This holiday season, one popular Christmas carol has been raising some questions here at NPR headquarters. Namely:
"Oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh — "
Wait. What is figgy pudding?
First of all, it's "absolutely delicious," says Debbie Waugh, who recently served the dish at a tea at the Historic Green Spring House in Alexandria, Va.
Figgy pudding — also known as plum pudding or Christmas pudding — is a staple of the British Christmas table, she says.
"It resembles something like a cannonball, and it maybe feels a bit like a cannonball when it hits your stomach, but it's tradition and we love it," Waugh tells NPR's Michel Martin.
And despite its moniker, the dessert features neither figs nor plums.
"The 'plum' was a pre-Victorian generic term for any type of dried fruit, but most specifically, raisins," Waugh explains. " 'Figgy' — certainly at some time figs would have been incorporated into Christmas pudding recipes, but today, not traditionally."
It's also a pudding in the British sense, meaning dessert — not the creamy, custardy dish most Americans associate with the word. It's a steamed cake full of raisins, currants and brandy.
The traditions around the figgy pudding carry a lot of Christian symbolism, Waugh says. The classic dish had 13 ingredients — "representing Christ and the 12 apostles," she says — and was served with a sprig of holly on top, standing in for the crown of thorns.
"And, of course, the most important part of the Christmas pudding tradition: We set it on fire," Waugh says. "We pour a bit of brandy over it and set it aflame to great applause." That particular tradition represents the passion of Christ, she says.
When NPR asked if Waugh could make one and let our staffers watch, she was blunt: "Not on your life!"
"Few people nowadays make their own from scratch," she says. "It's a very time-consuming, labor-intensive operation. We're already a bit too late, anyway, to make a Christmas pudding, because you should have begun it on the last Sunday before Advent ... five weeks before Christmas."
Letting the pudding age allows the alcohol to draw out more flavors, Waugh says.
"You could make your pudding on Christmas Eve and I'm sure it would be just fine, but much better to start well ahead."
Ah well. If you're OK with a "just fine" version — or want to sample a figgy pudding in late January — Waugh did agree to share her recipe.
Christmas/Plum/Figgy Pudding Recipe
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 8 hours
Ideal aging time: 4-5 weeks
9 oz. brown sugar
9 oz. suet (raw beef or mutton fat)
14 oz. golden raisins
14 oz. raisins
9 oz. currants
5 oz. chopped candied orange peel
5 oz. plain flour
5 oz. white or brown breadcrumbs
Grated zest of one lemon
5 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. mixed spice
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1/4 pint [1/2 cup] brandy
- Place all dry ingredients into large bowl and mix well.
- Stir in the eggs and brandy.
- Grease a 2-liter/4-pint pudding basin, then pour in the mixture. [Editor's note: If you don't have a pudding basin, also known as a steam bowl, a heat-proof metal or pyrex mixing bowl can stand in. Make sure it has a lip at the top, so your string will stay in place.]
- Place a circle of baking parchment and a circle of foil over the top of the basin and tie securely with string.
- Put the basin into a large steamer of boiling water and cover with a lid. [Editor's note: If you don't have a steamer, you can use a large pot. Place a trivet or a small inverted plate at the bottom to raise your pudding basin up from the bottom of the pot].
- Boil for 5-6 hours. Top up the water as necessary so the pot doesn't boil dry.
- Allow pudding to cool.
- Refresh parchment and foil covers and re-tie.
- Store in a cool, dry place for 4-5 weeks until Christmas Day (You can get away with preparing it on Christmas Eve, though.)
- Steam pudding again for 1-2 hours immediately before serving.
- Place on table, douse with brandy and set aflame!
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time for Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about in the coming days by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. And we know you are hearing these words this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, bring us some figgy pudding. Oh, bring us some figgy pudding...
MARTIN: As somebody around here was thinking, just what is figgy pudding?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We won't go until we get some...
MARTIN: But we found somebody who knows how to make the stuff. She serves at tea at the historic Green Spring house in Alexandria, Va. Her name is Debbie Waugh, and she joins us now from the Historic Green Spring house. Hello, Debbie. Happy holidays.
DEBBIE WAUGH: Hello, thank you so much and to you.
MARTIN: So what is figgy pudding, and is it good?
WAUGH: Figgy pudding, also known as plum pudding, also known as Christmas pudding, is absolutely delicious. It is a staple of the traditional British Christmas table. It resembles something like a cannonball. And it maybe feels a bit like a cannonball when it hits your stomach, but it's tradition and we love it. So we demand, just like the carolers.
MARTIN: Does it have plums or figs or...
MARTIN: ...All of those things or...
WAUGH: Interestingly, no, neither one. The...
MARTIN: Neither one?
WAUGH: Neither one, no. Plum pudding - that comes - the plum was a pre-Victorian generic term simply for - for any type of dried fruit but most specifically raisins. Figgy - certainly, at some time figs would have been incorporated into Christmas pudding recipes, but today, not traditionally - you won't find things in your Christmas pudding. Traditionally, the recipes contained 13 ingredients, representing Christ and the 12 apostles. We traditionally serve it up with a sprig of holly on top, representing the crown of thorns. And of course, the most important part of the Christmas pudding tradition, we set it on fire. We pour a bit of brandy over it and set it aflame to great applause...
WAUGH: ...That representing the passion of Christ.
MARTIN: So we asked you if you would make one for us so we could watch you, and you said...
WAUGH: Not on your life.
MARTIN: Why is that?
WAUGH: Well, few people nowadays make their own from scratch. It's a very time-consuming, labor-intensive operation. We're already a bit too late anyway to make a Christmas pudding because you should have begun it on the last Sunday before Advent, so five weeks before Christmas.
MARTIN: Five weeks?
WAUGH: Five weeks, yes.
MARTIN: How come? You have to soak the fruits in wine or something, or on your...
WAUGH: Well, you have to age it. You throw in all your ingredients - your raisins, your currants, your sugar, your flour, your suet, your branding, of course. And you mix them all together - preparation time - 30 minutes, cooking time - eight hours...
WAUGH: ...Aging time - four to five weeks.
MARTIN: So that's why you said no, because you don't want us to move into your house basically is what you're saying.
MARTIN: You could come up, but you'd have to move in, I see.
WAUGH: Yes, ideally you should age your pudding in a cool dry place, and that's when all of that lovely brandy and rum and whatever other alcohol you choose to - to include in the recipe - that's when it works its wonders and draws out all these beautiful flavor notes. So you could make your pudding on Christmas Eve, and I'm sure it would be just fine but much better to start well ahead.
MARTIN: That's Debbie Waugh. She's the coordinator of the Historic Green Spring house in Alexandria, Va. And if you are feeling ambitious, her figgy pudding recipe can be found at our website - npr.org. Debbie Waugh, thank you so much for speaking with us. Happy holidays.
WAUGH: It's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.