What really is (or was) Figgy Pudding? More importantly, do we really want some?
For most of us, all we really know about Figgy Pudding is that it was made famous as a verse in the popular Christmas Carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” where it is exclaimed, “Now bring us some Figgy Pudding.”
In 16th-century England, Figgy Pudding was the Tiramisu of its day. Even Bob Cratchit in Charles Dicken’s famous A Christmas Carol had it on his table at the end of the Christmas meal for all to enjoy. It was also apparently a popular dessert served on Palm Sunday.
But why figs?
As it turns out, fig trees were once commonplace in English gardens. As figs can be dried and enjoyed throughout the year, they were readily available for making a pudding (dessert) in December. In later centuries, as fig trees diminished, figs in recipes were gradually replaced by raisins, which were cheaper.
During that same era, other European countries had similar desserts, such as the German Stollen, Kugehopf and the Italian Panettone.
Similar to the aforementioned desserts, Figgy Pudding (also known as Christmas Pudding) is more of a cake than a pudding as we Americans think of them. In fact, the English term pudding is often used simply to mean a sweet dessert following a meal.
So why isn’t traditional Figgy Pudding more popular?
Figgy Pudding isn’t just any type of cake. Traditionally, it’s a steamed cake, one where the batter is poured into a tin mold, covered, and then baked in a water bath.
In addition, the list of ingredients you need typically aren’t in most people’s cupboards. It’s full of saturated fats and alcohol and takes forever to bake (3 to 4 hours). Besides, figs just aren’t as popular as they used to be.
I’d bet even Betty Crocker hated to make this one.
In the attempt to modernize this historic dessert, you’ll find recipes called Figgy Pudding that are more like today’s cakes, but they’re not the original. The original Figgy Pudding is actually more like a fruit cake.
Why make Figgy Pudding?
There’s no good answer, but if you live in a Currier and Ives World, love snow globes, never miss some version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol during the holidays, enjoy the sound of sleigh bells, and in general are a hopeless romantic around a fireplace when there’s 6 inches of snow on the ground outside, perhaps, just maybe, Figgy Pudding might be for you.
It will also help if you like figs.
I have made Figgy Pudding many times, mostly for Wassail Feasts. And since this is a traditional recipe, I like to stay as close to the original idea as is practical. Below is a recipe I’ve used that is quite good and that I think you will enjoy. It is from Dorie Greenspan, the author of Baking: From My Home to Yours. She shared this recipe on an episode of NPR’s All Things Considered. The recipe is below. If you’d like to hear Dorie’s interview on NPR, here is the link.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
12 Plump dried Calimyrna figs, snipped into small pieces
½ Cup Water
½ Cup Dark rum
1/3 Cup Cognac or brandy
½ Cup Raisins
1 1/3 Cups All-purpose flour
2 tsp Baking powder
1 ½ tsp Ground cinnamon
1 tsp Ground ginger
½ tsp Freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp Ground cloves
¼ tsp Salt
3 large Eggs
1 Cup Brown sugar
2 Cups Fresh white bread crumbs (made from about 8 inches of baguette)
1 Stick Unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Cup Dried cherries
1 Cup Dried cranberries
1/3 Cup Brandy, cognac or rum to flame the pudding (optional)
Softly whipped, lightly sweetened heavy cream, vanilla ice cream or applesauce, homemade or store-bought, for serving (optional)
Getting ready: You’ll need a tube pan with a capacity of 8 to 10 cups — a Bundt or Kugelhopf pan is perfect here — and a stock pot that can hold the pan. (If you’ve got a lobster pot, use that; it’ll be nice and roomy.) Put a double thickness of paper toweling in the bottom of the pot — it will keep the pudding from jiggling too much while it’s steaming. Spray the tube pan with cooking spray, then butter it generously, making sure to give the center tube a good coating.
Put the figs and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and, keeping an eye on the pan, cook until the water is almost evaporated. Add the cognac or brandy, rum and raisins and bring the liquids back to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, make sure it’s in an open space, have a pot cover at hand and, standing back, set the liquid aflame. Let the flames burn for 2 minutes, then extinguish them by sealing the pan with the pot cover. For a milder taste, burn the rum and brandy until the flames die out on their own. Set the pan aside uncovered.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt and keep at hand.
Working in a mixing bowl with a whisk, beat the eggs and brown sugar together until well blended. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir in the bread crumbs, followed by the melted butter and the fig mixture (liquids included). Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and gently mix them in — you’ll have a thick batter. Fold in the cherries and cranberries.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and seal the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Set the pan into the stock pot and fill the pot with enough hot water to come one-half to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the baking pan. Bring the water to a boil, then cover the pot tightly with foil and the lid.
Lower the heat so that the water simmers gently, and steam the pudding for 2 hours. (Check to make sure that the water level isn’t getting too low; fill with more water, if necessary.) Carefully remove the foil sealing the pot — open the foil away from you to protect your arms and face — and then take off the foil covering the pan. To test that the pudding is done, stick a skewer or thin knife into the center of the pudding — the skewer or knife should come out dry.
To remove the pudding from the pan (a tricky operation), I find it easiest to carefully empty the water into the sink, and then carefully ease the baking pan out on its side. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let the pudding cool for 5 minutes. Detach the pudding from the sides of the pan using a kitchen knife, if necessary, then gently invert it onto the rack. Allow the pudding to cool for 30 minutes.
If you’d like to flame the pudding — nothing’s more dramatic — warm 1/3 cup of brandy, cognac or rum in a saucepan over medium heat. Pour the warm liquid over the top of the pudding, and then, taking every precaution that Smokey Bear would, set a match to the alcohol. When the flames die out, cut the pudding into generous pieces. Actually, there’s so much fruit in the pudding, the only way to cut neat slices is to make the slices generous.
Serve the pudding with whipped cream, ice cream or applesauce.
Alternatively, you can cool the pudding completely, wrap it very well in several layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate it for up to two weeks. When you are ready to serve, butter the pan the pudding was cooked in, slip the pudding back into the pan, seal the pan with foil, and re-steam for 45 minutes.