Taking on figgy pudding: The Christmas food that carolers demand

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comDecember 19, 2012 

Figgy Pudding

PATRICK DONOHUE/STAFF PHOTO

I never knew what figgy pudding was, but I did know we weren't leaving until we got some.

And I wasn't alone. No one, it seems, knows what it is, yet we all blithely sing along with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" each year.

Why has no one bothered to learn more about this holiday treat, which is apparently so delicious that revelers are willing to outstay their welcome and risk arrest?

Were we relying on our parents to teach us? Unless they're Dickensian carolers, they're not likely to be a treasure trove of information on Victorian-era Christmas traditions.

Enough is enough, I decided. I could no longer not stand idly by and allow another generation of Americans to continue demanding figgy anything without first knowing what they're talking about.

This was now a Christmas quest.

The first thing I learned about figgy pudding is that figgy pudding is a lot like "Fight Club" -- the first rule of figgy pudding is that you don't talk about figgy pudding. Or, at least that's how it seems on the Internet.

I expected historical societies, scholars and foodies to have long ago descended upon this subject matter with vigor and holiday cheer, recounting in great detail the dish's origins and its modern-day adaptations.

I found neither. Most of the articles touched briefly, if at all, on where the dish came from, largely offering only that it originated in England sometime in the early 19th century and once was a Christmas staple.

The articles also informed me that figgy pudding isn't really a "pudding," at least not as Americans know pudding to be. It is basically a spiced cake that includes a variety of dried fruits, mostly figs, dates and cranberries. Figgy pudding is basically a fruit cake.

That this dessert was actually the cousin of a much-maligned American holiday food was certainly an inconvenient truth, but it didn't explain why the people in "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" were so over-the-moon for it.

There was only one thing to do: I was going to have to make a figgy pudding.

This task seemed a little daunting considering I possess neither the patience nor precision to bake well. But I was undeterred.

I combed the Internet for figgy pudding recipes and found a reputable one written by Dorie Greenspan in 2007 for NPR.

I learned from her recipe that I would not be baking per se, but instead would be steaming the cake in a giant stockpot, news that pleased me given my prospensity for destroying baked goods.

My apartment filled with the heavenly aroma of dried figs and raisins cooking slowly in a shallow bath of imitation rum flavoring.

The recipe called for brandy and rum to be set ablaze in a pyrotechnic display usually reserved for KISS concerts. Given my baking ineptitude, I thought this an unnecessary risk and skipped the fire show.

As the figs and raisins slowly simmered, I assembled the rest of the cake batter, a thick, brown, sludgelike substance made of eggs, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, flour and the like.

Soon, the fig mixture and the batter became one and were scraped into a round bundt cake pan and placed carefully at the bottom of the stockpot.

Understanding none of the chemistry that would help turn this gooey batter into a delicious holiday confection, I sealed the pot with tin foil and, as instructed, waited for two long hours, wondering all the while what nightmare awaited me when I opened the steamy crypt atop my stove.

The hours came and went, and when I opened the pot, I was greeted not by an explosion of batter and figs but instead by the sweet smell of spices and a deliciously moist cake.

I was victorious.

I was blown away by the texture and the taste, a warmth and spice familiar to anyone who has ever eaten a fresh gingerbread cookie or snickerdoodle. The fruit was kind of a drag, though. There was a lot of it, and it tended to overpower the delicate spice of the cake itself. But this was a success by any measure.

As my perfectly circular figgy pudding posed for pictures beside my Christmas tree, I was reminded how much fun it can be to satisfy a long-held curiosity and tackle the traditions and customs of a bygone era.

For many, figgy pudding was more than just dessert. It was, not unlike pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, something to be enjoyed in the company of family and friends during a season when we are reminded to be grateful for both.

And not for nothing, but figgy pudding was way better than any fruit cake I've ever had.

RELATED CONTENT

The recipe used by Patrick Donohue for this story

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