Adventures in Eating

What the Hell is Figgy Pudding Anyway?

We all know the lines from the song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” right?

“Now bring us some figgy pudding / now bring us some figgy pudding / now bring us some figgy pudding / and bring it right here. / We won’t go until we get some / we won’t go until we get some / we won’t go until we get some / so bring some out here.”

None of that familiar “please-and-thank-you” business that was pushed on me as a kid. Bring us some pudding, or we’ll stay on your lawn all night.

If a group of carolers will be so demanding as to deliver an ultimatum of loitering in someone’s yard until they get figgy pudding, then I must only conclude one thing:  figgy pudding is mad delicious.

But here’s the thing:  have you ever had figgy pudding? Has anybody had figgy pudding? What the hell is figgy pudding anyway?

I’m not a food historian or a food anthropologist; I’m just a girl on a mission to find what I can about figgy pudding. So I turned to the Internet and to some really old cookbooks. Here’s what I found out.

Our first hurdle is in our conceptualization of pudding. When I was growing up, pudding was made with a box of powdered pudding mix and a cup of milk. It was a cold, gelatinous dessert (always sweet, never savory) akin to custard. But pudding is much more complex than that. Puddings have long been associated with the English culinary tradition; indeed, the first use of the word “pudding” was in 13th century Middle English.

Merriam-Webster defines pudding, first, as a boiled or baked soft food with some kind of bread base to it; secondly, it is defined as a soft, spongy, or thick and creamy dessert (hello, Jell-O). And lastly, it is defined as a dish containing suet and originally being boiled in a bag.

Mm. Suet. Beef or mutton fat.

Wait. Beef fat and figs? Yeah. I was surprised too.

When I was researching this little post, I turned to the antique cookbooks my grandmothers have given me. Let’s look first at the second edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book, published in 1923. Here we find two recipes for Fig Pudding, both containing beef suet, figs, bread crumbs, milk, eggs, salt, and granulated sugar. In the slightly sweeter (or perhaps just slightly more festive) version of the recipe, we also add a chopped sour apple and brown sugar instead of the white. Both recipes are molded and steamed and served with sauce.

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Jump ahead a few years to Ida Bailey Allen’s Modern Cookbook, a cookbook first published in 1924, and whose second edition (the one in my possession) was published in 1935. Here we find a recipe for Fig Pudding very similar to Fannie Farmer’s, right down to the chopped beef suet and figs.

The American Woman’s Cookbook, 1949 edition, breaks out of the pudding mold a bit. Here we’ve tossed away the beef suet and added ginger, making this a pure dessert pudding. This is also the first time we’ve seen the use of gelatin powder, which was developed in the late 1800s and paved the way for our more contemporary definition of pudding in America – the Jell-O gelatin line of jiggly desserts.

Lest we cast figgy pudding into the company of other nostalgic, novelty desserts like fruit cake, it’s important to note that in 2012, chef Heston Blumethal, owner of The Fat Duck in Bray, England, sold traditional figgy pudding, with a secret ball of soft toffee hidden inside, for £14.99. However, The Telegraph reported sellers on eBay selling the pudding for £60. That’s roughly $98 USD. Again, I am forced to conclude that figgy pudding has got to be mad, mad delicious. So I decided to find out.

I made a batch of figgy pudding, using a recipe from Jade Thompson that I found on the Food Network, with a buttery rum sauce from Food Network Canada. One thing I can tell you after my survey of various recipes around the Interwebs, is that figgy pudding today is a far cry from the beef suet-and-fig pudding of yesteryear. We’re using dried fruit, booze, dark sugars, and deep spice. My figgy pudding came out more like a spice cake, with rich flavors of chocolate, rum, and the slight sweetness of dates and figs.

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The cool thing about cooking historic dishes – dishes with a lot of tradition behind them, dishes that have evolved over time – is that you take your place in that dish’s history. By cooking it, you participate in that dish’s life cycle. And if you think about the dishes that stand the test of time, and the ones that don’t, the main difference is people’s willingness to continue making them through the years. So here’s a round-up of figgy pudding recipes to try for yourself. Share them with carolers, or keep all that figgy goodness for yourself.

Food & Wine Orange-Figgy Steamed Pudding

BBC Food’s Figgy Pudding

Dorie Greenspan’s Sweet and Steamy Christmas Pudding (for NPR)

BBC Good Food’s Figgy Christmas Pudding

Food52′s Figgy Pudding Butter Cookies

Imbibe‘s Figgy Pudding cocktail




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About Dana Staves

Dana Staves writes about food, books, and the writing life. To keep up with her antics and see gratuitous Instagrams of her cat and her food, follow her on Twitter @DanaStaves.

  • Jeremiah N

    Thank you for answering one of life’s great questions.

    • Dana Staves

      Haha, no problem! I was happy to answer it. And then eat it. :)

  • Danguole Lekaviciute

    Suet… Oh my. I’m so glad we’ve moved on to butter.

    • Dana Staves

      Oh my goodness, you and me both.