“Oh bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it right here!” Those familiar with the ancient traditional Christmas song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” will recognize the second verse asking for figgy pudding. What is figgy pudding, and why is it included in a Christmas carol?
In the 14th century, figgy pudding was a much different dish than we know today. It was a thick porridge of nuts, fruits, suet and grains, probably served in a bowl, but offering sustenance to anyone who ate it during the dark, cold winter weather for which the British Isles are famous. When the poor wandered through the village singing Christmas carols door to door, they hoped to be rewarded with a hot drink or a small snack offered by the wealthy land owners. Today, figgy pudding has evolved into a rich, satisfying cake that is enjoyed on every traditional British Christmas table.
It’s the perfect make-ahead dessert, as it’s traditionally made five or six weeks before Christmas, wrapped tightly and stored in a dark, cool space. It’s presented at Christmas dinner or other holiday celebrations, slightly warmed, festooned with a holly leaf and berries, and set alight with flaming brandy, while carried into a darkened room.
As with many holiday foods, in many countries, there is a religious symbolism now lost in the annals of time. The original recipes contained 13 ingredients that represented Christ and the 12 apostles, and the holly with three berries represents the crown of thorns and the trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today, families enjoy the sweet, delicious dessert as a fitting end to a Christmas feast. The name has been altered to plum pudding, steamed pudding and Christmas pudding, but they are basically all the same thing. Dried fruits are used because they were available as families preserved the bounty of their orchards principally by drying before other preservation methods were developed.
The dessert is commonly made at home or purchased fresh or canned in shops and bakeries all over Great Britain. Even the SPAM brand has a version available from mid-November. And the most surprising aspect of all is that this isn’t a creamy concoction or pudding as we know it. Pudding or “pud” is the British vernacular for dessert.
The recipe offered here is adapted from Eliza Acton’s 1845 cookbook “Recipes for Modern Families.” It doesn’t actually contain figs at all, and any dried fruits can be substituted for the raisins — just chop them up to about the size of raisins. The original recipes called for suet, but you can substitute butter or use coconut oil for a dairy-free version. Use gluten-free breadcrumbs and gluten-free flour to make a cake for those sensitive to wheat gluten.
If you don’t have a “pudding basin” — which is basically just an ironstone bowl with a rim on it to hold the string for tying on the parchment and foil for steaming — use whatever you have that will do the job. The pudding can be steamed in a large saucepan, stockpot or slow cooker. Longer steaming times will darken the cake to a traditional color.
This dessert is usually flamed for a festive effect and served with a dollop of brandy butter known in the USA as hard sauce.
- 1 cup dried currants (also known as zante currants)
- 3/4 cup raisins
- 3/4 cup golden raisins
- 4 tablespoons candied lemon and orange peel (or mixed fruit)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts or almonds, optional
- 1/2 cup brandy (if no alcohol is used, store steamed cake in the refrigerator)
- 2 cups toasted breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour (wheat, wholewheat or gluten-free)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon mixed spice (recipe follows)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 4 ounces shredded cold butter or cold coconut oil
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- One small apple, peeled, cored and grated
- 1 tablespoon molasses
- 2 tablespoons lemon or orange zest
Mix spices together and store in a jar. Use for traditional cookies, pumpkin pie, etc.
- 1 tablespoon quality ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground allspice
- 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoons ground coriander
Place currants, raisins, golden raisins, mixed peel and nuts in medium bowl. Add brandy and stir well. Cover and let set at room temperature overnight
The next day, mix breadcrumbs, flour, baking powder, salt and spices together in another bowl.
Beat eggs and add eggs, grated butter, grated apple, molasses and citrus zest to fruit and brandy mixture. Mix well. Add dry ingredients to the fruit mixture and mix well.
Generously grease a 2-liter pudding mold (or equivalent rounded ceramic or metal bowl). Firmly pack the cake batter into the bowl and smooth the top.
Cover the batter with a greased piece of parchment the same size as the diameter of the bowl. Cover the bowl with two more pieces of parchment that cover the sides of the bowl by at least 2 inches all the way around. Tightly tie parchment in place with kitchen string.
Place bowl in a pot of simmering water that comes about 1/2 way up the bowl. Cover with pan lid.
Keep the water simmering and add a little extra now and then, if needed, for about 8 hours. (This can be done in a slow cooker on low for 8 hours.)
Remove the bowl from the water, allow to cool about 5 minutes, remove the parchment and invert bowl onto a plate.
When the cake is completely cool, rewrap in parchment, then aluminum foil or a couple of layers of plastic wrap, and store in a dark, cool place until Christmas.
Reheat your figgy pudding before serving by placing in a microwave on 1/2 power for a few minutes or putting it back into the bowl, covering and steaming for about an hour to heat through.
Garnish as desired, slice into 10 pieces and serve with a dollop of brandy butter.
To flame: Carefully warm 3-4 tablespoons of brandy over low heat in a metal ladle, set alight with a match or candle lighter, and pour over the cake. This makes a beautiful presentation in a darkened room.
Hard Sauce (brandy butter) for serving:
Beat together until creamy: 4 ounces soft butter together with 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons brandy (cognac, rum, sherry, etc.) and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Alcohol may be omitted entirely, if desired.
Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving. When placed onto warm cake, the butter will melt into a creamy sauce.