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I have been living in Ireland for the last five years and it has taken me a while to wrap my head around some of the names of foods and the strange desserts the Irish enjoy during the holiday period. During the festive season a family favorite is the Christmas pudding. This is not your Jell-O pudding, but neither is it the savory breakfast meats, white and black pudding. Why so many names for pudding? Are they trying to confuse me (I haven’t even the mentioned the Yorkshire pudding, which is sometimes served with a roast dinners in some parts of the Emerald Isle). Then there is the mincemeat pies, which usually don’t have meat and plum pudding, and then there is custard too (but not pudding). This year I have decided to tackle the desserts and understand what they are.

Mincemeat pie

Today, a mincemeat pie is a mixture of dried fruit, distilled spirits like rum or brandy and spices like ginger, cinnamon, mace and nutmeg. The mixture can vary to include currants, raisins, apples, citrus peels and beef suet. The mixture is baked into a buttery pastry crust and usually served as small individual pies.

The mincemeat pie has a very long tradition from the medieval period and throughout the centuries the recipe has changed just as the taste of the populous has changed. Traditionally the treat did include meat. Before the 17th century the pie was created in an oval shape to symbolise the baby Jesus’ manger and the pastry was lattice over the top. The filling included three spices: cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, to represent the three Magi and then 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and the twelve disciples. However, note everyone believed that the pie was acceptable during the festive season. And the pies were only to be consumed during the festive season, during the twelve days, from Christmas Day to Twelfth Day.

Puritans and Quakers disapproved of the treat. In John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, published in 1841, explained that in 1733 Quakers described the Christmas pie ‘as an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an [sic] hodge-podge of superstition, popery, the devil, and all his works.’ I’m personally not a big fan of the pie, but even I think that is a little extreme.

Irish people did bring their mince pie tradition to America with them. The Cork Examiner in 1844 estimated that 25,000 apple pies and mince pies were consumed by the people of Massachusetts during Thanksgiving. In 1846 we find a description of the pie in the Belfast Newsletter explaining that every family makes ‘a famous pie which they call Christmas pie. It is a great nostrum; the composition of the pastry is a most learned mixture of neats’ [calf] tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raisins, etc.’ As you can see in the mid-1800s families were still including meat in their recipe. From this period onwards the use of meat within the pie continued to decline until we have our contemporary (often meatless) mincemeat pie, served either warm or cold and with either whipped cream or custard.

Custard and Pudding

That last point brings me on to my custard v. pudding explanation. Americans completely understand the joys of a bowl of chocolate Jell-O pudding as a dessert or incorporated into another dessert such as ‘Dirt,’ a dish created by a mixture of Oreos and chocolate pudding. However, that special treat is not popular and almost non-existent on the Emerald Isle. The next best thing is custard, which is usually served as an addition to a dessert like whipped cream. Both custard and pudding are a dairy based dessert. Pudding uses starch to thicken; pudding is also known as blancmange. Custard is pudding’s eggy sibling. Crème Brule is a custard dessert.

Plum Pudding

Now this moves us on to the plum pudding (which does not include plums). In some parts of Ireland ‘pudding’ is another word for dessert, meaning the sweet dish after your main course, but during the festive season the pudding generally refers to a plum pudding. A similar dish, which is more familiar to Americans, is the fruitcake. Both are made with booze soaked fruits and raisins.

Traditionally the pudding is steamed and a fruitcake is baked. I like to think that the plum pudding has a little more flare. It is served warm, covered in a spirit and set ablaze when brought to the table with brandy sauce. Why is it called PLUM pudding if there are no plums? The word plum refers to the purple, fleshy fruit. However in pre-Victorian times the word plum was used for prunes or raisins.

Additionally, while in Ireland you may be served white or black pudding with your breakfast. These are both a type of sausage made from pork meat, fat, oatmeal and breadcrumbs. The difference between the two is that the black pudding contains blood (causing the dark coloring) and the white pudding does not. And the last variation of the word pudding I have found is the Yorkshire pudding. As you can tell from the name, it is traditionally English, but you can come across it occasionally in Ireland, especially when travelling around the North. The dish is made from a batter of eggs, milk and flour and was originally referred to as a dripping pudding. It is usually served with roast beef and gravy.

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