MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, holiday traditions are defined by what’s served, the food that becomes vetted and favorite for generations: Roast Turkey and dressing at Thanksgiving, Standing Beef Rib Roast or goose and Yorkshire pudding at Christmas. You get it—your family has its own, as does mine. Nancy Reagan’s Christmas tradition—one she’s served every year since she married, as her mother did before her—is all-American Persimmon Pudding with Hard Sauce. It’s this country’s answer to a steamed spice pudding from England, andI had never had it until I started going to Nancy’s several years ago for Christmas Day dinner.
We’ll get to the recipe in a sec, but first let’s talk about Nancy’s Christmas table, in her oval-shaped dining room in Bel-Air. There’s a gorgeous French crystal chandelier with prisms, and pale blue Chinese hand-painted scenic wall paper.
Nancy’s closest friend, David Jones—garden designer, custom florist, party guru, and all-around magician of aesthetics—always master-minded all things horticultural in the house, from the thrice-weekly dead-heading of the most mundane orchid in the Reagans’ powder room, to the sensational pair of gold trees in the dining room that flanked each side of the windows looking out to the views of Beverly Hills and the Pacific Ocean. The table? A highly polished Regencymahogany number set for 10 with gold pinecones and red candles, cut red amaryllis in silver bowls, heavy green linen placemats, red-plaid lapkins with embroidered monograms, and perhaps the most beautiful red wine glasses I have everseen: large Bordeaux-shaped crystal goblets meticulously etched with dancing reindeer that had been a gift from the Hungarian ambassador when the Reagans were in Washington. Daughter Patti told me the glasses were“not my taste,” suggesting they were too ornate, but they sure were mine! On the table, gleaming Francis I flatware completed the scene for the holiday festivities.
David J. went over two days before with a measuring tape to make sure everything was ship-shapefor Christmas. Delicious Lobster Bisque was the first course, served at the table, and then a buffet of traditional fare: Roast Turkey, Country Ham, baked sweet potatoes, dressing, cranberry relish, yeast rolls. After everything was cleared, the desserts were passed: Pecan Pie, Orange Pound Cake, and the pièce de résistance: Persimmon Pudding with Hard Sauce. Nancy has a fabulous cook from the Philippines named Bernice who has learned Nancy’s family recipes as if they were her own—a true talent as I’m not so sure about the persimmons in the Philippines, if you see what I mean…Add this to your Christmas menu if you’re not already stacked up with desserts. Make it in a mold if you’re gameor just in a baking dish—there’s no way to go wrong. And here’s to your Christmas traditions, new and old, and mine…and Nancy’s!
with Hard Sauce
• 12 tablespoons salted butter, softened, 1 ½ stick, plus more for the mold or baking dish
• 1 ¼ cups sugar
• 1 cup light brown sugar
• ½ teaspoon fine salt
• 6 super-ripe Hachiya persimmons, peeled, seeded, and chopped
• 3 eggs
• ¼ cup Bourbon
• ½ cup buttermilk
• ½ cup milk
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda (make sure it’s new)
• 1 ½ cups flour
• Pre-heat the oven to 350°.
• Butter an 8-cup mold, or a 9x12” baking dish.
• In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, two sugars, and salt together on medium until they are light and fluffy. Turn the mixing speed to low and add the persimmons, the eggs (one at a time), the Bourbon, the buttermilk, milk, the vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange zest.
• Whisk the baking soda and flour together in a separate bowl, and add it gradually to the mixture with the mixer on the very lowest speed. Do not over-mix.
• Bake the pudding in a bain-marie for the mold, or on the oven rack for the baking dish, for 35–40 minutes.
• Remove it from the oven and let it rest for at least 15–20 minutes before serving it with Hard Sauce, or let it cool and re-heat it to serve it later. It will be better the longer it sits, and will keep for up to 5 days in your refrigerator.
• 1 stick salted butter, softened
• 1 cup powdered sugar
• ¹/8 teaspoon salt
• 2 tablespoons Bourbon
• In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and salt together until they are light and fluffy. Add the Bourbon, and continue to mix for another minute more. Serve over warmed Persimmon Pudding.