Last year I decided to make Christmas cake according to Monica Sheridan’s recipe, which I remembered from my childhood. A comment from a reader got me curious about her other Christmas recipes and I got out my dog-eared copy of My Irish Cook Book to look up how to make a traditional plum pudding. Fatal mistake! Instead of cracking eggs and and soaking fruit I have been chuckling over the book and insisting that Robert listens as I read bits out loud.
I have already posted about Monica’s Kitchen and the delights it contains. The audience for that book was the modern Irish home cook (assumed to be female) of the 1960s. Written for the American market, My Irish Cook Book focusses on traditional Irish foods and recipes. The emphasis is on fresh ingredients and fairly simple cooking methods – the kind of thing we call Slow Food nowadays. But because it’s about Irish food it is also an extended piece of nostalgia, replete with dewy-eyed memories of her childhood and her trademark stories and trenchant wit.
The book starts with an essay on the cooking traditions of her family, from her great-grandmother cooking stews in a bastable oven over an open fire, to her grandmother (who actually had running water from a tap!) to her mother who continued to churn her own butter, cure her own bacon, bake her own bread and make the most outlandish hats with feathers purloined from the cock.
Her soup chapter begins thus:
The Geography we learn at school tells us that Ireland has a moderate climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream without any great variations of temperature either in summer or winter. This is a flagrant piece of Celtic exaggeration…
You wouldn’t be long in Ireland before realising that soup is an essential part of our daily fare. Like whiskey it is our internal central heating, raising the temperature of the body and thawing out the gastric juices so that they will be receptive to the delights that are to follow. Remember, in Ireland, except in the cities, domestic central heating is still a rarity (we are a credulous people and believe what we read in the geography books). We need soup to warm us.
This chapter includes instructions for making a Nettle Tonic. This essentially involves boiling a pound of young nettles in water. Strain and drink a tumblerful, hot or cold, first thing in the morning. Guaranteed to put roses in your cheeks and a glint in your eye. Not pleasant, of course, but you must suffer to be beautiful.
This is the same pre-feminist era woman of Monica’s Kitchen: she gives the following directions for serving steak and fried onions. Carve the steak by cutting it in thick slices along the grain of the meat. Give a good slice of the fillet to your most important male guest (all men are knowledgeable about steak – all that expense-account eating, I’m sure) and never you mind about his wife. The chances are she is so delighted to be away from her own kitchen stove she won’t mind what she gets.
There are lots of recipes for offal, and indeed as children we ate lots of organ meats – although I drew the line at tripe and my mother finally relented after an epic battle of wills. Kidneys, tongue, liver, sweetbreads, heads, brains, cheeks…all get a look in.
Some Cork specialties get special attention, like Skirts and Bodices. Bodices are pickled spareribs because they are like the boned bodices our grandmothers wore and skirts are the fluted trimmings that are cut away from the pork steak. Drisheens sound, er, appetising: They are made from sheep’s blood. In appearance they resemble a blown-up bicycle tyre, but they have a wonderful texture, like baked egg custard. Serve with butter, she recommends, flavoured with tansy. Crubeens, meanwhile, are pigs’ trotters. Crubeens should always be eaten with your fingers. They lose half of their magic if you attack them with a refined knife and fork. You will need a bath afterwards, of course, but their sweet savour is well worth the extra ablution.
She finishes the pork section with the following: I will tell you an interesting thing about ham. The true ham epicure will always look for the left ham of a pig. It is considered more tender and delicate. You see, the pig scratches himself with the right leg and consequently exercises it far more. So now you know!
There are many recipes for poultry, some of which involve boiling the fowl, or, in the case of Uncle George’s Turkey, injecting cream into the breast with a syringe. Chickens, of course, must be young – a digression is called for: Describing a woman of certain age, my mother would often say, “She wouldn’t tear in the plucking” (young birds have very delicate skin that breaks easily with inept plucking) or, “A chicken of her age wouldn’t fall off the roost.” Mother had a tongue that would clip a hedge.
When Monica talks about a soufflé (although she doesn’t provide a recipe) she says, it should rise gradually, like a careful civil servant, consolidating its position on the way up. She devotes five pages to talking about soda bread before she even gets to a recipe for it. But that recipe is one I used often, when I lived in Canada, before the days of the internet opened up a world of online recipes. I can attest that it’s a good one.
But, like Monica, I digress – my intention was to give her recipe for plum pudding. Alas, it is hardly a recipe – little more than a list of ingredients followed by instructions to mix it all together, put into greased pudding dishes, and boil for 5 hours. Like many of her recipes, it calls for booze – in this case a glass of whiskey (she has a whole chapter on ‘Drink’). So instead of detailing how to make the plum pudding I will leave you with her approach to serving it.
The most exciting thing about a plum pudding is the presentation. To capture the spirit of Christmas it must come to the table lapped in blue flames – and this can be quite tricky with the weak quality of booze nowadays. When I was young we always doused the pudding in poteen and you got a flame that would singe the rafters. To make sure of a good flame it is most important to warm the spirit (cheap brandy is better than whiskey) before pouring it over the pudding.
If you want to make a spectacular entrance to the dining-room with the flaming pudding held on high, this is what you do. Scoop out a hole in the top of the pudding and place half and empty upturned eggshell in the hole. Fill the shell with warmed brandy, ignite and move the dish to spill out the spirit as you enter the dining-room.*
In preparing this post I looked up lots of plum pudding recipes, then decided to buy one from my favourite market stall. But if you really want to make a traditional Irish one, Brenda Costigan’s mother’s recipe, from the Independent, looks like a wonderful, rich, boozy pudding that would have done Monica proud.
*Disclaimer: Roaringwater Journal will not be responsible for house fires caused by following these directions.