Every year about this time, thousands of people around the world become curious about “figgy pudding.” The term figgy pudding comes from the Christmas carol, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas," which includes the line, "Now bring us some figgy pudding" in the chorus.
The history of figgy pudding dates back to 16th century England. "Pudding" is old English slang meaning dessert. Many old English after-dinner coffee cakes are referred to as pudds or puddings. Its possible ancestors include savory puddings such as crustades, fygeye or figge (a potage of mashed figs thickened with bread), creme boiled (a kind of stirred custard), and sippets. Actually, figgy pudding is more of a cake than a pudding. Construction-wise, it's akin to carrot cake or spice cake.
To create a figgy pudding, you must count on an interminably long cooking time, collect an exotic ingredients list which includes a cringe-inducing dependency on saturated fats for texture. There are numerous recipes for this pudding, from a traditional steamed version similar to modern bread pudding to a pastry-covered blend of figs, dates, fruits and spices. Nearly all recipes call for three or four hours of steaming. The indirect heat generated by the boiling water cooks the dessert evenly and slowly.
Chopped figs are added for flavoring and texture, along with chopped dates or apples when available. Heavy cream, eggs, sugar and milk help to create the custard. The spices are similar to carrot or spice cake: cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. Pure butter and shortening cannot be substituted.
William Woys Weaver, in his The Christmas Cook, c 1990, Harper Perennial, suggests that mid-19th century American cooks who could not afford imported figs from Italy or Spain used "tomato figs": tomatoes cooked in brown sugar, then sun dried.
Three or four hours later, the unveiling of a pudding was often a defining moment for the cook. The dessert would be either a solid success or a soggy mess. The figgy pudding should always be served warm. If you can't serve it fresh out of the oven, it will taste just fine to warm it in the microwave for a few seconds.
Want to give it a try? Here’s a typical recipe:
Figgy Pudding By Chef James Thomas
16 ounces dried figs
1 3/4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup melted butter
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a medium saucepan, heat milk and chopped figs over medium-low heat but do NOT bring to a boil. Cook for 10-15 minutes stirring occasionally. The milk will soften the figs.
3. In a medium bowl mix flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt.
4. In a large bowl, beat eggs one minute on high. Reduce speed to low and add butter, bread crumbs, orange peel, and warm fig mixture.
5. Slowly incorporate flour mixture. Beat until just blended.
6. Pour the mix into the greased bundt pan. Level top as much as possible. Cover the mold with a piece of aluminum foil greased on one side, greased side down.
7. Place the mold in a roasting pan and place on oven rack. Fill with hot tap water 2 inches up the side of the mold. Bake for 2 hours or until the pudding is firm and it is pulling away from the side of the bundt pan.
8. Remove the pudding from the water bath. Remove the foil and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before unmolding. Invert bundt pan onto a serving plate and remove mold. It should come away easily.
9. Serve with a hard sauce.