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The Proof is in the Pudding

The author is completely caught in the spell of a speckled cannonball, blazing half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, with a sprig of holly stuck into the top. Yes, Alakananda Mookerjee is talking about the piece de resistance of the yuletide season, the Christmas pudding

I was born in a nation that has more gods and goddesses than the population of an African republic. And I grew up in a home that had an impressive collection of books, among which was a volume of the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana and the Upanishads. One whole room of our bungalow was even made into an altar.


For all that, I never felt a Hindu, though. As a kid, I looked forward to the arrival of a portly gentleman in a red coat and listening to the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’-that enchanting piece from Act II of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’-which my dad would play on our boxy record player.


By the time I was old enough to gain an intellectual understanding of my surroundings, I’d lost touch with my native culture. The raucous carnivals of colors and crackers meant nothing to me, barring perhaps their effect on the environment. The panoply of polychrome sweets that were a must at every religious occasion became, in my household, a sugary relic. I would only dream of pine forests and snowflakes and the fairy-tale Land of Sweets.

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Years later, on a cold, cloudless, winter day in Manhattan, in the middle of December, as the dappled beam of the setting orange Sun faded from the wooden floor of our apartment, the old radiator kicked in. As I basked in its mellow heat, my mind turned to the novella that I’d been reading that season: ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, which came out on December 19, 1843.


It has a passage in which the family of Bob Cratchit-Ebenezer Scrooge’s clerk-is seated around the table, waiting expectantly for the pièce de résistance of the feast. Mrs. Cratchit leaves the room to bring it in. She returns in a flash, “flushed, but smiling proudly,” holding the “pudding,” a “speckled cannonball,” “blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy,” with a sprig of “holly stuck into the top.”


I wanted to have a slice of it. I was so taken by its charm and cheer that I decided to track it down. If you look for it, you will find it. This is New York, after all.

***

The small shop is small. It’s not far from a Starbucks roastery and Google’s New York office. It has a vintage, welcoming, homey air about it, its shelves stocked with bottles of HP, jars of Marmite, cans of Heinz baked beans, pots of Devonshire cream, bars of Curly Wurly, trays of pork pies and every other delicacy from Britannia.


On a square table, draped in white, is a pyramid of red and brown boxes of the product, prepared by Mathew Walker, a company based in Heanor, England. It has been in the business of making Christmas puddings since 1899. I take one and bring it home in a shopping bag emblazoned with the Union Jack.


I’ve tasted-and worked with-myriads of permutations and combinations of flour, egg, milk and sugar: cakes, crêpes, waffles, pancakes, croissants. While they’re all delectable, none equal the imperial aura of the Christmas pudding. Perhaps because it’s dark, burgundy in fact, and aged like wine. It has a hygge (pronounced: hoo-ga) and heft that no pie or pastry has.


A pudding among puddings, it’s a true Victorian invention. It had its start in Medieval England not as a sweet treat, but as a pottage-a thick, hearty soup that would open a meal, not close it. By the 1700s, it became more solid in appearance. Around this time, it also began to be rolled into a sphere and boiled in a piece of cloth. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that it developed into the dessert that it is today: a dome-shaped goodness.

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At 6:00 p.m., on December 25th, with great care, I took off the golden wrapper. All I needed now was to reheat its content and savor it.


Wait. Slow down.


The label said that for the best outcome, it had to be put on a steamer over boiling water and steamed for an entire hour. I didn’t have one. That was a bummer. I could’ve popped it into the nuke box, but this was no ordinary bonne bouche. Besides, the women of the 1900s wouldn’t have taken the easy way out, would they?


I solved the problem quickly enough by building a culinary sauna, combining a sauté pan and a Pyrex bowl. Small eddies began to swirl. Slowly, beads of moisture began to coat the roof of the lid. The gustatory gemstone of sultana, cider and rum was ready. So chuffed were I and my partner that since then, no matter what else we had on the holy day-bird, ham, or lamb-we always rounded it off the repast with the pudding.

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In the region, where my parents come from, a doting mom or a wife would take great pleasure in preparing a bowl of payesh-a velvety porridge of fine white rice, simmered in fragrant creamed milk and garnished with chopped nuts-in honor of a dear one’s birthday. It’s said to bring good luck.


Why not make it to mark the birthday of Jesus Christ? To my mind, this dish seems incongruous with everything else that spells Yuletide: bells, candles, eggnog, apple cider, carols, cookies, firewood, ugly sweaters. The pudding, on the other hand, fits in, like a tile in a game of Tetris.


Outer: The author is completely caught in the spell of a speckled cannonball, blazing half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, with a sprig of holly stuck into the top. Yes, Alakananda Mookerjee is talking about the piece de resistance of the yuletide season, the Christmas pudding


Inner: The Christmas pudding fits in with the season of carols and reindeer bells, like a tile in a game of Tetris, feels the author. The author talks about this Victorian invention, this pudding among puddings, this domed goodness with love bordering on adoration.

 
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Alakananda Mookerjee is a writer based in New York. She is interested in science, science-fiction and aerospace (but she does write about other stuff.)