If your only exposure to figgy pudding comes from the classic Christmas song in which carolers demand the dessert and refuse to leave unless they get some, you might wonder if it’s really that good—and maybe you also wonder what it actually is. Allow us to satisfy your Christmas curiosity.
So…What Is It?
Well, basically, it’s a boozy, sticky, dense steamed cake of sorts studded with dried fruit, typically aged at least one month, and flambéed at the table before serving. It’s also known as plum pudding (and formerly, plum pottage), although there are no plums in it—and generally no figs, either. Figs did appear in several Medieval cookbooks; there were multiple recipes for “figge” or “fygeye” (and other variations on that spelling), which involved boiling figs in wine and mixing them with bread or almonds, spices, and raisins. That probably accounts for the eventual “figgy pudding” variation on plum pudding, but “plum” itself was an Elizabethan-era term denoting all dried fruit, most commonly raisins, dates, and sultanas (aka golden raisins). Because this particular type of fruity pudding was served during the holidays, it also garnered the much less confusing name Christmas pudding.
Okay, that can still be a bit confusing for Americans, since we generally think of “pudding” as something smooth, jiggly, and creamy, perhaps sometimes in conjunction with rice or bread. But in England, “pudding” refers to dessert in general, and also more specifically applies to boiled or steamed sweets with a texture akin to dense sponge cake. That said, savory puddings do exist.
The Shift from Savory to Sweet
In fact, the first recorded pudding recipes were all savory, or rather all made of various meats and animal products, including blood and suet. They were devised as a way to preserve meat without smoking or salting it, and often contained heavy doses of warm spices like nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, as well as dried fruits like currants and raisins, plus a measure of sugar, but they were definitely not desserts. These heavily spiced, meaty mixtures, with grains and even vegetables mingling with the other ingredients, were usually stuffed into casings of animal intestines and boiled. (The precursors to pudding were pottages, which were soupier, but contained similar combinations of ingredients. And another extant ancestor of these pottages and puddings is haggis.)
As fruit became more plentiful at the market, these mixtures shifted to be more sweet and less meaty, although traditional Christmas pudding recipes still call for a bit of beef suet to add moisture and richness (it can be replaced with butter if you prefer that to chunks of kidney fat). By the 17th century, puddings were also being steamed wrapped in cloth rather than animal casings, which is why Mrs. Cratchit encounters a “smell like a washing-day” when removing her Christmas pud from the pan in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding.” (The beef suet would presumably account for the eating-house aromas.)
Banned in Britain
Over 150 years before Dickens published his Christmas classic, however, Christmas pudding—and Christmas itself—was actually banned in England for several years. Oliver Cromwell, 17th century British Puritan and politician, is often personally blamed for this, but in reality, the entire government then in power was pretty Grinchy.
In the mid-1600s, caroling was prohibited, businesses were ordered to remain open on Christmas Day, and soldiers were authorized to seize any Christmas food (and Christmas drink) they found while patrolling. This actual war on Christmas (there were literal pro-Christmas riots in England in 1647) even spread to the British colonies; the holiday was banned in Boston from 1659 through 1681, and people in many parts of New England were fined if caught celebrating in any form. Christmas pudding is definitely a secular dessert these days, but it is claimed to have religious associations: its traditional total of 13 ingredients is said to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus, the traditional prickly holly garnish allegedly signifies the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head, and the practice of setting the pudding alight is claimed to represent the passion of the Christ. This would have been a particularly good example of what the Puritans considered the pagan and papist abominations of the holiday, but at the time, the traditional dessert was likely still a soupier plum pottage (or porridge)—though its association with Christmas would have made it anathema to the Puritans in any form.
The ban on Christmas in England was lifted in 1660, at which point, British citizens were once more free to make merry, and make any holiday desserts they liked.
How Do You Make It?
Because the flavor needs time to fully develop, Christmas pudding is meant to be made well in advance, specifically on the last Sunday before the Advent season (so, the last week in November). This is known as Stir-up Sunday, when the whole family takes turns stirring up the Christmas pudding (or Christmas cake, or mincemeat, which all need time to mature), but the name also alludes to a passage from the Book of Common Prayer: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of they faithful people.”
By the Victorian era, Christmas pudding was made pretty much the same way as it is today: dried fruit (raisins, currants, and sultanas, sometimes with the addition of fresh or candied fruits) are mixed with citrus peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, clove, brown sugar, almonds, bread crumbs, suet (or butter), eggs, and milk. Booze (usually brandy and/or beer) is added, and then the mixture is left to sit overnight. The next day, flour is added, it’s poured into a mold and wrapped up (in parchment or foil instead of pudding cloth these days, though you can still use cheesecloth or muslin), and boiled or steamed in a water bath for up to 8 hours (naturally, you can find instructions for steaming it in your Instant Pot today). Once completely cooled, the wrapping is replaced with fresh paper, and the pudding is stored from anywhere between one month and one year (if not longer). When it’s time to serve, the pud is steamed once more, turned out onto a platter, decorated, and flambéed at the table.
Here’s Dickens again, describing the traditional look of the finished product: “like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Lest you doubt such a sturdy-sounding dessert’s appeal, know that Mr. Cratchit “regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage.” Poor Tiny Tim.
Because making figgy/plum/Christmas pudding is clearly rather labor-intensive, and it must be done so far in advance for proper flavor, commercially made puddings became available as far back as 1899. One such vintage specimen was recovered after 112 years, but the tin was too damaged to risk tasting it. However, some intrepid souls have tasted a Christmas pud clocking in at 46 years old–and liked it!
Isn’t This Just Fancy Fruitcake?
If you’re thinking that figgy pudding sounds suspiciously like fruitcake, you’re not totally wrong—but don’t let that put you off! Done right, the combination of boozy fruit, warm spices, and dense yet moist (or “damp” if that sounds any better) and sticky cake is wonderful. There are several key differences between fruitcake and figgy pudding, though:
- While they’re both made far in advance and stored (soaked in liquor) until Christmas, whereas fruitcake is ready to slice and eat, figgy/plum/Christmas pudding is steamed again just before tucking in—and while steamed fruitcake recipes do exist, they’re more often simply baked. As for the aforementioned liquor, it’s usually just brandy, rum, or (less frequently) sherry when it comes to fruitcake, whereas Christmas pudding might have a mixture of any of those, and often includes beer as well.
- There is plenty of dried fruit in Christmas pudding, but usually not the preservative-laden, artificially neon-colored glacé or candied fruits often found in fruitcake (particularly cherries, which don’t appear in traditional Christmas pudding, although you can find such variations now).
- Unlike fruitcake, Christmas pudding does sometimes contain a coin, the idea being that whoever gets the piece with the silver will have good luck in the coming year.
- Christmas pudding, once brought to the table, is doused in even more brandy and set on fire, so it’s definitely got theatrics going for it. (And while some people might prefer to set the stereotypical rock-hard fruitcake ablaze and let it burn instead of eating it, there’s no intrinsic element of spectacle to it. Point: pudding.)
- Once the flames are extinguished, Christmas pudding often gets a warm sauce (sometimes boozy) or cream spooned on top, while fruitcake rarely even has icing (and if it does, it’s probably Christmas cake, yet another British holiday dessert tradition).
Christmas pudding is not just a cousin to fruitcake, it’s also similar in many respects to mincemeat pie—which, in at least one historical case, has been made with whale meat…compared to that, beef suet doesn’t sound so bad, huh?
So What’s the Deal with the Song?
By about 1600, traditional English Christmas activities included caroling and wassailing, where people went singing door to door in the hopes of getting something good to eat or drink in return—some of them must also have genuinely wanted to spread holiday cheer, but “bring us some figgy pudding” is an earnest, if light-hearted, exhortation. Many sources claim that “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” existed in some form as far back as the 1500s, but to use a dreaded phrase, according to Wikipedia, it was not contained in several early published books of carols. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t sung before its first written record in 1953, and figgy pudding certainly existed well before then, but all we know for sure is that the song took off in the States, while the sweet itself did not.
The Proof of the Pudding Is in the Eating
The only way to find out if you’re a caroling-level fanatic about this dessert is to try some yourself. If you want to make your own figgy pudding (by whichever name you choose to call it), you can buy a steamed pudding mold for under $20 here, or you can make it in a Bundt pan. If you’re too short on time, a sticky toffee pudding makes a fine substitute—it has fairly similar flavors, though sweeter and without the warm spices or booze; it requires no suet or aging; and it has a relatively short baking time. Or, you could always buy yourself a ready-made pudding, as plenty of British and Australian families do!
Otherwise, file this away for next year, and in the meanwhile, try one of the easier pudding-inspired desserts (some more loosely inspired than others) below.
Christmas cookies meet Christmas pudding! These do actually contain dried figs, but no suet; the brandy is there in the glaze. If you think your decorating skills aren’t quite up to snuff, try these simple figgy pudding butter cookies instead—but the adorable miniature replicas are certainly way easier than the real deal. Add some cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger to the cookie dough if you want a bit more spice. Get the recipe.
Not traditional, but delicious, these easy baked pudding cakes combine fresh dark figs, cocoa powder, cinnamon, and black coffee. Drizzle with our warm Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce (bumped up with liquor if you like), and/or serve with vanilla ice cream for maximum decadence. Get the recipe.
Speaking of ice cream, you can also make a lovely frozen version of the traditional Christmas pudding. (We’re big fans of cold weather ice cream in general.) This recipe does require conversion from metric, or you can simply use the flavors and decoration instructions as a guide when adapting an American ice cream recipe you like. Get the recipe.
This is another newfangled take that does actually use figs—and it’s also gluten-free and paleo (replace the butter and honey to make it vegan and everyone can try it). It has the damp, sticky texture of traditional pudding, plus warmth from cinnamon, and chewy spots of raisins and dates. Get the recipe.
These individual brown butter puddings would be right at home on a Harry Potter dinner party table (just call them Golden Snitch Christmas puddings!), but equally as delightful at any holiday spread. They’re made from gingerbread cookie crumbs, brandy, dried figs and raisins, orange zest, and semisweet chocolate chips for good measure, with a brown butter glaze pooling on top. Get the recipe.
These cupcakes also combine chocolate and figs; there’s fig puree in the chocolate cake itself, piped into the center of the sweets, and mixed into the frosting, along with brandy for that authentic boozy flavor. Get the recipe.
If you’re looking for a Christmas cocktail, try one inspired by figgy pudding. You could make a version with port, one with gin and fig preserves, a figgy twist on an Old Fashioned, or even concoct your own recipe using Christmas pudding spiced rum. This one contains fig-infused bourbon, maple syrup, and citrus, with a dash of balsamic vinegar, which sounds intriguing. Get the recipe.
This sweet, golden cake is spiced with cinnamon and cloves, and sports a moist crumb beneath a crisp crust. Rather than being baked inside, here, the figs are caramelized in honey and honey liqueur and mounded lusciously on top. Get our Spiced Honey Cake with Caramelized Figs recipe.
This is perhaps the farthest away from traditional figgy/plum/Christmas pudding here, but it is another sort of pudding, and does contain figs, so why not? It’s a super simple coconut milk rice pudding with fresh fruit baked on top, and the perfect thing to make if you’re into subverting expectations. Get the recipe.
Header image courtesy of The Happy Foodie.