As far as Charles Dickens was concerned, there was no better way for Scrooge to make his apology to the long-suffering Cratchits than the gift of a turkey so gigantic “he never could have stood upon his legs.”
When it came to food and feasting, the author was a man obsessed, in life as well as his novels, which regularly describes a hearty meal – or lack of.
And no more so than at Christmas.
As a young man apart from his fiancee, Catherine Hogarth, he once chose to focus a love note on a blow-by-blow account of the meal he’d just eaten at the pub, down to the final, albeit delicious, mince pie .
“To list the food is quite a Dickens thing,” chuckles Frankie Kubicki, senior curator at the Charles Dickens Museum. “He had huge enjoyment for food and hosting.”
Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror)
Correspondence throughout Dickens’ life features regular thank-yous to friends for the turkeys they often gifted he and Catherine and their ten children for Christmas.
And, only Dickens – as a Victorian male – would concern himself with the ‘women’s work’ of composing detailed notes to his butler ahead of his much-loved dinner parties, advising on every detail from where to hang the coats, when to draw the curtains, light the gas lamps, and serve the wine and champagne. (That would be “at supper…all over the table”, but strictly not before, I scribbled, bossily.)
Perhaps most prized of all was the author’s beloved punch, to be kept “in ice under the table all the evening”, he added on that occasion. To be served only to himself, and his pal Mr Lemon-the editor, aptly, of Punch magazine.
“Dickens loved punch,” grins Frankie. “He had his own recipe and he would make it himself, he liked the idea of being a magician or alchemist and setting the alcohol alight.
“He writes to a friend about how his loving missus puts him to bed because he’s so drunk, and how he had to sleep in his dressing room.”
She adds: “The Dickens’ family kept Christmas and had a big celebration, and food was a massive part of it.”
As we speak, one of Dickens’ favorite punch recipes is being concocted in the original kitchen of his former home at 48 Doughty Street, London, where the museum is based.
Jamaican rum and cognac certainly make for Christmas cheer on a gray Monday afternoon. I can see why he hid it under the table.
Chef Dan Ottaway, is whipping up this and three more of the Dickens family’s favorite celebratory dishes, some from Catherine Dickens’ own recipe book, published in 1851.
Her Italian Cream, which she would have served alone, or with fruit, is delicious with the mince pies, filled with chestnut and apple mincemeat, reminiscent of flavors in Dickens’ day.
Charles Dickens Museum)
Finally, Dan serves up cauliflower and parmesan which was a family favourite.
“Toasted cheese seems to be a particular Dickens family love,” Frankie explains. “It was more like a fondue. In Catherine’s first edition it appeared lots and lots, but she later takes it out because she realizes she put it in far too much! People mocked her, she became quite plump.
“Dickens however stayed quite slim because he walked everywhere.”
For thousands presumably, to battle the bulge that could have easily taken shape after raucous dinner parties of up to 14 guests held in Doughty Street’s snug dining room.
The Dickens lived here from 1837, immediately after their marriage, until 1839, before moving to a grander house in the country.
Charles Dickens Museum)
Dickens found success here following the publication of The Pickwick Papers, and went on to pen Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby in his study next to the living room.
Catherine’s later recipe book was published at a time when Dickens was experiencing money worries.
“Dickens was earning a lot of money but he had a lot of dependents and expenses, so she might have done it for the money. But she was also accomplished an cook and host herself,” explains Frankie.
It is argued Dickens may have even written the book’s introduction.
Much like his own ghost of Christmas present in A Christmas Carol, it’s easy to imagine the author surrounded by a tasty cornucopia of foodstuffs. Especially at Christmas.
“Christmas was always a time which in our home was looked forward to with eagerness and delight, and to my father it was a time dearer than any other part of the year, I think,” recalled his daughter, Mamie Dickens.
And food, as it was for many of his characters, was right at the heart of it.
- The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, Dickens’s only surviving London house, is now dressed for Christmas and presenting a host of special events and performances over the festive season www.dickensmuseum.com
- These Dickens inspired treats are taken from Recipes from Dinner with Dickens by Pen Vogler, published by Cico Books
Apple and Chestnut Mince Pies
A Dickens favourite, filled with flavors and ingredients of the age. Makes 12 deep feet.
500g shortcrust pastry, or shortcrust pastry made with 350g plain flour, 175g fat, and 1 egg yolk, beaten egg or milk, to glaze.
For the mincemeat:
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored, and finely chopped (approx. 200g), 200g cooked chestnuts, finely chopped, 80g dark soft brown sugar, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 2 tablespoons brandy, zest of an orange or clementine, 180g mixed raisins , currants, and sultanas, 60g mixed peel, 100g sweater.
Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror)
To make the mincemeat, cook the apple, chestnuts, and sugar together in a very little water for 15–20 minutes until soft and toffee-ish. Purée them together with the cinnamon, brandy, and orange zest. Adjust the flavorings to taste. Mix in the dried fruit and sweater.
Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C/Gas 6.
Roll out the pastry to about 1/8 inch/3mm thick, and cut into rounds of about 4 inches/10cm to line muffin trays. Fill each pastry case with mincemeat.
Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into rounds of about 3¼ inches/8cm to form the lids. Crimp them together and seal with beaten egg or milk. Decorate the tops (or replace the lids) with holly leaves, stars, angels, or bells, cut from the pastry trimmings, then brush the surface with beaten egg or milk.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 15–20 minutes until the pastry is golden.
Dickens’ favorite rum punch
Peel and juice of 3 unwaxed lemons, 150g brown sugar cubes, 400ml good-quality Jamaican rum, 250ml Cognac, 1 liter boiling water.
You will need a large enamel pan with a lid. Carefully peel the lemons, not including the bitter white pith. Place in the pan and add the sugar, rum, and brandy. Warm gently.
Take a metal ladleful of the warm spirit, set it alight using a long match and holding it over the pan, then carefully pour the flaming liquid back into the pan to inflame the rest of the liquid.
Let the spirits in the pan burn for 3–4 minutes, then extinguish the flame by putting the lid on. If you don’t like the idea of flaming spirits in your kitchen, warm the punch to just below boiling and let it simmer for a few minutes to evaporate some of the alcohol.
Add the lemon juice and the boiling water. Let it cool for 5 minutes; taste for sugar and add more if desired. Leave to stand for 15 minutes in a warm place or a low oven. Discard the pieces of lemon peel before ladling the punch into heatproof glasses.
Cauliflower with Parmesan cheese
Serves 6-8 as a side dish.
1 large cauliflower, 7 tablespoons/100g unsalted butter, 2 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, salt and pepper, a pinch of nutmeg, 50g of grated parmesan.
Pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5.
Cut the cauliflower into florets, and boil or steam until just tender. Drain and reassemble them into a cauliflower shape in a deep dish or bowl.
To make the sauce melt the butter in a pan. Put the egg yolks in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk in the lemon juice. Whisk in the melted butter a very little at a time, keeping the whisking going so the sauce does not separate (you may like to use a blender). The yolks will thicken as they cook. Season with salt, white pepper and a tiny rasp of nutmeg.
Pour the sauce over the cauliflower and sprinkle the parmesan over the top.
Bake in a pre-heated oven for 20 minutes.
Catherine Dickens’ Italian Cream
250g mascarpone or full-fat cream cheese, 400ml double cream, zest of 1–2 lemons, 50–100g icing sugar, juice of ½ lemon, 2 tablespoons sweet white wine, such as white Vin Santo, berries, herbs, or edible flowers to decorate.
Beat the mascarpone or cream cheese in a large bowl until smooth, then add the cream, half the lemon zest, and half the sugar, followed by the lemon juice and wine.
Stir well to combine; add more zest or sugar to taste. Whisk until the cream mixture forms soft peaks.
Spoon into a serving bowl or individual glasses and decorate with berries, sprigs of mint, flowering herbs such as rosemary, bergamot, or borage, or edible flowers such as calendula or violas.
(Catherine’s exact version was rather more long-winded, involving whipping scalded cream, raw cream and other ingredients for an hour – and turning it out 20 hours later!)