Last year, when delving into the history of holiday carols, I found myself asking a question that I’ve wondered about since my youth: What exactly is figgy pudding?
The traditional English dessert is mentioned several times in the popular carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it right here), referring to the caroling traditions of 16th century England where Christmas treats and drinks were given to carolers by wealthy well-wishers as a thank you for the songs. Often, these treats included puddings.
After a bit of research, I discovered that figgy pudding is actually more cake-like in form. It is similar to modern-day Christmas puddings and plum puddings, and—like it or not—is a cousin to the unjustly maligned fruitcake. But, don’t let that keep you from trying this delicious, boozy dessert. (Yes, classic figgy pudding includes a good dose of rum and brandy—perfect for warming chilly carolers.)
According to Christmas folklore, each member of the household should take part in the creation of the pudding—making a wish as they whisk the batter or add in the brandy. And though we don’t recommend this, it was even custom to mix in a coin, and whoever found it had their wish come true.
FIGGY CHRISTMAS PUDDING
Makes 8 to 10 servings
12 plump dried Calymyrna figs, snipped into small pieces
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup dark rum
1/3 cup cognac or brandy
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 (packed) cup brown sugar
2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (made from about 8 inches of baguette)
1 stick (4 ounces) 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.
–Recipe originally published on npr.org.