The Joys of an Old Cookery Book + Alex Grehy’s Christmas Pudding Recipe

Title page of the Good Housekeeping's Cookery Book

By Alex Grehy

Two events of small significance took place in 1965: the Good Housekeeping Institute reprinted its cookery book, and I was born.

In a rural Welsh village, a woman takes her brand-new copy of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book from her shopping bag. I imagine her sitting at her kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea as she flicks through its six hundred pages. The book is luxurious—a glossy dust jacket wrapped around sturdy dove-gray boards, which are embossed with the title in gold lettering. The book has vivid color photographs of immaculately presented dishes, along with lavishly illustrated section headers. At the back of the book there are three blank pages headed “For Additional Recipes.”

Over the next eighteen years, the woman cherishes the book, at some point replacing the dust jacket with a neatly folded cover made of floral pastel wallpaper. Then, I suspect, she died. The book ended up in a charity shop where my mother found it in 1981.

I’ve been baking all my life. As a girl I helped my grandmother in the kitchen. By the time I was eleven, the great responsibility of making the family’s Christmas cake fell into my willing hands.

As I approached my eighteenth birthday, it became evident that I would be more clever than beautiful. My family concluded that the only way I was going to make friends at university, and lure a husband, was through cookery. On the morning of my coming of age, I unwrapped presents that included icing spatulas, earthenware mixing bowls, baking tins, and this precious secondhand copy of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book, published in the year of my birth.

Forty years later, I still treasure the book. It predates food processors and the availability of prepared ingredients. The recipe for apple strudel involves making filo pastry from flour, eggs, and warm water, placing the dough on a floured cloth the size of your kitchen table and pulling the pastry until it is paper thin. It has recipes for making fudge, mint humbugs, and hard candies. It assumes an abundance of ingredients and no shortage of skills as you cream, knead, and mix your way from first principles to a table laden with delicious homemade food.

Modern staples, like spaghetti Bolognese, are tucked into a slim chapter titled “Continental Recipes.” Travel to Europe, even from the UK, was then a treat for the elite—to this day, my mother has never been abroad. To quote the cookbook: “Even those who have little chance of traveling are becoming interested in foreign food, and many a housewife finds it rekindles her zest for cooking if she includes an occasional continental dish in the menu.”

Yet, for me, the most magical pages are those headed “For Additional Recipes.” The previous owner has lovingly written a few of her own recipes in looped, confident handwriting. I imagine her floury hands reaching to me across the years. I wonder who she was. Would we have enjoyed cooking together? I have no doubt that she never imagined these recipes would become a legacy. When I read them, I had a vision that one day I might hand the book over to another cook, so I added a few more recipes in my own crabbed handwriting.

In 2012, disaster struck. My mischievous dogs got hold of the cookery book while I was out and used it as a chew toy. Luckily, with the help of some sticky tape, it survived, though the bottom corner of the index pages was shredded to confetti. The book is still usable, but I grieved as I became convinced that there was no hope of it ever being passed on to another generation of cooks in its ruined state.

But will the next generation even use cookery books? I have moved on, frequently using the internet to search for recipes. I record my adventures in cooking on social media. Yet I still keep my Good Housekeeping Cookery Book for its authenticity. If you need a recipe for mincemeat or marmalade or crumpets—for anything that is simpler to buy prepared than make, then this is THE cookbook.

As I write this, I feel a great surge of love for my tattered fifty-six-year-old cookbook, currently sitting next to my laptop. I wonder whether I should try again to restore its integrity with more sticky tape and a new cover made from wallpaper. Would anyone want a vintage cookbook, bearing the marks of a busy life in the kitchen? There are still a few spaces for another generation of recipes.

***

My Good Housekeeping Cookery Book from 1965 is not a museum piece. I refer to it frequently, but there is a very particular ritual that I want to share—the ritual of Stir-Up Sunday.

Stir-Up Sunday falls in November, a week before Advent Sunday, and is the traditional day for making Christmas pudding. Being a secular household, I had always believed that the name “Stir-Up Sunday” referred to the tradition of every member of the household taking a turn to stir the pudding mixture and making a wish. However, its true origin is the prayer “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people,” the litany for the Sunday before Advent as listed in the Book of Common Prayer.

In various guises, people have included the pudding in their Christmas feasting for six hundred years or more. In that time it has gathered its own legends—ideally it should have thirteen ingredients, one each for Jesus and the twelve apostles; old silver sixpenny pieces stirred into the mixture bestowed good fortune on anyone lucky enough to find one in their slice of pudding.

But the ever-practical Good Housekeeping Cookery Book ignores the pudding’s mythical status and just lists the ingredients and methodology for making this rich, sweet, fruity, spicy steamed suet dessert. It is simple to make, but with at least thirteen ingredients, five hours cooking in a steamer, and four weeks in storage with weekly dousings of brandy, I can see why a homogenized plastic basin that has been on sale in the supermarket since Halloween might appeal. Not in my house!

I’ve been making my own Christmas puddings on Stir-Up Sunday forever, but around twenty years ago I invited a friend to join me in the making. Word got around, and now Stir-Up Sunday has become a major event in our social calendar. I usually have fifteen or more people joining in to make puddings in my kitchen, followed by a huge lunch and merriment. The puddings themselves are very popular, and I now make around thirty puddings every year, which I ship all over the world in exchange for donations to charity.

But back to my house on what is usually the last Sunday in November, when the days are short, and the last few leaves are clinging to the oak tree that grows in my garden. The air is full of birdsong as the robins and blue tits flock to the bird feeders, having long since eaten their way through the fruit in my orchard. Although there is a chill in the air, my kitchen is warm and smells of brandy. The secret of a good Christmas pudding is soaking the dried fruit overnight in a generous amount of spirit—usually brandy, but I favor rum. This makes the fruit plump and juicy, and helps to preserve the pudding in storage. The aroma of the spirit-infused fruit is intoxicating.

On the windowsill of my kitchen, bags and jars of dry ingredients are neatly laid out, along with an array of spoons, mixing bowls, and two antique scales, their brass weighing pans and battered weights gleaming. The big table in the center of the room is laid with everyone’s individual recipes and instructions, along with spare pudding basins and clean cotton aprons. I enjoy this moment of calm when everything is neat and tidy.

At 11 a.m., the Stirrers arrive—friends and family all eager to mix their puddings. Soon the house is filled with laughter and the air is full of flying flour and spices. Despite my meticulously prepared instruction sheets, there is always a degree of mayhem as the Stirrers scramble to gather their ingredients and get stirring. There is hot competition to be the first to finish. It’s my job, as referee, to make sure that their haste doesn’t lead to ingredients being omitted or salt being substituted for sugar!

By 12:30 p.m. it seems that there may be more flour on the floor than in the mixing bowls, and every utensil in the kitchen is covered in pudding mixture. But then, suddenly, it’s time for the last stir, when everyone makes a wish, and the mixture is spooned into pudding basins and carefully covered with greaseproof paper ready for steaming. Everyone labels their pudding and sets them aside. Steaming a small pudding takes around three hours, so that’s done in the comfort of their own homes. My friends and family then diligently clean up, incentivized by the aroma of the roast dinner that I’ve been preparing while they’ve been stirring.

We spend the afternoon eating and chatting, buoyed by the rich smells of spices and spirits. We chew over the year’s events and look forward to Christmas Day, when our puddings will be the centerpiece of the dessert table. The lights will be turned down low and flaming brandy poured over the pudding. The pure blue flames will flicker over its deep bronze surface, filling the air with soft light and the warm fragrance of toasted sugar and spice.

By 6 p.m. on Stir-Up Sunday, the Stirrers will have wandered home, and I’ll get the steamer out and cook the pudding I prepared earlier.

The Christmas pudding
This year’s family pudding—the orange slices are just a bit of fancy decoration.

Last year, the pandemic lockdown meant that we were not allowed to gather in person for Stir-Up Sunday. I thought we’d have to abandon our lovely ritual, but the Stirrers wailed so loudly I had to find a way. As with so many pursuits, technology provided the answer.

The Stirrers always choose their own combination of fruit, spices, and spirits in accordance with their preferences. They let me know in advance, and I organize the ingredients, as there are economies of scale in buying them centrally. 2020 was no different, except this time I gathered, weighed, and packaged the ingredients, along with the instructions, and sent them to the Stirrers by courier.

On the day itself, we set up a Zoom call and at 11 a.m. on the Sunday before Advent, we mixed our puddings together with exactly the same amount of laugher and mayhem, but considerably less flour on my kitchen floor. Texts and WhatsApp messages flew through the ether as Stirrers queried the directions. Mixing bowls were held up to cameras for me to check whether they’d achieved the perfect soft dropping consistency in their final mixtures. The joy of this new approach was that many more Stirrers could join in the fun as it’s certain that they would never have all fitted into my kitchen at the same time. Which is a dilemma, as they all want to join in Stir-Up Sunday in person this year. I’m sure we’ll find a way. This ritual has transcended every challenge through the ages, and I know it will continue to do so.

Download a printable copy of the Alex Grehy’s Christmas Pudding Recipe here

Alex Grehy’s Christmas Pudding Recipe

Adapted and modernized from the 1965 Good Housekeeping Cookery Book.

This recipe is adaptable and can be suited to a range of dietary needs and preferences. It is a forgiving recipe, so don’t panic if your measurements are there or thereabouts. Serves a two-pint (around one-liter) pudding basin.

Prep time: 45 minutes measuring and mixing, plus 24 hours before mixing to soak the fruit

Steaming time: 5 hours

Maturing time: 4 weeks

Ingredients

  • 11 ounces (300 grams) dried fruit: Choose any combination from raisins, sultanas, currants, dates, and cranberries.
  • 2–3 tablespoons of spirit: Traditionally brandy, rum, or whisky, though fruit liqueurs like calvados, orange, amaretto, or apricot are also lovely. If you prefer to cook without alcohol, fruit juices are a good substitute, especially richer ones like peach nectar.
  • 4 ounces (100 grams) fancy fruit: Choose any combination from glacé cherries, maraschino cherries, mixed candied peel, dried apricots, or stem ginger.
  • 4 ounces (100 grams) nuts: Choose any combination from hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, or macadamias. Can be omitted for a nut-free pudding—just increase the quantity of fancy fruit instead.
  • 4 ounces (100 grams) flour: Plain white or gluten free
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice: Use prepared mixed spice or choose any combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, mace, allspice, and ground cloves.
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 ounces fresh or dried breadcrumbs: May be gluten free if required.
  • 3 ounces suet: Traditionally beef suet but vegetable suet is a good substitute. Note: some vegetable suets contain wheat flour.
  • 3 ounces dark brown sugar
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten: Can substitute with 15 milliliters of aquafaba for a vegan pudding
  • Milk for mixing if needed: Can be substituted with water or fruit juice for a dairy-free option.

Mixing Your Pudding

  1. The day before mixing day: If using raisins, sultanas, or currants, pick off any stalks and break up clumps; chop dates (if needed); chop cranberries into rough quarters; put the fruit to soak in chosen booze (or fruit juice) overnight.
  2. Sieve the flour, a pinch of salt, and spices into a BIG bowl.
  3. Prepare your fancy fruit.
  4. Glacé cherries: Chop into quarters and wash off the syrup by putting in a sieve and running under the hot tap. Dry off the fruit with a paper towel (kitchen roll) then mix with a little flour taken from the total.
  5. Mixed peel: Wash off the syrup by putting in a sieve and running under the hot tap. Dry off the fruit with a paper towel (kitchen roll) then mix with a little flour taken from the total.
  6. Chop the nuts coarsely. By hand is best because then you will get crunchy chunks, but a grinder or food processor is quicker!
  7. Add the sugar, nuts, suet, and breadcrumbs to the flour mixture. Stir thoroughly.
  8. Add the fancy fruit; mix thoroughly.
  9. Add the fruit that has been soaking in alcohol and stir thoroughly.
  10. Beat an egg. Add the beaten egg and a generous slosh of milk/water to mix.
  11. Stir the mixture thoroughly. Make sure that everyone in the household gives one stir and makes a secret wish!
  12. Check the consistency. You are aiming for a soft dropping consistency. Pick up a spoonful of the mix and let it drop off the spoon—it should literally fall softly (splat) into the bowl!
  13. Pour the mixture into a greased pudding basin.
  14. Cover with greaseproof paper. Trim the edges of the paper to make it easier to put into your steamer.

Cooking Your Pudding

Put your pudding in a steamer (if you have one).

If you do not have a steamer, you can put your pudding basin in a large saucepan with boiling water up to around one-third of the height of your basin. If you use this method, then you will have to check the level of the water and top up regularly so that it does not boil dry.

For a two-pint pudding, steam for five hours. After steaming for the required time, remove the bowl from the saucepan and turn the pudding out onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool.

Looking After Your Pudding

Once it’s totally cool, wrap your pudding in generous layers of greaseproof paper then cover with foil and store in a cool dark place (not the fridge). Every week unwrap the pudding, spike with a skewer, and pour over a dessertspoon of your base alcohol (brandy, rum, or whisky). Allow to soak in for ten minutes then rewrap the pudding. For alcohol-free puddings, just keep the pudding well-wrapped and undisturbed until Christmas Day.

Reheating Your Pudding

In your microwave: Heat on full power for three minutes, then allow to stand for three minutes. Heat on low power for eight minutes, then allow to stand for three minutes.

Steam: Unwrap the foil from your pudding but leave it in the greaseproof paper. Put in a steamer and steam for a couple of hours.

Whatever method you use, don’t forget to check that your pudding is piping hot before you serve!

Download a printable copy of the Alex Grehy’s Christmas Pudding Recipe here


Alex Grehy has a sweet life filled with narrowboating, rescue greyhounds, singing, and chocolate. Her work has been published worldwide, including a recipe and memoir in the Red Penguin Books cookery anthology Feeding the Flock. Her vivid prose, thought-provoking poetry, and original view of the world has led to her best friend to say, “For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted!”

Alex Grehy with a gray dog
Alex Grehy

Read Alex Grehy’s essay “The Joys of an Old Cookery Book” in Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition: Sugar and Spice, available now in paperback and ebook.

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