This holiday season, one popular Christmas carol has been raising some questions here at NPR headquarters. Namely:
“Oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh — ”
Wait. What is figgy pudding?
First of all, it’s “absolutely delicious,” says Debbie Waugh, who recently served the dish at a tea at the Historic Green Spring House in Alexandria, Va.
Figgy pudding — also known as plum pudding or Christmas pudding — is a staple of the British Christmas table, she says.
“I resembles something like a cannonball, and it maybe feels a bit like a cannonball when it hits your stomach, but it’s tradition and we love it,” Waugh tells NPR’s Michel Martin.
And despite its moniker, the dessert features neither figs nor plums.
“The ‘plum’ was a pre-Victorian generic term for any type of dried fruit, but most specifically, raisins,” Waugh explains. ” ‘Figgy’ — certainly at some time figs would have been incorporated into Christmas pudding recipes, but today, not traditionally.”
It’s also a pudding in the British sense, meaning dessert — not the creamy, custardy dish most Americans associate with the word. It’s a steamed cake full of with raisins, currants and brandy.
The traditions around the figgy pudding carry a lot of Christian symbolism, Waugh says. The classic dish had 13 ingredients — “representing Christ and the 12 apostles,” she says — and was served with a sprig of holly on top, standing in for the crown of thorns
“And, of course, the most important part of the Christmas pudding tradition: We set it on fire,” Waugh says. “We pour a bit of brandy over it and set it aflame to great applause.” That particular tradition represents the passion of Christ, she says.
When NPR asked if Waugh could make one and let our staffers watch, she was blunt: “Not on your life!”
“Few people nowadays make their own from scratch,” she says. “It’s a very time-consuming, labor-intensive operation. We’re already a bit too late, anyway, to make a Christmas pudding, because you should have begun it on the last Sunday before Advent … five weeks before Christmas.”
Letting the pudding age allows the alcohol to draw out more flavors, Waugh says.
“You could make your pudding on Christmas Eve and I’m sure it would be just fine, but much better to start well ahead.”
Ah well. If you’re OK with a “just fine” version — or want to sample a figgy pudding in late January — Waugh did agree to share her recipe.
Christmas/Plum/Figgy Pudding Recipe
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 8 hours
Ideal aging time: 4-5 weeks
9 oz. brown sugar
9 oz. suet (raw beef or mutton fat)
14 oz. golden raisins
14 oz. raisins
9 oz. currants
5 oz. chopped candied orange peel
5 oz. plain flour
5 oz. white or brown breadcrumbs
Grated zest of one lemon
5 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. mixed spice
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1/4 pint [1/2 cup] brandy
- Place all dry ingredients into large bowl and mix well.
- Stir in the eggs and brandy.
- Grease a 2-liter/4-pint pudding basin, then pour in the mixture. [Editor’s note: If you don’t have a pudding basin, also known as a steam bowl, a heat-proof metal or pyrex mixing bowl can stand in. Make sure it has a lip at the top, so your string will stay in place.]
- Place a circle of baking parchment and a circle of foil over the top of the basin and tie securely with string.
- Put the basin into a large steamer of boiling water and cover with a lid. [Editor’s note: If you don’t have a steamer, you can use a large pot. Place a trivet or a small inverted plate at the bottom to raise your pudding basin up from the bottom of the pot].
- Boil for 5-6 hours. Top up the water as necessary so the pot doesn’t boil dry.
- Allow pudding to cool.
- Refresh parchment and foil covers and re-tie.
- Store in a cool, dry place for 4-5 weeks until Christmas Day (You can get away with preparing it on Christmas Eve, though.)
- Steam pudding again for 1-2 hours immediately before serving.
- Place on table, douse with brandy and set aflame!