So, What Exactly Is Figgy Pudding, Anyhow?

published Dec 24, 2019
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Oh bring us some figgy pudding, oh bring us some figgy pudding, oh bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it right here. Most of us probably sing that line at least once or twice a year (it’s from the carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” if you don’t remember), but do you know what figgy pudding actually is?

Most Americans understand pudding as a creamy, milk-based dessert that comes in flavors like chocolate, vanilla, tapioca, or butterscotch. Figgy pudding, on the other hand, is a Victorian dessert that more closely resembles fruit cake. Traditionally it is served on Christmas Day. 

The most traditional version of figgy pudding (aka Christmas pudding) is chock-full of delicious, seasonally inspired ingredients. There are dried fruits such as currants, raisins, and (yes) figs. There are nuts and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. There are also grated or candied citrus peel, breadcrumbs, suet (raw beef or mutton fat), and brandy or cognac. Instead of being simply baked, however, it’s steamed.

“The use of dried fruits (like figs) and liqueurs in large quantities was a sign of wealth,” says Megan Elias, food historian and director of the Gastronomy Program at Boston University. To make it, the batter is typically mixed in a bowl with a whisk or spatula; the texture of figgy pudding prior to steaming it is similar to a quick bread or muffin batter. Many recipes call for the batter to be poured into a pudding basin, covered with parchment paper and aluminum foil, and placed in a large pot in a couple of inches of boiling water to steam for four to six hours. Afterward, it is inverted onto a plate, doused with brandy, and set aflame for a showstopping presentation. The fire quickly dies out and what you’re left with is a rich, slightly boozy, and super-moist pudding.

How Modern Figgy Pudding Is Made

With such a rich history (and rich flavor), I felt compelled to make my own during the most wonderful time of the year — in case any carolers came, demanding some. While there are a number of different modern versions, most of them thankfully call for readily available ingredients (I did not need to track down suet) and the batter is baked in a Bundt pan in an oven. However, the spiced flavor, the texture of dried fruits, and the rich sauce drizzled on top remain the same.

American recipes for figgy pudding also contain leavening agents like baking powder or baking soda, which were not part of most Victorian-inspired recipes. “Puddings were more common before commercial baking powder and baking soda made layer cakes possible,” explains Elias. But either way, it’s not a quick or speedy process, so plan to set aside a few hours if you want to make one.

To make my own pudding, I settled on a recipe from Williams Sonoma, which seemed to be a manageable, happy-medium between the traditional English and modern American recipes (no fire required!). It called for butter instead of suet, breadcrumbs to add body to the pudding, and a combination of figs and raisins for texture and flavor. I steamed the pudding in a Pyrex glass mixing bowl — I did not have a traditional basin. Then I served it with with sweet fig syrup and a dollop of sweetened whipped cream, which enhances all of the warm, slightly sweet flavors in the dessert.

Credit: Kelly Vaughan

While figgy pudding is certainly not like what most Americans consider to be traditional Christmas desserts — a batch of sugar cookies decorated with royal icing, cheery gingerbread men, or chocolate fudge — it’s a delicious, old-fashioned treat that deserves a resurgence this Christmas season.

Get the recipe: Steamed Fig Pudding from Williams Sonoma