Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grandma's Cookbook

Hello all! Christine Johnson here today on the eve of the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving. I love this holiday because it's all about food and family (and American football). What's not to love?

Holiday food is especially poignant because it brings back taste memories. My mom's sweet potatoes and mincemeat (actually mince-fruit) pie instantly transport me to Thanksgivings past. Christmas comes with a load of food memories. One I can still taste today is my grandma's plum pudding.

Educational Point #1 - Traditional pudding does not come in a box. For those of us who grew up in the Jello generation, this kind of pudding is a rich and moist cake. 

When I began writing this November's book, Legacy of Love, I wanted the heroine to attempt to make my grandma's plum pudding. To portray this accurately, I needed the recipe. So I asked my mom if she had it. She didn't, but she remembered my grandma saying it included suet. Suet? I instantly thought of the blocks of greasy birdseed that we put out for the birds in the winter. That wonderful moist cake included birdseed?

Educational Point #2 - Suet doesn't have to have birdseed in it. Apparently it's fat rendered from beef, as opposed to fat from pork, which is called lard.

Though I figured that out, I was no closer to the actual recipe. After extending the search, one of my aunts not only had the recipe, she had the whole cook book! 

Here is the very page with the recipe, from the Modern Priscilla Cook Book from 1924. As you can see, it's very well-used. It's also called plum duff, though Grandma always called it plum pudding. She served the pudding with hard sauce, so called because of its texture. The firm butter and sugar sauce would melt on the warm pudding. Oh yum, I'm getting hungry! Maybe I should make it. Then I read the recipe.
Educational Point #3 - Older recipes can be less than precise.
First, the cook needs to mix a lot of dried fruits and nuts into the suet and let "ripen" for a week. Okay. How does one "ripen" fruit and nuts in fat? I suspect it does not involve a refrigerator. Cooking also involves steaming in molds for four hours at an unknown temperature. How? Alas my grandma didn't leave any notes in the margin for future generations, but she did tuck into the cook book a modern photocopy of an English Plum Pudding recipe with more detailed directions. Though I can understand this recipe more easily, it lacks the charm and simplicity of the 1924 version. My heroine, a novice cook, might have produced a perfect plum pudding instead of the catastrophe that summoned the hero to make a food rescue.
For me, Christmas will always recall the taste of my grandma's plum pudding. What special taste memories do you have for the holidays?


  1. Chridstine, what a tresure to have access to your grandmother's cookbook. I love those old family recipes that get handed down from generation to generation. But yes, often they come to you with measurements such as 'a dash' or 'a dollop' or 'until it looks right'. For some of my favorite dishes my mother makes I finally had to stand at her shoulder and watch while she cooked them to get the 'secret' down on paper.

  2. Hi Christine, my grandmother used to make the plum pudding too! My mother never did and I've only had it once. But I applaud you for tracking down your grandmother's recipe book. I have a 1928 Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook!

  3. Hi Winnie! You were thinking ahead to get those recipes down while you could observe all the secrets!

  4. Lyn, I wonder if plum pudding is a Midwestern tradition? I know it's English in origin, according to literature and the recipe, but my grandma was Swedish, so it probably wasn't passed down to her through the family. I wish I'd thought to ask her when I had the opportunity.


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