Holiday parties usually follow a traditional recipe:
- Take several people who know each other either a little too well (friend parties with potential romantic prospects) or not well enough (anything work related).
- Add copious alcohol, perhaps with a brief food afterthought—a few Christmas cookies or maybe a random ham if you’re being fancy about it.
- Mix well.
The result is frequently uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. The solution, as Edith Wharton deduced, is simply putting food first.
Wharton “liked rich and choice food and a good deal of it”; her favorite dishes included mock turtle soup, roast chicken, strawberries and cream, and lobster any which way. Dinner parties at the Mount, her estate from 1902 til her move to Europe in 1911, were lavish affairs, requiring a staff of 10 to prepare the elaborate menus.
The same servants were also charged with keeping Wharton’s guests fed throughout the day, including picnics on the grounds and snacks around the clock. “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” Henry James wrote to a friend about his stay at the house, adding that as a hostess Wharton was “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”
At holiday time, though, Wharton took it to the next level, food-wise. A few recipes of her household recipes are preserved in Yale’s Beinecke library, including one for “Mrs. Wharton’s Christmas Pudding,” a dish that George Orwell later called “extremely rich, elaborate and expensive.” Maybe the most vocal author advocate of puddings in general, Orwell published his own pudding recipe; Wharton’s version, from across the pond, is very similar—in fact, nearly identical—except for her addition of glace cherries, a special touch for her high society friends.
Picking that perfect group of friends, of course, is the other necessary ingredient for a successful holiday party, another thing Wharton knew well. Her frequent guest Vivienne de Watteville noted that food at the Mount was only rivaled by the stimulating company: “Dinner was a poem to which brains and palate equally combined to bring a fitting appreciation.” Wharton was more blunt about how she settled on a guest list; when asked why her table only sat eight, she retorted, “Because there aren’t more than eight people in New York I care to dine with.”
I’ll admit that, much like other English desserts I’ve attempted here, I was hesitant about this one,. After all, Christmas pudding is just a version of the most mockable dessert of all time: the fruitcake. And, like other English puddings, it’s steamed rather than baked, a cooking method that never fails to remind me of the limp steamed vegetables at a sad hotel buffet.
It took a bit of experimenting before I realized that Christmas puddings should be an excuse to combine all your favorite snacking items into one massive cake: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, dried cranberries, dried cherries, miscellaneous fruit even (yes I’m going there) all the chocolate chips. I kept this one true to Wharton’s original, but if you’re trying your hand at it, throw in your own favorites. You won’t hear any fruitcake jokes; everyone’s mouths will be too full for that.
1/2 cup dried cherries (or your favorite dried fruit)
1/2 cup dates, chopped
1/4 cup brandy
4 tablespoons butter, chilled and grated
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup almonds (or your favorite nuts), chopped
1/2 apple, finely diced
1/2 tablespoon orange zest
1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
1. Combine cranberries, dates and brandy in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2. In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients, except for milk. Stir in fruit and any accumulated juices. Stir in enough milk to form a wet dough, 1/4 to 1/2 cup.
3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter 4 ramekins. Press in pudding mixture and cover with foil, securing with string around the edges. (Here’s a good tutorial on pudding prep.)
4. Place ramekins in a large roasting pan. Pour water in the pan until it reaches 1 inch up the ramekins. Bake 75 minutes, until puddings have puffed up and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool 5 minutes and serve warm with whipped cream.