Scrumptious alternatives to Christmas pud; Matthew Harris, the splendid chef at Bibendum, cannot bear Christmas pud and would probably rather eat a McDonald's cherry pie than a wedge of pudding with its welter of brandy sauce Photograph by Jean Cazals
Saturday 09 December 1995
But I know many people who really loathe the black mound. Matthew Harris, the splendid chef at Bibendum, cannot bear the thing and would probably rather eat a McDonald's cherry pie than a wedge of pudding with its welter of brandy sauce (my chosen lotion - recipe below) or greasy fortified butter. So reluctantly... no, of course not, I am delighted to offer some alternative festive desserts.
Dried and crystalised fruit used to be specially prepared for eating during the colder months. Like most preserved items, it is now available all year round, but seems particularly warming and welcome when used for the Christmas table. And then there is the need for something rich and sybaritic, a pudding that will satiate in the same way as the traditional one, but that everyone will be happy to indulge in without feeling guilty, just because it's Christmas. It is all part of the three-day madness - or is it two weeks now?
Figs are one of the nicest fruits to subject to desiccation. They become even more sweet and jammy in texture but are still soft enough to chew, and look especially festive dredged in icing sugar. Stoned dried apricots reconstitute very well too. They can be stuffed with almonds - something that culinary-minded children can do; certainly less of a chore than all the mess of fashioning grey pastry. Prunes are possibly less glamorous than either of the others but, prepared in the same manner as figs (perhaps with a healthy slug of Vieille Prune, an eau de vie of exceptional strength and flavour), they could be a fine addition to a late Boxing Day breakfast for the more robust among you.
Porcelain jars of Chinese stem ginger, once such a traditional offering at Christmas, seem to have gone out of vogue - I have not been given one for years, more's the pity. I enjoy a bowl of it, just with cream... floating in the stuff actually. I have a friend who takes a very large spoon, pops on a single globe and then very carefully pours a moat of double cream around it. Then it's down the hat, in one. And what about those chocolate gingers - the ones made by Terry's. They are also synonymous with the giving season. Try this recipe for one of the most indulgent chocolate desserts imaginable.
Warm chocolate ginger pudding, serves 4
12 stem ginger chocolates
225g/8oz dark, bittersweet chocolate, broken into chunks
110g/4oz unsalted butter
65g/212 oz caster sugar
1 tsp ground ginger
a little softened butter
275ml/10fl oz double cream
2 tbsp syrup from a jar of stem ginger
1 tbsp ginger wine (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3.
Melt the chocolate with the butter in a bowl over barely simmering water. Beat together until well mixed and completely smooth. Keep warm. Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar and ground ginger until thick and fluffy, about five minutes. Switch off for a moment, and with a spatula, scrape the chocolate and butter mixture into the egg and sugar mixture. Now, very gently, allow the motor to turn the whisk through the two so that they mix completely, there should be no streaks. To make sure of this, a final folding action with the spatula will reach right to the bottom of the bowl and bring everything together.
Lightly butter four largish ramekins, evenly coat with a little caster sugar and then tap out the excess. Place three ginger chocolates in the bottom of each ramekin and spoon over the chocolate mixture, making sure there is an equal amount in each. Sieve a little icing sugar over the surface of each. Place the puddings in a deep roasting tin and pour enough hot water round them so that it reaches at least two-thirds of the way up the sides of the pots. Cook for about 20-25 minutes until light and puffed up. Serve immediately.
While the puddings are cooking, beat together the cream, ginger syrup and ginger wine (if using) until loosely thick. Serve separately in a bowl.
Stewed dried figs, serves 4
Dried figs often come coated in icing sugar and a little cornflour (I think). The resultant syrup becomes slightly thickened: one of those sweet little accidents that one always hopes for. If the dried figs that you use do not appear like this, then thicken the syrup with a small amount of arrowroot, but this is not essential.
450g/1lb dried figs
570ml/1 pt sweet wine (Muscat is excellent)
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
Soak the figs in the wine for at least six hours, preferably overnight. Bring to a simmer with the vanilla pod. Remove the rind from both the orange and lemon in wide strips using a potato peeler (don't use the pith). Squeeze the juice from both and add to the figs with the rind. Simmer very gently, covered, for 30-40 minutes, until the figs are plump and bloated. Serve with lightly whipped cream.
Stewed apricots, stuffed with almonds, serves 4
450g/1lb plump, dried stoneless apricots
whole, skinless almonds, as many as you have apricots
570ml/1 pt sweet wine (Muscat, again, is good)
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
3 tbsp Amaretto liqueur
Push an almond right inside each apricot, inserting them from the sides of the fruit (dried apricots usually end up flat looking). Soak overnight in the wine. Simmer gently for 30-40 minutes until plumped and soft. These can be served with:
for the pastry
110g/4oz plain flour
55g/2oz butter, cut into cubes
1 egg yolk
12 tbsp iced water
for the almond paste
110g/4oz unsalted butter, softened
110g/4oz caster sugar
2 large eggs
55g/2oz self-raising flour
55g/2oz ground almonds
2 tbsp raspberry jam
a few drops almond essence
2 tbsp flaked almonds
a little caster sugar
First make the pastry. In a food processor, electric mixer or manually, blend together the butter, flour and salt until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Now tip into a large, roomy bowl and gently mix in the water and egg yolk with cool hands or a knife, until well combined. Put into a plastic bag and chill in the fridge for at least an hour before rolling.
To make the almond paste, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well. Sift the flour and ground almonds into the mixture and carefully fold in.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4, and put in a flat baking tray to heat up (this helps the pastry cook from below).
Lightly butter a square cake tin, measuring about 20.5cm/8in wide, by 2.5cm/1in deep. Roll out the pastry thinly and line the tin, but just to cover the base. Prick with a fork. Spread with the jam and pour on the almond sponge mixture. Strew with the flaked almonds and scatter with a little caster sugar. Put on to the baking sheet already in the oven and cook for 30-40 minutes, or until puffed up and firm to the touch. The almonds should also be a pale golden colour and crisp from their sugar coating. Allow to cool completely in the tin before cutting into thick fingers.
Like the chocolate pudding, this is nice with some whipped cream. Add a little Amaretto liqueur if you wish, plus a very little icing sugar.
So there we have it, some enticing alternatives to Christmas pud, some simple to prepare, some with a little more work involved. But none are quite so easy as going to your best grocer, buying the finest ready-made pud and sticking it in the steamer.
This time last year, I gave a recipe for brandy sauce to serve with the pudding. Here it is again for you die-hard pudding fanciers, just in case you chucked it out with the Christmas wrapping.
570ml/1 pt milk
55g/2oz plain flour
small pinch of salt
80g/3oz caster sugar
80g/3 fl oz brandy (Cognac), not cooking brandy, or rum if you prefer
80g/3 fl oz double cream
Put the milk in a pan and heat through until hot but not boiling. Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter, but do not allow it to froth. Stir in the flour until well blended. Cook over a very gentle heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully pour in the milk, whisking all the time. Allow to come to a gentle simmer and stir for a few minutes with a wooden spoon until smooth and lightly thickened. Add the salt, sugar and brandy. If you have one of those diffuser pads, set the pan on this and let the sauce cook very gently for a good ten minutes. Stir occasionally. Pour in the cream, gently reheat, give it a final whisk, and serve
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