure the bird is thoroughly thawed before you start to cook it.Preheat the oven to Gas mark 3/170ºC.  Place the turkey breast-side up in a roasting tin. Sprinkle the bird with salt and pepper and brush generously with melted butter or oil. Add half a cup of water to the bottom of the roasting tin. Place the turkey in the preheated oven to cook. A 2.7-3.6 kg bird will need 2-3 hours, a 3.6-6.3kg bird will take 3-4 hours. Juices from the turkey will baste the meat as it cooks, so there’s no need to baste during the cooking process. If the turkey is becoming too brown before it’s cooked, loosely cover it with foil and continue cooking. Pierce the thigh, nearest to the body with a knife – if the juices are clear with no pink, the bird is cooked. If you have a meat thermometer, make sure that turkey reaches 180º F in the innermost portion of the thigh, not touching any bone, before removing it from the oven. Remove the bird from the oven, and allow it to stand for 20 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute for easier carving.

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