It's amazing what a brief mention in one Victorian-era Christmas carol can do for an obscure little dessert called figgy pudding. Every year, thousands of people around the world become curious about the dessert mentioned in the secular English carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Apparently, the party-goers mentioned in the lyrics refuse to leave until they get some of this pudding from their host. This must be some seriously good pudding.
In actuality, figgy pudding is more of a cake than a pudding. There have been recipes for it since the 15th century, although its popularity as a Christmas dessert probably reached its peak during the late 19th century. Several factors have significantly hampered the wholesale expansion of the figgy pudding industry, including an interminably long cooking time, an exotic ingredients list and a cringe-inducing dependency on saturated fats for texture.
There are numerous recipes for this pudding, from a traditional steamed version similar to modern bread pudding to a pastry-covered blend of figs, dates, fruits and spices. Nearly all recipes call for three or four hours of steaming. This is accomplished by placing a metal bowl with the pudding mixture into a larger bowl partially filled with boiling water. The indirect heat generated by the boiling water cooks the dessert evenly and slowly. This is equivalent to using a bain marie water bath for individual ramekins filled with batter.
The most traditional figgy pudding recipe is very similar to a carrot cake base blended with a custard. Chopped figs are added for flavoring and texture, along with chopped dates or apples when available. The spices are similar to carrot or spice cake: cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg are commonly used. Heavy cream, eggs, sugar and milk help to create the custard. For additional flavoring, many traditional recipes also call for liqueurs such as cognac or rum. Non-alcoholic extracts can also be used.
Some fig pudding recipes call for a loaf of fig-infused bread to be crumbled into the mixture, while others suggest standard breadcrumbs. As if this weren't enough, the most faithful recipes also call for the addition of an animal fat called suet. Suet is a form of fat found near an animal's kidneys. Pure butter and shortening can be substituted if suet is not available locally. All of these ingredients are mixed together in a metal bowl or pudding mold and placed in a larger pot for steaming over a fire.
Only three or four hours later, those house-squatting carolers demanding their figgy pudding can finally be appeased. Steaming was a very popular cooking method before the days of regulated heating. Even if the source of the heat were inconsistent, the food itself would still cook fairly evenly. Even so, the unveiling of a pudding was often a defining moment for the cook. The dessert would be either a solid success or a soggy mess. Charles Dickens hints at this moment-of-truth during the Cratchit's dinner in his novel, A Christmas Carol.