Saturday, December 22, 2012

Going Christmas Crackers!

Christmas Cracker Centerpiece

Crepe paper, sticky back plastic, wire coat hangers! My mum would dread these words when I was a kid, especially if they came on the heels of an episode of Blue Peter. Remember Blue Peter? 
My favorite TV show growing up, and it’s still going strong over 50 years since it started. For those of you that have not heard of Blue Peter it first broadcast in 1958 and is the world's longest-running children's television program. It started at a time when there was very little in the way of children’s TV in the UK and took a magazine/entertainment format. There were always lots of entertaining segments but the show was famous for its arts & crafts or "makes" – my personal favorite, my mum’s least favorite!

So years ago, after watching an episode, I decided to try and make the Blue Peter Christmas cracker centerpiece. Christmas crackers are a mainstay of a traditional English Christmas dinner; a tradition dating back to Victorian times. Apparently, a London sweetmaker, named Tom Smith, first made crackers in about 1850. He had seen the French 'bon bon' sweets (almonds wrapped in pretty paper), and one night, while he was sitting in front of his log fire, he became very interested by the sparks and cracks coming from the fire. Suddenly, he thought what a fun idea it would be, if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half. And so crackers were born.

Christmas Table
A cracker is placed at every setting on the Christmas dinner table. Available in many colors and sizes, the paper tubes are always filled with a joke, a little gift and a paper party hat! As family & friends sit down for the wonderful feast, the first order of business is to pull these crackers.  Each person grabs one end of the cracker with a neighbor at the table grabbing another and then pull! The popper inside “cracks” as the paper rips apart and the contents of the cracker spill out. We then read the corny jokes and put the paper crowns on our heads – no excuses. We all look silly together, but that’s part of the tradition.

So back to the centerpiece: All those years ago I said to my mum, “I want to make the big Christmas cracker!” I found the cardboard, probably bought some crepe paper at W.H. Smith, and got to work. Unfortunately my mum didn’t have the backstage elves like on Blue Peter where the presenters would miraculously pull a finished “make” from under the table and say, “here’s one I made earlier.” But we muddled through and produced the centerpiece – and I loved it! The small crackers were still at each place setting and my homemade centerpiece adorned the center of the table filled with little treats for everyone.

As projects go this one isn’t too difficult. As my original creation no longer existed, a few years ago I decided to recreate the cracker for my family.

Here’s one I made earlier :)

Make 2 like this.
The cracker is made up of 2 tubes that fit together. Get some sturdy cardboard – a couple of empty cereal boxes work. It’s up to you how big you make it, so cut 2 larger rectangular pieces of card for the middle pieces and 2 smaller rectangular pieces of card for the ends. They should be the same width but different depths. You should have 2 set ups like this picture to the right.

Find some strong wrapping paper or foil paper and cut 2 large pieces big enough to lay a large and a small piece of card on each one. Lay the pieces of card on as shown in the picture. Glue the card onto the paper and fold the excess pieces from the side over onto the card like wrapping a gift. Do this with the other 2 pieces of card.

Staple into tubes
You will have 2 pieces like this
Now make tubes out of the two pieces you have created. I use a stapler for this. Make sure one tube is narrower than the other, so that it will fit into the larger one. 

Remember it will be filled with sweets or little gifts and you will want to pull it open and have the contents be a surprise for your guests.
Making it look like a cracker!

Where there is just paper in the two tubes between the two pieces of card use string or gift ribbon to cinch them to create the cracker look! You can now decorate it as you like! Your centerpiece is ready! Fill it with sweets or little gifts and your guests are sure to be impressed.

The finished cracker with one tube slotted inside the other
Yummy treats!

Have fun going crackers! Please let me know if you have any success making one! I would love to see your results. If you send me a photo I will post it in a blog in the New Year. 
Email with your photo.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays & Best Wishes!

This is a bigger one I made.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Joy of Christmas Pudding

If you come to my house on Christmas Day you can expect a very traditional English Christmas. As much as I like to embrace the culture of where I am living, there are some traditions from home that are essential to remember, especially at Christmas.  From crackers (which, thank goodness, are more readily available in the US now), to wearing the paper hat that comes out of the cracker at the dinner table, no matter how silly you look, to the turkey (yes, I know Thanksgiving was only a month ago, but turkey is the tradition), to sprouts and parsnips. And, of course, no Christmas would be complete without the Christmas pudding. (Not sure what kind of pudding I'm talking about, you can read my blog all about puddings

As the steaming pudding is turned out onto a plate, all heads turn as brandy is poured over the fruity dome and lit with a match. The kids love this spectacle as the flames dance around the pudding then slowly subside. The wonderful, once-a-year flavors of the fermented fruit, spices, beer and brandy cannot be beat. Especially when you dollop piping hot brandy sauce over it! 

The Recipe

I haven’t made my own pudding in quite some time, going for the store bought variety instead. But my mum was visiting us in November and I thought it was time we should give it a crack. The pudding is traditionally made about five weeks before Christmas on “Stir Up Sunday” when the family gathers and each person takes a turn making stir the pudding whilst making a wish. We were a bit ahead of this schedule, but that’s the great thing with the pudding is that it can be made well in advance so that the flavors can truly develop. Taking my dog-eared Delia Smith’s Christmas book (my go-to for the whole Christmas meal, in fact), we got started. 

All the Ingredients
The most difficult part of the process seemed to be gathering the ingredients. All the fruits, spices, beer and brandy should make a sweet, dense pudding. Historically the pudding should have at least 13 ingredients (to represent Christ and his 12 disciples). As with mince pies (, the Christmas pudding originally had meat in as was made as a way to preserve the meat over the winter with the fruit acting as the preserving agent. Over the last century or so it has evolved into the sweet desert it is today. We found most of the ingredients for the more modern version at the local supermarket, but I had trouble finding the suet traditionally used in the recipe (I could have ordered some Atora suet on Amazon, but the shipping cost would have made for one very expensive pudding!). I did some research online and there were several forums that agreed that you could put a stick of butter in the freezer and then grate it into the mixture in place of the suet. Apparently the melting properties of butter and suet are different and the suet produces a different texture. Oh well, as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one on Boxing Day!

Taking a Turn to Stir
With a large bowl and a sturdy wooden spoon we got to work weighing all the different items that would go into the pudding. We used a can of Guinness for the stout and sloshed in some brandy to finish it all off. One by one we then took turns giving the mixture a stir and made a wish! Then, as tradition also dictates, we put a coin in the mixture; the myth being that whoever finds the coin on Christmas day will be bestowed with wealth and happiness. What a joy to share this tradition with three generations of our family.

Ready to Steam
So that was it – pretty simple really. Now just to pour it into the bowl, make a nice lid out of greaseproof paper and foil and steam it – for 8 hours! 
That is what actually takes all the time. All afternoon and evening we had the wonderful aroma of the steaming pudding wafting through the house; really gets you in the festive spirit.
The pudding is now safely stored in a cool part of the basement, ready to be unveiled and set fire to on Christmas day! Let’s hope the American guests like it!