Liberal doses of fruit and booze, and a good chunk of time go into Christmas pudding chez Fergus Henderson.
The mighty Christmas pudding is a wondrous thing, the crowning glory of what, for most of us, is the biggest lunch of the year - the belt-loosener to end all belt-looseners.
It has no easy audience. By this stage of proceedings, we've lost an aunt to a turkey and claret stupor, while two elderly friends of my parents sit either side of my brother-in-law fast asleep this past half-hour. Full marks to the bro - he's been doing a fine job at keeping the conversation going, even if it's a little one-sided. But once the majestic flaming pudding arrives at the table, brandy the cause of the combustion, the smell of singeing dark fruit brings on a tummy reappraisal and everyone finds room for a slice. Yes, the pudding has won again.
I'm talking, of course, about grey-and-cold Britain here, while you'll most likely be baking in the sun of an Australian summer, but please indulge me - all I've ever known are freezing, damp Christmases. I imagine the barbecue features heavily at Christmas in Australia, with Dad in his Santa suit building up a good head of steam, Santa's tailoring being more suited to the North Pole. I'm sure a pavlova makes for a fine dessert after that sort of Christmas lunch, but I shall stay true to the dark pudding: heavy with dried fruit and suet (the purest of fats, which surrounds the kidneys) that have been soaking in booze for many a month.
An aged Christmas pudding becomes something more than the sum of its parts. Like a fine wine, it evolves over time and develops its many strong flavours and complexities as you keep feeding it brandy. The pudding on the Henderson table last Christmas was two years old. Sublime.
We make our puddings with suet, mixed spice, nutmeg, cinnamon, self-raising flour, dark brown sugar, breadcrumbs, sultanas, raisins, currants, nibbed almonds, mixed peel, oranges, lemons, apples, eggs, stout, brandy and rum. Little wonder these ingredients need time to get to know each other. We use a mix of spirits when we're first making the pudding, but to feed it as it ages we stick to brandy for its rigorous nature.
Now, you might have come to your own conclusion that this pudding is not the lightest of foods. The trick, though, is fighting fire with fire. Eating something rich to help down something equally rich is not a theory I would ordinarily subscribe to, but with Christmas pudding the usual rules don't apply. The top contender among the helping hands is brandy butter. It's made simply by whizzing sugar into brandy and then adding chunks of cold butter. For a little light relief, grate in some lemon zest. When you sniff it you might experience a slight pressure on your liver. Chill it until it's hard and serve it in dollops. Jersey cream is another healthy option - healthy in the sense that we're only doing this once a year. The pudding also goes well with sharp Lancashire cheese, like the famous and similarly fruit-filled St John Eccles cake.
As far as a liquid companion is concerned, you can't go too far wrong with Madeira. Or something frivolous to lift the spirits: pink Champagne.
Don't fret if you find yourself defeated by the pudding at the first sitting; it's splendid cut into slices and fried in butter. Some racy folk make Christmas pudding ice-cream by breaking nudgels of pudding into vanilla ice-cream as it churns. One of my finest culinary full stops is the Christmas pudding toasted sandwich. A sandwich-toaster is required to administer the stern discipline that results in the toasty pockets.
Checking in back at the Henderson Christmas, lunch is over and vieille prune has been administered liberally around the table. Family and friends can barely move, so have decided to make tableaux of the life of Christ. Perfect - no movement is required at all. While they prepare for the crucifixion I construct my toasties.
I slip a slice of pud, a spot of brandy butter and a blob of cream between two pieces of white bread, then pop the whole thing into the mighty jaws of the Breville.
A triumph; though one best taken in small doses.