History of Figgy Pudding: Origins, Traditions and Recipe
Figgy Pudding, a Christmas Tradition
Figgy pudding is a very old Christmas tradition. Also called "Christmas pudding," it is traditionally made on the Sunday before Advent. This was called "Stir-Up Sunday." In spite of its name, it is not actually a pudding, but more like a bread. Figgy pudding is basically a moist and delicious spice cake containing figs and walnuts.
Making good, old-time Christmas foods is much easier today than it was in the distant past. To make an old favorite like figgy pudding, one can bring back a feeling of nostalgia with the tried-and-true original method, or try a much quicker method. Either way, the pudding is going to taste good.
Christmas Dinner's Grand Finale
This dish is traditionally served on Christmas Day as the traditional finale to a proper British Christmas dinner. In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, he describes how nervous Mrs. Cratchit is "to take the pudding up and bring it in."
Since it is the highlight of the holiday supper, Mrs. Cratchit is all aflutter and in a great worry that the dessert she had spent two days preparing and hours steaming had turned out right. The whole family waits in wild joy and anticipation until finally, she brings the long-awaited dessert to the dining room, with pride showing on her face.
In she comes with the pudding, 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.— "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens
Spice Cake for the Carolers
Traditionally, it had become an expected treat for the carolers who came around to homes singing Christmas songs. Usually, the cake was steamed, but it can also be baked.
Now! Bring us some figgy pudding and bring some out here.— From the song, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"
Origins of Christmas Pudding
The origins of figgy pudding go back to medieval England. At that time it was not a dessert, but a method of preserving meats for the winter months. Dried meats and fruits were kept in a pastry bag. When liquids were added to the dried mix, it all expanded, and when cooked in pies, it fed many people. It was a very savory dish, not sweet at all. It was originally called "frumenty", made with beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wine and several spices. It was more like a soup than a bread.
By the end of the 14th century, the addition of eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruits, beer and spirits gave it more flavor and a thicker consistency. The figgy pudding of today is more like a bread. In Victorian England, the pudding contained less meat, with additions of flour, suet, sugar, fruits, and spices, which resulted in the delicious Christmas dessert of today. It is also called plum pudding by some, although there are no plums in it.
How Long Does Figgy Pudding Take to Make?
A traditional figgy pudding takes two days to make. The first day is when all the ingredients are mixed well, covered, refrigerated and left overnight. On the next day, you grease a basin (a stainless steel pan with no handle), put the dough in it, and cover the dough with wax paper. The basin is then sat in a large pan of water to steam for eight hours.
When the pudding is cool, it is wrapped in wax paper, put into a pastry bag and stored till Christmas day. Prior to serving, the pudding is warmed up by the steaming method for two hours. To serve, warm brandy is poured over the pudding and lit. The flaming pudding is ceremoniously taken to the table as the family anxiously await that great moment.
Stir-Up Sunday, an Age-Old Custom
The Sunday before Advent was called "Stir-Up Sunday," which came from the old customs in England and is still commonly referred to by that name in the United Kingdom. The traditions and lore attached to the pudding are very interesting. The traditional time to make the pudding was four to five weeks before Christmas, or the last Sunday before Advent.
A Good-Luck Charm for the Coming Year
It was common lore to include something in the pudding for good luck; silver coins for wealth in the following year, a silver thimble for thriftiness, or a wishbone for good luck, were just a few of the items that might be put inside the pudding. The lucky person who received the item in their serving was envied by all.
Christmas Pudding Customs and Symbolism
Many customs became associated with the pudding in early days, some of which remain to this day. Several of these customs are steeped in symbolism.
- When the pudding was being made, a common custom was to have each member of the household give a stir and make a wish.
- It was believed that it should contain 13 ingredients to be symbolic of Jesus and the Disciples.
- Another custom was that the stirring should be done with a wooden spoon, from east to west, to remember the three Wise Men.
- The holly sprig stuck on top of the pudding represents the Crown of Thorns that Jesus wore when He was crucified; the holly also was for good luck and healing for the coming year.
- The brandy that was poured over the pudding and set alight represented the love and power of Jesus.
Figgy Pudding: Traditional Recipe and Method
Recipe will make one two pound pudding. It can be divided into two 1 pound puddings. A one pound Christmas Pudding makes a lovely hostess gift when over-wrapped in white tissue paper and a red bow with a holly sprig tied in it.
- 7 ounces dried figs, chopped
- 7 ounces currants, washed (dried Black Corinth grapes, which are smaller than raisins)
- 7 ounces sultanas, washed (Thompson seedless grapes)
- 3 1/2 ounces mixed peels (chopped orange and lemon peel)
- 7 ounces bread crumbs
- 7 ounces Demerara sugar (From the Demerara colony in Guyana, this is a little lighter in color than brown sugar and has larger crystals. It is drier than brown sugar and not as processed as white sugar, so is a healthier alternative to white sugar.)
- 7 ounces suet, shredded
- 3 1/2 ounces almonds, blanched (Chopped walnuts can be substituted for the almonds.)
- 7 ounces flour
- 1 teaspoon each ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon, and mixed spiced (Allspice)
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 pint stale beer or stout ale
- Juice and finely grated rind from one lemon
- If using almonds, blanch them by placing them in a small mixing bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Let stand while you measure into a large mixing bowl the figs, currants, sultanas, and peel with a large wooden spoon. Fold in the breadcrumbs, sugar, suet and lemon rind. Remove skins from almonds. Finely chop almonds or walnuts and add to the fruit mix.
- Sift dry ingredients together into a small bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs then add the lemon juice and beer. Combine dry ingredients and egg mixture with the fruit mixture. Mix till all is well blended, cover and refrigerate overnight.
- On the following day, remove the mixture from the refrigerator. Grease a deep, round basin (stainless steel pan with no handle, or crock) with melted fat and place the pudding mixture in the basin. Grease a piece of wax paper and cover basin with it, pleating the paper across the top and tying firmly around the basin rim.
- Place basin in a larger pot of water. The water level should reach only halfway up the basin, or less. Gently steam the pudding for 8 hours, checking the water level often. The one-pound pudding should be steamed for 6 hours.
- Remove pudding from steamer pot and set on a rack, still in the basin, till cool. When cool, remove paper and recover with freshly greased paper following the same method as before. Store in a cool, dry place till Christmas Day.
- Before serving, reheat pudding by steaming for 2 hours. Unwrap pudding and place on serving platter. Pour about 1/2 cup of warm brandy over pudding and light. When brandy has burned off, cut and serve the pudding with a sprig of holly on each individual dessert plate.
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Blessings, and may you always walk in peace and harmony, softly upon Mother Earth.
Phyllis Doyle Burns
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns