If there is one Christmas dinner that springs to mind before any other in the collective consciousness of the people of several continents, it has to be the dinner shared on Christmas Day by the Cratchit Family in the classic novel “A Christmas Carol” by none other than the great Charles Dickens. This meal embodies the spirit of Christmas more than any other in literary history, as does the tale itself. This year thanks to the kind folks at foodbuzz, I had the honor and privilege of recreating this meal and sharing it with all of you.
This post really should be entitled “The Cratchits’ Christmas Dinner”, as it is as faithful a reproduction of the meal shared by the Cratchit family as is possible given my local resources and interpretation of the original manuscript. Unfortunately, Mr. Dickens himself used that title when portions of “A Christmas Carol” was republished as short stories and so I chose not to steal his words for my own use. It could also have been titled “A comedy of errors and disappointments that really didn’t turn out disappointingly at all”, but that would have been rather long and drawn out, don’t you think?
Having said all that and given proper thanks to the folks that gifted me with the opportunity to try my hand at the single most iconic meal in the annals of Christmas itself, I’ll get into the meat of the thing, so to speak. Please follow along with me as I follow in the tradition of Mr. Dickens and the Cratchits themselves. The story is full of twists and turns, a bit of drama and sorrow, but in the end, It turns out that I really do find the Christmas spirit in my heart (and a bottle or two), so the story does in fact have a happy ending.
Our tale begins about a week and-a-half ago, when I found that I had been accepted to participate in this month’s 24, 24, 24. For those that don’t know, that stands for 24 meals, 24 hours, 24 blogs. After a little bit of shouting and a happy dance or two, I set about researching and preparing to make the meal I had proposed, The Dickens Christmas dinner.
Research began with checking a bunch of articles, but after reading (and re-reading) the original text of the story I quickly found that most of these were incorrect. These sites claimed that the Cratchits would have undoubtedly served a variety of dishes, some of which were common enough at the time, but none of which were mentioned in the writings of Dickens, whom I believe described the dinner exquisitely.
Please remember, Scrooge paid Cratchit at well below the standard wage for his job. The Cratchits were poor. Dirt poor. Their Christmas “Feast” consisted of only goose, mashed potatoes, gravy, applesauce, the Christmas Pudding, some oranges and Chestnuts (couldn’t find those in town anywhere!) and a copious amount of gin. (Hate the stuff. Sorry.) This was the dinner I was recreating.
Now noticing that my original plan of spit roasting the bird (which would have been common in an American household at the time, but was absolutely wrong in the case of the Cratchits, who had their bird cooked at the local Bakers, an option not open to me) was incorrect, I settled down and poured over the dinner as written several times, and then several more, until I was sure I had everything right. Then I hit the Internet for traditional recipes from the time of the story.
After a few hours searching, I had the recipes I needed, the ingredients list (with modern substitutions) and a game plan. Off I went and got shopping for and and defrosting a lovely goose. I sent invitations, which were warmly received and got to working out what order things needed to be done in. (Time management is crucial with any large meal.)
This, of course, is where everything started to go horribly wrong…
Firstly, it was the week of Christmas pageants. No time to shop, no time to plan. Top that of with Christmas shopping, which needed doing in two days. I finally managed to get the shopping done on Friday, with three hours wasted in four stores before I got it straight that “Sultanas” are just golden raisins… But we had the shopping done.
Then came the slew of cancellations… Budget constraints did not permit my guests to make the trip from Sacramento that they had been planning… This would not normally bother me, but when a $60.00 bid is involved, it needs to be SHARED, so I sent an invite to Megan Pires, Redding’s only other food blogger, to bring herself and family over to share the meal with us.
Having jumped that hurdle, I set my mind to the dinner and remembered that I’d just broken my serving platter. I wanted the dinner to have a vintage look, so off to the thrift store we went.
I found everything I needed, only to discover that that particular store only accepts cash, which I had none of, and would be closing in the next 5 minutes. I was informed that I could come back the next morning at 9:00 am, which was incidentally the exact time I had planned on beginning dinner.
So swearing under my breath, I shot out to get some cash and prepare for morning.
I checked recipes on returning and realized that the pudding would indeed still be cooked if I started it at 10:00 am, so we were still good there. Megan accepted, but said that her husband had to work. I told her all was good and said we’d send leftovers for him then told the kids, who were thrilled. (She’s also their school lunch lady, so they were thrilled!)
The next morning I shot to the store, grabbed my new platters (and a few other things) and set to making a traditional Christmas Pudding. Mr. dickens wasn’t specific on the type of pudding made, so I went with a Figgy pudding recipe (I’ll share the recipe later).
Once the massive amount of dried fruits and fat (yes, fat. Beef suet, to be exact. Provided to me at no cost by my butcher.) was mixed, wrapped in a cloth that I’ve used for food often over the past few years and submerged into a pot of boiling water as described by one Mrs Beeton, I set out to prep everything else.
The recipe for the Goose with Sage and onion Stuffing came from here, as Mr. Dickens was quite specific on the type of stuffing (Which was made popular in England by Elizabeth I.), and because the recipe was simple enough to follow in a modern oven. The applesauce, taken from Simply Recipes, and some mashed potatoes. All of these things were simple enough and I set to them in due time,with a bit of help..
The Gravy was made by rendering the fat from the cavity of the goose and browning the gizzards, then making a rough and adding stock. Easy, and the cooked giblets and neck made a great snack for Lil’ D and myself.
Megan arrived in the middle of all of this and was promptly stolen by lil’ D. to be the target of his most impressive checkers skills. (seriously, he’s deadly.) We chatted, sipped wine and brandy and waited for my Father to show so that we could finish dinner..
But alas. That never happened.
Dad had got caught up at an event that he was compelled not to leave early. Unfortunately, this event was in a location that left his phone useless. So we waited and waited a bit more until finally my sense of civility and everyone’s stomach forced me to continue…
The goose and sides were placed on the table, at which point two food bloggers began tripping over each other to capture the best side of the bird. (Note, V-Shaped roasting racks make for not so picture perfect birds!)
Once the impromptu photo shoot was over I served my guest and my son and got ready to plate for myself, all the while with a reindeer roaming underfoot.
Needless to say, the wait had rendered the goose a bit dry, but with a wonderful flavor nonetheless. We all agreed that Queen Elizabeth knew her stuffing and that the Cratchit’s were right for choosing applesauce. the meal was filled with laughter and appropriate Ooohs and Ahhhs. I’m sure that Mrs. Cratchet would have approved om my modern take on plating as well.
With the main course completed it was time for what according to Dickens, was the main event of the night. He described the pudding as such:
But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone–too nervous to bear witnesses–to take the pudding up, and bring it in.Suppose it should not be done enough? Suppose it should break in turning out? Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the backyard and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose–a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastry-cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered–flushed, but smiling proudly–with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
I understand her nervousness. This is a new thing and a scary one, trying to turn a large collection of flour, egg, fat and dried fruits from a cloth onto a platter, but I daresay I didn’t do half-bad myself.
The pudding turned out well. It held together, even after cooking for far too long. Steaming hot, firm and fragrant. All the smells of Christmas in one place. All the pride a cook can have at having done something new for guests and having it turn out right.
For my British readers. I know there was supposed to be Holly. I tried. There was none to be found. I’m embarrassed.
But there was brandy!
And we served the pudding, which both Megan and I declared as an event worth eating. Mrs. Breeton simply stated to “serve with an appropriate sauce.” I figured vanilla ice cream was appropriate enough!
I wish I could describe the flavor of the pudding, but I can’t. It was all at once savory and sweet. deep, rich, subtle and overpowering. The aroma was sheer heaven, the actual product slightly strange, yet familiar. For an Irish American trying English pudding for the first time it was an experience that I’m glad I’ve had, but also one I’m not sure I’m willing to experience again, if only because of the amount of work involved and that I think this dish is suited to a far colder climate than that of Northern California. Had it been 5 degrees outside, snowing and bleak, I may have thought differently of this dish.
In the end, there were a million little things that went wrong but this will still be a Christmas dinner I remember for as long as I live. There was laughter, friends merrily met and now held close to my heart. There was warmth and joy and a round of toasts to those who could not be here to join us.
In short, it was perfectly flawed. Or in short, just perfect.
At the very end of the evening Megan said her goodbyes and the phone rang. It was my wife calling from Turkey to let me know that she was still fine for another day. For me, there is no better news than that.
Then of course, there was cleanup. This kind of meal always has that. But that’s best left until the next morning:
So, for all of you who can’t be with family or friends this year, or for all of us who will be missing someone who can’t be home, I give you the wishes of a fictional and very ill child who knew at a young age what it really takes to be happy, whether in faith or hope.
Then Bob proposed:”A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!”
Which all the family reechoed.
“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.
And lastly, Mrs. Breeton’s recipe for Christmas Pudding, with my own additions.
Merry Christmas, Everyone. California Christmas Pudding
Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 694Total Fat: 34gSaturated Fat: 18gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 13gCholesterol: 115mgSodium: 306mgCarbohydrates: 86gFiber: 7gSugar: 44gProtein: 12g
California Christmas Pudding
What I would have done Differently had I thought of it at the time:
I would have had my wife here.
Peace, Y’All and happy holidays from my family to yours.