Food: Proof of the pudding

Simon Hopkinson Presenting a seasonal suet roly-poly that makes mincemeat of Christmas pud. Photograph by Jason Lowe

Simon Hopkinson
Saturday 19 December 1998 00:02 GMT

Having confessed last week to never having roasted a turkey, I feel I should come clean over the Christmas pudding: I have never made one of these either. Oh, I have stirred one or two mixtures, put them into basins, wrapped them up in muslin and waited while they steamed away happily for the allotted six hours. But I have never weighed the traditional ingredients, been party to the ratio of currant to carrot, or, to be frank, ever been remotely concerned over how the thing came about. I am neither ashamed, nor do I think I have missed out on some great spoonful of British cooking. I feel the same way about making bread and pasta, and often prefer the latter from a packet - the best of packets, naturally.

I can eat a Christmas pudding at any time of the year (I have a friend who thinks the same way about fireworks, his stash regularly replenished, just in case the urge takes him to his springtime garden for a quick chrysanthemum-fountain fix). Unless I am feeling tragically greedy, I usually favour the individual ones. You know, dear little things, perfect for the widowed pensioner or for a portion-controlled, pre-Christmas Rotary luncheon. And, for me, in June.

Christmas pud is nothing more than boiled cake mix: a little more booze, perhaps, suet for added lubrication, and that most important addition - sixpenny bits for the kiddywinks. I suppose they may be pound coins nowadays, carefully wrapped up in small squares of greaseproof paper, so as not to upset the health police. The tooth-fairy's visit is, no doubt, now similarly sanitised, with the coin tightly bound in a wisp of clingfilm - and with a spend-by date.

Equally important, for me, is the liquid that accompanies it - blankets it - in my bowl. My lovely sister-in-law, Jane, likes to serve cream over her family pudding (homemade, dammit). Now this, of course, is quite wrong: too rich, too cold, too bland, no taste (sorry Jane). Mind you, I would rather have this than a dry smear of brandy butter. I have never seen the point of this stuff. It's sort of OK scraped over the lid of a small mince pie (in the way a slice of malt loaf is helped by a spread of salty butter), but as a necessary lotion for the density of a festive pud, it doesn't work. And I hate it, which hardly helps.

So it must be sauce, you see. Brandy sauce, rum sauce - even whisky sauce (Elizabeth David always vouched that any recipe that called for brandy could be equally good when made with whisky. I agree, but not a peaty malt, please). Now, this is not custard, this is a white sauce - a sweet bechamel, if you like: butter, flour, milk, sugar, a little vanilla if you must, and the chosen alcohol. A splash of single cream is no bad thing for enrichment and a pinch of salt will "round off" the flavour, in the same way as it will to a bowl of porridge oats. The whole point of this delicious sauce is that it "wets" the pud. I know I am in the minority with this butter-versus-sauce debate. But I get a queer sort of comfort as I think of those with a pool of congealed grease in the bottom of their bowls, as I scrape up the last of my pudding with a final stream of steaming brandy sauce.

As you may have guessed by now, you ain't getting a recipe for the Christmas pudding either (just buy a really, really good one; I'd much rather you bought a Christmas pudding than a bag of salad leaves). However, the pudding recipe you are about to be delighted with is fitting and festive: it has mincemeat in it. My, we are obsessed with dried fruit at Christmas, aren't we? It's in the pudding, the cake, the mince pies, and then there are those disgusting dates. "Eat Me"? No thank you very much. And as for walnuts and dates as the festive petits-fours - I'd rather eat grapefruit pith.

Anyway. This mincemeat "suet roly-poly with a difference" is jolly nice; Jason the Camera made very appreciative noises as I forced a few spoonfuls into his aperture. I have made roly-poly pudding many times, but it often sags, flattening under its own weight in the steamer. Hoppy never quite happy. But with the following configuration, pressed into a basin in bits, it is not only the prettiest suet pudding you ever did see - which is saying something in itself. But it tastes terrific, too. It's not Christmas pudding, but it is every bit as good with the same sauce, so that's all right isn't it?

Swirly mincemeat suet roly-poly pudding, feeds 4 pigs

250g self-raising flour

125g suet

pinch of salt

several tbsp of cold water, to mix

400g (approx) jar of mincemeat, or, of course, homemade

25g softened butter

1-2 tbsp soft brown sugar

for the brandy sauce

350ml milk

40g butter

40g plain flour

tiny pinch of salt

50-75g caster sugar, to taste

2-3 tbsp Cognac (not cooking brandy), or rum if you prefer

50ml single cream

You will also need a basin with a capacity of approx 900ml. Mix together the flour, suet and salt in a roomy bowl. Add enough water to mix to a cohesive mass: not too sticky, not too dry. Knead for a few minutes until supple. Flatten a little and leave to relax for 10 minutes. On a floured surface, roll the pastry out fairly thinly (about 30cm square). Spread with the mincemeat, leaving a gap of about 2cm around the edges. Roll up neatly, but not too tightly.

Generously grease the inside of the basin with the butter. Sprinkle the sugar all over the butter, pressing the residue that falls to the bottom against the sides; all the butter must be well coated with sugar. Now cut the roly-poly into equal sections, about 1.5cm to 2cm thick. Arrange three into the bottom of the basin, more up the sides, pressing them well against the butter/sugar mixture, and the remaining slices into the middle (these won't show in the final assembly, but try to make the final ones lie flat). It should be clear from the picture as to how the thing is assembled.

Cover with buttered greaseproof paper, then foil, and tie with string around the basin. Steam for two hours.

Note (and this is important): make sure the initial 30 minutes of steaming is at full boil. Steam everywhere! This first blast makes for a lighter pudding, exciting the raising agents in the dough immediately. The remaining time can be more leisurely. I only learnt about this recently, around about the same time I came up with this spiffing idea for the pudding. I don't know how you cope without this column, really I don't.

To make the sauce, put the milk into 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 two or three minutes. Now carefully pour in the milk, whisking all the time. Allow to come up 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 a diffuser pad, set the pan on this and let the sauce cook very gently for several minutes. Stir occasionally. Pour in the cream, gently re-heat and give it a final whisk.

To serve, carefully run a knife around the edge of the pudding and turn out onto a warmed serving dish. Hand round the sauce separately.

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