Bing Crosby was practically a family member around Christmas in the home where I was raised. Crosby, with help from his own family and the Andrews Sisters, could be heard spitting his classic Christmas rhymes on the record player and throughout the house via the home intercom system.
I didn't just listen to these songs, I learned them. Every word.
When it came to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the song offered the promise of two things I held close to my 6-year-old heart: figs and pudding.
To this day, I cannot and will not keep Fig Newtons in my house because of their power over me. Pudding, on the other hand, I haven't eaten in years, but when I was 6, pudding was the single-most sought-after food in my life. Whether chocolate or butterscotch, I couldn't care less. I wanted it, and I wasn't going to shut up until I got some.
So, when Bing demanded, in song, figgy pudding, I immediately went to the source of all world knowledge as I knew it in 1974: Mom.
All the Good Housekeepings and all the Better Homes and Gardens couldn't help mom satisfy the insatiable 6-year-old at her feet. So, I settled for chocolate and butterscotch ad nauseam. And, like any other 6-year-old, I quickly forgot about figgy pudding when a “Planet of the Apes” fortress full of dolls and make-believe artillery was left in Santa's wake under our Christmas tree — until the next Christmas.
Alas, Mom never could scratch the figgy pudding itch, and somewhere along the way I learned it was nothing more than a variant of fruit cake, which I didn't learn to love, or even like, for many years.
This year, I endeavored to solve the mystery of figgy pudding and did no small amount of recipe research. I settled on two: one from the BBC, because the pudding is British, and this is about as British as it gets, and Dorie Greenspan, because she is the United States' patron saint of baking.
Between the two, I arrived at a recipe that sounded reasonable. The ingredients were not beyond my reach. The degree of difficulty didn't seem too formidable.
The biggest challenge I had was in the cooking. Traditional figgy pudding is steamed, not baked. After a lot of consideration, it occurred to me that the technique might not be too unlike another holiday favorite: tamales. So, I found a big tamale pot for 20 bucks at Feria Latina, 4909 NW 23 St. Turns out a tamale pot is ideal for figgy pudding.
The final result is not so much pudding as cake, though much more moist and dense. This figgy pudding has little flour in it, and not a lot of sugar. Some recipes have no sugar.
Fitting for holiday
After cooking and sampling the pudding, I now understand how it came to be a holiday tradition. First, it keeps for an extended period. It doesn't need refrigeration, and the flavor is so rich that it would be unlikely anyone would want much more than a small, single slice. In other words, a little goes a long way. Kind of fitting that a fellow who would go on to feed 5,000 with a little fish and bread would have his birthday celebrated with a dessert with similar stretching power.
Anyway, I had several people comment that this figgy pudding tasted a little like Fig Newtons, which I took as positive feedback. Thanks to recent local upgrades to our grocery stores, I found all the ingredients in one trip.
Putting the pudding batter together took no more than 20 minutes, which is great since the cooking takes so long.
It might cook from now to Christmas Eve, but when you're done, you'll have a nice traditional treat to share and a surefire way to quickly dispense with carolers and maintain tact.
8 ounces dried figs
¾ cup brandy
¼ cup self-rising flour
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1½ cup fresh breadcrumbs (5 stale or lightly toasted slices of bread ground with 1 tablespoon olive oil or melted butter)
1 cup chopped dates
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup currants
1 orange, zest and juice only
2-inch piece fresh root ginger, grated and strained to retain only the juice
Butter, for greasing
Creme Anglaise, recipe to follow
• Place the figs in a bowl. Pour brandy over the figs. Leave to soak overnight, then drain (reserving the brandy) and roughly chop the figs.
• In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, nutmeg, breadcrumbs, currants, dates and raisins.
• In the bowl of a stand-up mixer combine eggs and sugar and whip until creamed. Add reserved brandy, orange zest, orange juice, ginger juice and whip until well combined at medium speed.
• Gradually add the flour mixture to the batter at low speed. Increase speed and mix well to combine, until smooth and free of lumps.
• Fold in the figs and transfer the batter into a well-greased Bundt, tube or pudding mold. Top with greased parchment paper, then wrap tightly with foil. If the foil is coming up on the edges, secure it with butcher's twine.
• Fill a large steaming pot, lobster pot or tamale pot up to the fill line and bring to a boil. Place the Bundt pan on the steamer's rack and cover tightly. Reduce heat to medium and steam for three hours. After every hour, check the water and add as necessary.
• When pudding is springy to the touch, pierce it with a wooden skewer. If it comes back without residual, pudding, it's done.
• Carefully remove the pudding from the pot. Warning: When you open the lid, steam will rush out, and it will be teeming with the alcohol that's cooked off. Let the cake stand 15 to 30 minutes, then top with a chopping block or upside-down cake dish. Carefully turn the pudding over onto the chopping block or cake dish and let cool an hour.
• Slice and serve with Creme Anglaise for dunking.
• This pudding can be refrigerated or wrapped and held at room temperature.
Source: Dave Cathey, with influence from the BBC website and Dorie Greenspan via National Public Radio.