Messing with Destiny

So, did you read yesterday’s prologue? About continuing the cycle because that’s just how it’s always been done?

Well.

I’m taking a huge risk here, and I know it. I was hesitant about doing this, but I know I am not out to dramatically change the end result – you know, like those screenwriters who thought it was actually a good idea to change the end of The Scarlet Letter when they adapted it for film back in the 90’s. Notice how I didn’t give away the ending there, but only let you know it does not end the same way the book does. No spoiler alerts.

Back to our risk at hand, though, we all have our holiday food memories. Good or bad, they’re what we’ve got. And on my mother’s side of the family there’s been a recipe my grandmother made every single Christmas (maybe Thanksgiving too; I honestly can’t recall) that people only half-liked. But every year she made it and every year it was consumed.

The half that people didn’t like: the steamed cranberry pudding flavored with molasses. What I’m guessing should have been a moist cake that would be a tart, bright foil for the rich buttery sauce that everyone loved and ladled over their slice of pudding was instead a dry brick that served as a mount of sorts for the butter sauce. The butter sauce…that was the part everyone loved without question. The family even created a name for that sauce: “the Recipe.” The Recipe was so loved and revered that people tolerated the rest of the pudding just for a taste of the Recipe. Heck, one year an aunt of mine made up a big batch of the Recipe, put it in containers and passed it around as Christmas gifts. It’s that good.

Here’s the recipe copy, from the family archives (also lovingly known as that email from Mom):

Pudding

  • 1 ½ cups cranberries
  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ cup molasses
  • ½ cup boiling water

Sift dry ingredients and cranberries together. Add 1/2 cup boiling water into molasses and mix together. Place in buttered pans, cover with wax paper and tie. Place buttered pans in pans of water. Steam at 300 degrees for 2 hours.

Sauce

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup half & half
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp almond extract

Blend together over low to moderate heat; Do not let boil. Taste frequently to ensure perfection.

That’s definitely written like it came from a cook who could do this darn thing in her sleep, isn’t it? I began to wonder if a step or two might have been excluded from this original, and so I began researching other similar recipes. I found a trio that seemed to be a pretty close match.

There’s one from food.com.

Also, A Couple Cooks pulled out their grandmother’s recipe.

Lastly, since puddings have such strong ties across the pond, The Food Network UK’s recipe also made sense to study.

The variations among the recipes are interesting to note, especially since they should produce the same outcome. Here’s what I noted for my own modifications:

  • Preparing the cranberries: in my grandmother’s recipe, you just add them in to the batter as-is.  Two other recipes suggested boiling the cranberries until they burst. I like this idea, as it would release more of the cranberry flavor throughout the cake. It would also lend an acidity that would react with the leavening agent, bringing some lift to the overall cake.
  • Dry ingredient contents: one recipe called for more flour, but overall the amount – 1 ½ cups – was pretty consistent.
  • Egg? Well, half of the recipes called for it; and as my memory serves, the crumb of the cake in my grandmother’s recipe was often dry. An egg wouldn’t hurt both for added moisture and richness.
  • Molasses: a half-cup seems to be the prevailing wisdom. Given the strength of the flavor of molasses, that makes sense.
  • Sugar: I was surprised to see the UK version of this recipe call for so much sugar. While the sauce is plenty sweet, and balances with the richness of molasses and the tang of the cranberries, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have a little bit of sugar. A tablespoon it is.
  • Leavening agents: a blend of salt and baking soda, without the addition of baking powder (which is typically its own blend of an alkaline, some acid salts, and an inert starch).
  • Stovetop hot water bath. While the oven baking also includes a water bath, that’s also a lot of dry air circulating around the pan. My dutch oven provided ample room to fit the casserole I’d use to make the pudding, and its’ seal would keep the air moist. Also, by adding aluminum foil to the cover – like they did on the BBC video demo I watched about puddings – it would help contain the heat generated inside the mix and shorten the cooking time.
  • The sauce recipes: they’re nearly identical. However, I’ve always liked how the Recipe had a hint of the almond extract that played up the berry undertones of the cranberry. That’s not changing.

Before diving into the changes, let’s take a nerd break and ask the question: where the heck did steamed pudding come from? After distilling down from the 16th century creations that were – politely put – interesting recipes that made the most of meat scraps, puddings took a mainstream turn for the sweeter in the 19th century. Though you can still get haggis, if you really want to. Most likely this recipe was born out of the concept of Summer Puddings that would blend summer fruits into a sweetened batter, steamed, and served at health resorts as a lighter alternative to pastries. Um, yeah…

So, what’s the reworked recipe we’re going to try out? Here goes:

Pudding

  • 1 ½ cups fresh cranberries, plus 1/3 cup water
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup molasses
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup hot water

Grease a 6-cup souffle pan or 1.5 liter casserole dish with butter; find a pot that can fit the pan and set aside for steaming. Cut a length of aluminum foil that will cover the pan. Cut a similar length of wax paper, making a 1-inch crease in the middle. You can spray a little cooking spray on the side of the wax paper that would face down over the pan if you like.

Place cranberries in a medium saucepan. Cover with water. Cover and cook over medium heat until cranberries begin to burst and water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

In a separate bowl mix together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl whisk together the egg, molasses and sugar until well-blended. Slowly add in the 1/2 cup hot water until combined. Add the flour mixture and stir well. Fold in cranberries.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Lay the paper/foil cover over the pan with the paper side facing down. Crimp the edges tightly to seal. Tie a length of kitchen twine around the lip of the pan to keep the seal secure; and, if you’re not sure you could handle the sides of the pan once it’s steaming, fashion a strap out of more twine so you can use it as a lifting handle.

Pour water into the pot, and place something in the bottom of the pot to keep the pudding pan from touching the bottom of the pot – an empty can of tuna, cookie cutter, even a kitchen towel would work as it will be submerged in water. Add the pudding pan, checking the depth of the water (it should reach about halfway up the pudding pan). Add more water if needed, cover, and steam until firm, anywhere from 70 to 120 minutes. Check the water level every 30 minutes or so to see if you need to add more. It wouldn’t hurt to keep a kettle full and warm in case you do. Insert a toothpick in the middle of the pudding to test for doneness. Is it clean? You’re done!

Allow the pudding to cool before unmolding onto a serving platter.

New pudding recipe, unmolded and ready to serve.

Now, on to the sauce. Or “the Recipe” as our family called it…

Sauce

  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½  cup butter
  • 1 cup half & half
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp almond extract

Combine sugar and butter in a small saucepan, and stir over low heat until completely melted and sugar is dissolved. Slowly whisk in half & half, reducing the burner to the lowest setting possible. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly until thickened, stirring and tasting frequently, about 30 minutes. Stir in extracts. Pour into a pitcher or gravy boat and pass around with the pudding.

Sauced, plated, and ready to eat.

So, what was the verdict? The pudding was definitely lighter, more moist. I liked that improvement quite a bit. It might be interesting to try adding a teaspoon or so of vanilla to mellow out the molasses some more, and even mixing in some chopped toasted nuts like a pecan or walnut to bring some dimension to the texture. I cut the cooking time almost in half from the original recipe; and probably could have gotten away with just an hour, but didn’t want the poor thing to be undercooked.

The real test is yet to come this week when I bring a slice over to my grandmother. She and my grandfather had to move to a nursing home recently, so it will feel good to bring a little holiday reminder to them. But whether she’ll claim it always tasted this way or if she’ll notice that something’s different, who knows?

Was it worth it, this messing with destiny? Most definitely. I don’t know how often my husband might let me make it, but my son was loving the whole recipe. Have you ever done something new with an old and much-loved family recipe?

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