In my family, change is largely avoided. While this attitude can prove maddening in some cases, it has imbued our Christmases with a warm, comforting predictability and sense of tradition.
There are Aunt Cathy’s cookiesusually about a dozen varietieswhich leave by the wrapped paper-plateful with nearly everyone that sets foot in the house. They are all baked in her gas wall oven (good luck finding one of these anymoreI’ve tried), made in the same plastic mixing bowls, using the very antique hand-cranked nut grinder, vintage cookie cutters, and cookie press she’s used since before I started making cookies with her 20-some years ago.
There is also Art’s beloved spaghetti sauce, which he proudly makes for Christmas Eve dinner every year in a 30-year-old bright-orange slow cooker. The angel hair pasta that accompanies the sauce is always cooked in his special pasta pot: an aged aluminum stock pot fitted with a colander, which allows us to quickly drain the pasta (by lifting out the colander) without dumping the hot pasta water, so we can immediately start cooking the next batch (of which we always need several).
Then there is Grandma’s Christmas-day turkey, which is soaked in salt water in a battered aluminum bucket (bent so as to fit in the fridge) and otherwise fussed over for two or three days before it is cooked. This process would be misunderstood as brining, rather it is my grandmother’s method (perhaps learned from her own mother or grandmother) of ensuring a bird of complete purity and cleanliness, drawing residual blood out with several changes of the salted water and fastidiously picking away any bit of anything that looks the least bit amiss.
Finally, there is the suet pudding (sometimes called, slightly more appealingly so, plum pudding) and its attendant wine sauce. Though it seems every year that there are fewer and fewer ardent consumers of the pudding, its presence and all of the care and tradition that go into making it, are essential elements or our Christmas celebration.
The pudding begins with a big mass of snowy white suet (beef fat), which is cut into chunks and fed through an old, hand-cranked meat grinder. Also passing through the meat grinder are raisins and dried currants, emerging as tarlike mush. These are mixed thoroughly with molasses, spices, flour and egg to form a thick batter. The batter is loaded into a remarkable tube pan that is something like a modern Springformwith a side clamp that allows for easy removal of the outer walls of the pan. Then the filled tube pan is placed inside an ancient perforated tin pot fitted over another pot containing a few inches of simmering water. It is in this set-up, with a tightly fitting lid, that the suet pudding will steam for about three hours, until it is fully cooked. After that it is removed and cooled, and stored in my aunt’s cool pantry, where it will keep for up to several weeks (though it’s never made more than a few days before Christmas).
Before serving, the pudding is reheated over steam in the same contraption that it was cooked in, while my grandmother prepares the essential wine sauce accompaniment, using an old-fashioned hand-cranked egg beater and a double boiler.
Most of the implements employed in the making of the suet pudding and its sauce are used only for that purpose, only once a year, taking up a substantial quantity of space in my Aunt Cathy’s ever-crowded kitchen cabinets during the rest of the year. And, sure, the suet and dried fruits could be minced by hand or in a food processor, a whisk or a hand mixer could do the job of the egg beater, a metal bowl set over a sauce pan would work just fine in place of the double boiler…but if all of this were so, I can’t help but think that Christmas just wouldn’t be the same.
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