Wednesday, December 20, 2023

A Victorian Christmas Dinner Menu

At Christmas, the line between past and present blurs. You notice it when carolers, ice skaters, and horse-drawn sleighs adorn greeting cards. It stands out as women in long dresses and men in elegant attire enjoy candlelit dinners, theater performances, and strolls through the park. You can't miss it whenever families gather for merriment, fond reflection, and good food. That's when it
 doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to picture yourself in Victorian times.

Back then, dinner highlighted Christmas day. Cooked from scratch, it provided guests with the very best a host could offer. Tradition took its place at the head of the table, decreeing favorite decorations and dishes to produce another memorable feast.

Evergreens, holly, and mistletoe bedecked dining rooms. Fine cloth, candles, and floral centerpieces adorned tables. At every place, floral boutonnieres or breast-knots awaited guests who sat down to the household’s finest china. An array of forks, knives, and spoons awaited them, along with a fine napkin, salt cellar, a bread plate, and the best stemware. Christmas dinner arrived in courses, planned well in advance. The following menu comes from “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” popularly known as “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” first published in 1896.

A Menu for Christmas Dinner

· Consomme and Bread Sticks

· Olives, Celery, and Salted Pecans

· Roast Goose, Potato Stuffing, and Apple Sauce

· Duchess Potatoes, Cream of Lima Beans

· Chicken Croquettes with Green Peas

· Dressed Lettuce with Cheese Straws

· English Plum Pudding with Brandy Sauce

· Frozen Pudding, Assorted Cakes, and Bonbons

· Crackers and Cheese

· Café Noir.

Consomme and Bread Sticks

Soup or salad? This dinner includes both, but it begins with soup. Some Victorians preferred oyster bisque, which neatly combined two courses for those who considered a fish course essential. Fannie Farmer dispensed with the fish course entirely, which no doubt catered to those who felt that cooking a lot of courses didn’t suit Christmas day.

Consomme, or clarified broth, is time-consuming to make. The broth might be made from a variety of meats--chicken, beef, veal, lamb, pheasant, or even turtle. It required the cook to boil the broth with a “clearmeat” of egg whites, cut vegetables, and ground meat. The result was a beautiful concentrated soup with superior flavor. Today, you can buy canned consommé, but that is often broth with gelatin added. You can find instructions for homemade consommé in the Fannie Farmer cookbook.

Olives, Celery, and Salted Pecans

Some Victorians served small delicacies at this point, while others offered them alongside the salad. Other tasty morsels included pickles, radishes, melon spiced with nutmeg, sweet- pickled grapes, and beets on a bed of mayonnaise-dressed lettuce.

Roasted Goose, Potato Stuffing, and Applesauce

Fannie Farmer’s menu is simple compared to others of the day. Besides roasted goose, a Christmas table might groan under the weight of a standing rib of beef, a turkey with cranberry sauce, and a boar’s head or ham. Goose is quintessential Christmas fare, of course. Just ask Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Whatever the main dish(es), the host carving the meat before his guests was a cherished tradition.

Applesauce needs no introduction, but potato stuffing was new to me. According to some, serving potato stuffing makes mashed potatoes redundant. I can get behind anything that eases that last-minute scramble to get everything to the table while it’s warm. I’m no expert, but a recipe at the New England website looks promising.

Duchess Potatoes and Cream of Lima Beans

Any overachiever should love Duchess Potatoes, or Pommes Duchesse as the French call them. The recipe has been around since it first appeared in La Nouvelle Cuisinière Bourgeoise (1746). In her Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, Fannie Farmer suggested piping the potato-egg mixture into interesting shapes—baskets, roses, pyramids, crowns, leaves, and the like. What’s not to love?

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to trying Cream of Lima Beans. Read the comments to the recipe and you might want to make them too. The dish sounds easy and surprisingly delicious.

Other vegetables graced Victorian Christmas feasts: sweet potatoes, salsify, rice, creamed spinach, minced cabbage, creamed tomatoes, cauliflower au gratin, to name a few.

Chicken Croquettes with Green Peas

Victorians liked to make a dish that combined bits of meat, fruit, bread, grains, and/or vegetables in a fried crust. Croquettes were a thrifty way to use up leftovers or cuts that otherwise might not be eaten (such as brain or sweetmeat), Chicken croquettes with peas sound fairly safe, and might even get children to eat their peas.

Dressed Lettuce with Cheese Straws

By this point in the meal, diners were slowing down but anticipating dessert. One more course remained before that happy event. Wise cooks offered a simple salad course of lettuce with French dressing, enlivened by cheese straws and a few small delicacies (perhaps radishes, beets, and nuts) on the side.

English Plum Pudding with Brandy Sauce

At last arrived the grand finale. Plum pudding, or Christmas pudding, originated in the Middle Ages. At first a savory dish, it had transformed into its present sweet form by the Victorian era. Plum pudding has concluded traditional English Christmas dinners for centuries. Doused with brandy and set alight, it would be carried by the hostess into the dining room amid cheers and applause.

Despite its name, this pudding contains no plums. It features raisins, which used to be called “plums.” Currants, figs, and citron are included in Fannie Farmer’s English Plum Pudding recipe. Suet (a kind of beef fat) was chopped fine and incorporated into the batter. Although suet is an unfamiliar ingredient to Americans, cooking with it is not that different from using lard or shortening.

To buy suet in the United States, check with a butcher. If you want to experiment with a substitute, the Times Colonist website has advice for you, It also offers a pudding recipe that doesn’t call for suet. The steamed cranberry pudding with raisins, currants, and walnuts contains no alcohol and takes about twenty minutes to prepare. It cooks in under two hours. Victoriana Magazine has a selection of Christmas pudding recipes.

If you use shortening in your pudding, please make it a healthy version with no transfats. Butter has a lower melting point, so the texture will vary, but I did notice comments stating that it turns out delicious.

The pudding is steamed in a mold (available online). Good Housekeeping explains how to steam plum pudding. The traditional time to make plum pudding is the first Sunday of Advent. We’re a little late this year but early for the next.

Fannie Farmer’s cookbook has you covered for pudding sauces, by the way. If you're not into the traditional brandy sauce, you can choose another.

Frozen Pudding, Assorted Cakes, and Bon Bons

From what I can tell, Victorian “frozen pudding” was much like ice cream frozen in a mold. One example is Nesselrode pudding. A chef working for Russian Count Nesselrode created a decadent chestnut pudding and named it for his employer. A fancy dessert in Victorian times, Nesselrode Pudding remains popular today.

Victorians enjoyed a variety of cakes, as we do today. Folks are still raving over Mary Berry’s Christmas cake, a fruitcake-like confection.

Victorian bon bons were small candies, often covered in chocolate (because why not?). They were much like the boxes of chocolates we indulge in today. A list of homemade bon bons at Victorian Voices describes caramel walnuts, chocolate almonds, chocolate caramels, coconut ices, and something known as “American sweets,” which contained a variety of fillings.

Crackers and Cheese

“Salt after sweet!” an aunt of mine was fond of proclaiming. Her words had the ring of something she’d brought forward from childhood. I blame Grandma for instilling this mantra in her and, by osmosis, in me. I can’t eat a piece of cake without wanting potato chips. I’m kidding, mostly. Actually, crackers are considered a palate cleanser, and cheese contains casein, which strengthens tooth enamel and prevents acidic foods from damaging your teeth. They knew a thing or two in Victorian times.

Café Noir

Fannie Farmer’s Christmas dinner menu concludes with black coffee to let the meal “settle.” Many people believe that drinking coffee after a meal aids the digestion, and it does have certain beneficial effects. It is known to balance blood sugar after eating, which increases energy levels.


This menu is more attainable in terms of labor and resources than the Victorian Thanksgiving menu I wrote about last month. I do like the idea of hosting a Victorian Christmas dinner for friends and family. I'll try a few of the dishes this Christmas and next year go gung-ho. How about you?

What's New with Janalyn Voigt

I am enjoying a brief lull in my schedule to allow for the holidays. This is something I've wanted to do since my writing career blossomed. This is the first Christmas in a long while that it has worked out. I'm thankful for my blessings, and more time for my family and myself is one of them. Bedtime reading is in the picture again, and I couldn't be more ecstatic. My years judging literary contests and reading books for review meant that I read to a schedule. I can't think of anything more likely to kill a passion for reading. Fortunately, it's back, and I intend to guard it well. If you are struggling to read, I understand. 
One thing that helped me is getting excited about putting together a reading corner in my home. The plans, much delayed by Christmas, are in the works. Speaking of Christmas, have a lovely one. 

Janalyn Voigt is the author of the Montana Gold western historical fiction series and the Tales of Faeraven medieval epic fantasy series. Learn more about Janalyn Voigt.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today, and Merry Christmas! Wow, that's a lot of food!!! I admire you for even thinking of tackling it. There are some things that sound good there.