For a few years when I was younger my family and a few other mad people did a mid-winter swim. One weekend, near the shortest day of the year, we would gather at Princess Bay on the Wellington south coast. Our cars would be packed with blankets, woollen socks and woollen jerseys, lots of towels and too much polar fleece. We had picnic baskets full of soft bread rolls, berry muffins and thermos of hot drinks.

The adults would stand on the beach drinking coffee for a while, hands curved around the white plastic cups. My sister and I would walk around the tiny, black sand beach looking for rock pools and writing our names in the sand. Usually it was a sharp, clear winter day. We could see the Kaikoura mountain range, too close and too white for running into the sea. Other years a biting southerly wind tore through the Cook Strait and hypothermia was quite a serious threat.

We would all change into our swimwear. I remember floral swim caps and beach shoes. A few in wetsuits, but mostly they were brave in summer togs. My sister and I were made to wear wetsuits, though I longed to be big enough to wear togs too. A few more minutes of hand wringing then the towels and blankets were dropped. We ran into the water, arms flailing and knees rising, as if trying to propel ourselves out of the sea. Some dived straight through the small waves, but most of us ran out to waist depth and plunged under, the freezing water catching at our lungs.

Back on the beach we pulled polar fleece over our still wet bodies, wrapped around towels and put on hats. The coarse sand stuck to our feet, piercing like needles. We stayed on the beach, trying to warm up. The adults drank mulled wine and hot orange juice. I remember my sister and I sitting in the open boot of someone’s car next to the thermos of mulled wine. We could smell the warm spices and citrus aromas. We poured ourselves a tiny cup and had a sip. It was hot and sweet and tasted like berries and orange.

Later in the afternoon we would meet at someone’s house for a mid-winter feast. These meals were an eye opening experience for me as a child. My sister and I sat at the table with the grown ups. We had wine glasses with sparkling grape juice and proper knives and forks. One year we had goose. I tried quail eggs and ate brussel sprouts. Another year there was Golden Soup with carrot and orange. But what I remember most clearly is the year my mother made sticky date puddings.

This memory, according to my mother, is mostly fabricated in my head, but this does not make these puddings any less special. In some sort of “Alice in Wonderland” state of child wonderment these date puddings were made in tea cups. They were caramel in colour with rich streaks of soft date and each one slightly domed. Our tea set was white with tiny blue squares around the rim and in a matching jug we had butterscotch sauce. We ate our puddings in their little cups on saucers; they seemed so exciting and so grown up.

I have held on to this made up memory for a long time. I told my mother about it a few months ago and I was slightly crushed to discover it hadn’t happened as I remembered. There were indeed sticky date puddings but made in Tex Mex muffin tins. We have eaten quite a few steamed puddings this winter, all made in tea cups. In my flat we have a new tea set, ivory coloured Crown Lynn with a beach-grass design.

Last week I used up some of the bananas in our freezer to make banana steamed puddings. I was aiming for a light pudding, the kind that you might eat after a fresh Thai curry. Instead, I made a very wintery, sweet with honey, quite dense sort of pudding. But no less delicious. The honey, the cinnamon and the banana created a moist pudding and definitely more interesting than banana bread or banana cake. I put a handful of raisins into the mix also. Next time I make these I might soak the raisins in a splash of brandy. A pudding will nearly always benefit from plump, brandy saturated raisins.

I made these puddings twice in one week. One night we served our tea cups on their saucers with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and the other night I tipped the puddings upside down onto their saucers and sprinkled bits of walnuts. They were everything my child mind remembered them to be. All we needed was a sneaky thermos of mulled wine.

Banana Steamed Puddings
A recipe loosely based on this one from the BBC website. BBC Food has some wonderful recipes.

150g butter
150g castor sugar
2 eggs
175g self raising flour
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
50g sultanas
3 ripe bananas, mashed
honey

Preheat oven to 180C.

Cream butter and sugar, beating for about 5 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour with the spices, add the vanilla essence, sultanas and mashed bananas. Fold together until well combined.

Butter 6 ramekins or teacups, spoon a teaspoon of honey in the bottom of each ramekin. Fill each teacup ¾ of the way up. Place teacups in a roasting dish, fill the pan half way up with water and place a piece of tinfoil on top of tea cups. Lightly press the edges of the foil around the tea cups to better enclose the tea cups. Place in the oven for 40-50 minutes or until slightly springy to the touch and a skewer inserted into the middle of the pudding comes out clean.

N.B. I don’t think my oven is very powerful so you may want to check your puddings after 30 minutes. A lot of steamed pudding recipes recommend this cooking time.

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