What is Figgy Pudding?
We sing about it every year at Christmas time, but few people know what it is. Figgy Pudding is mentioned once in a Victorian Christmas carol and the strange name (combined with the fact that most people have never heard of it) means there’s plenty of curiosity about this holiday treat. So what is Figgy Pudding?
In the English Christmas carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” Figgy Pudding plays a starring role. In the Christmas carol, a group of party-goers refuse to leave the home of their host until they are served Figgy Pudding. Part of our confusion over just what exactly Figgy Pudding is can be chalked up to miscommunication. When you hear the words “Figgy Pudding”, remember that the British use the word “pudding” in places where we in America would say “cake”. Recipes for Figgy Pudding have existed for hundreds of years — the earliest on record comes to us from the 15th century.
Not always a Christmas dessert, Figgy Pudding was added to Yuletide food traditions only recently, sometime in the 19th century about the time the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” was popularized. Why don’t more people at Figgy Pudding? This particular pudding takes forever to cook, contains weird ingredients, and depends mostly on heavy doses of saturated fat for its particular texture. Let’s look at the recipe.
Figgy Pudding Recipe
1 cup suet
1 cup citron
1 cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons rum
1 apple peeled, cored and finely chopped
1 pound dried figs, ground or finely chopped
Grated peel of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1 cup chopped nuts
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 cups dried bread crumbs
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 large egg whites, stiffly beaten
Prepare a two-quart mold.
Cream together the butter and shortening, gradually adding sugar, egg yolks, milk, extract, apple, figs, lemon, citron, and orange peel. Add the next 6 ingredients, mixing well.
Fold stiffly beaten egg whites into mixture.
Pour into two-quart buttered bowl or mold and place into large shallow pan and steam for four hours.
Figgy pudding is nothing without its custard sauce, so here’s that too.
2 cups milk
1 large egg
3/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
Scald milk in saucepan, allow to cool.
Mix together remaining ingredients, except for butter. Add to cooled milk. Cook over low heat until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in butter, mixing well.
Serve pudding warm with custard sauce or sweetened whipped cream.
Modern Figgy Pudding Recipes
Steamed fig and plum spice cakes are still popular in many parts of the world, especially at Christmas time. While contemporary recipes may not be authentic figgy pudding, they are similar in flavor and texture to bread pudding with figs and spices. The three or four hours of difficult steaming in Figgy Pudding recipes means that most home chefs aren’t going to attempt to cook one.
Steaming a Figgy Pudding is a matter of using the right tools. Much like working with chocolate, making a Figgy Pudding generally means filling one bowl with the pudding mix and placing that bowl inside a larger structure partially full of boiling water. This cooks the pudding with indirect heat, low and slow like a backyard BBQ. This cooking method can be seen on a smaller scale in desserts like panna cotta.
Traditional Figgy Pudding Recipes
The most common and most traditional version of figgy pudding is similar to a kind of carrot cake — the base is essentially the same, although in the case of Figgy Pudding, it is normally blended with a custard. Chopped figs, dates, or other tough fruits are added in the interest of flavor and texture — the dates and figs are traditionally chopped rather than left whole.
The spice mixture in a traditional Figgy Pudding are also similar to a carrot or spice cake. Combine cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg and you’ve got a very traditional Christmas flavor. The part of the Figgy Pudding that many people shy away from — heavy cream, sugar, eggs, and whole milk — are necessary to build a proper custard, though they add a massive amount of unhealthy fat. Traditionally, Figgy Pudding is spiked with some sort of alcohol for flavor — usually cognac or rum.
Altered Forms of Figgy Pudding
You can get really fancy when making Figgy Pudding. (See Gourmet Food for more information.) Many people in the UK purchase or make fig-infused breads to make breadcrumbs for Figgy Pudding. This expensive step adds a mild flavor to the mixture. You don’t have to use fig-infused bread, but it is traditional, so if you’re going for authenticity, this item is a must have.
The addition of something called suet in traditional recipes causes many people pause — suet is animal fat gathered from around the animal’s kidneys. Though most recipes for Figgy Pudding no longer include suet, a true Figgy Pudding must have it. Using butter or shortening in place of suet is a perfect way to update the dish for today’s kitchens, but suet gives the pudding its texture. A suet and fig cake steamed over an open fire — is there anything that says “Christmas” with more authority?
Why Do the Carolers Demand Figgy Pudding?
It is hard to say why exactly an obscure dessert like Figgy Pudding gets top billing in a popular Christmas carol. We know the dish had been popular for a few hundred years before the song was written, and we know that it had only recently taken up its place as the go to Christmas dessert, but why the writer of the carol included such a strong reference to the stuff is unknown.
In three or four hours, and after using a lot of odd ingredients, you can appease your carolers with a delicious British Figgy Pudding. Steaming is the only way to go, and though it is time consuming (not to mention extremely hot work), you have to remember that steaming was the main method of cooking in Britain before regulated heating systems became a reality.
Classically speaking, the reveal of a good traditional Figgy Pudding was a big moment at Victorian Christmas feasts. At the time of the reveal itself, the Figgy Pudding could be a solid dessert (and a huge success for the cook) or it would be soggy and ruined. Much like Christmas celebrations, a Figgy Pudding either works or it doesnt.
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