Now, You Can Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding

Dorie Greenspan and Michele Norris i i

Baking expert and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan (left) and All Things Considered host Michele Norris prepare figgy pudding. Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
Dorie Greenspan and Michele Norris

Baking expert and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan (left) and All Things Considered host Michele Norris prepare figgy pudding.

Coburn Dukehart, NPR

For years, Michele Norris has wondered what exactly figgy pudding is.

To find out more about the Christmas treat that generations of carolers have demanded, she invited Dorie Greenspan, baking expert and author of Baking: From My Home to Yours, to her kitchen.

Greenspan describes figgy pudding as being "a little bit like fruitcake."

"I was afraid to say it because fruitcake has such a bad reputation, but [figgy pudding] is steamed; it's chockablock with dried fruits; it's so boozy. ... It's delicious," she says.

Figgy pudding is also known as Christmas pudding or plum pudding. It's a traditional English dessert that's actually more cake-ish than pudding-ish.

It's also a tradition that's starting to die out in modern Britain. A magazine survey found that 30 percent of respondents did not like Christmas pudding.

But Greenspan says, "I would love to be responsible with you for rehabilitating the figgy pudding."

Greenspan and Norris team up to prepare a figgy pudding.

Celebrating Sweet and Steamy Christmas Pudding

Figgy pudding i i

Figgy pudding — aka plum pudding, plum porridge, Christmas pudding and steamed pudding — is chockablock with dried fruit but tastes nothing like fruitcake. Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
Figgy pudding

Figgy pudding — aka plum pudding, plum porridge, Christmas pudding and steamed pudding — is chockablock with dried fruit but tastes nothing like fruitcake.

Coburn Dukehart, NPR

While most of us have sung about figgy pudding since our kindergarten Christmas pageants, my guess is that most of us have never eaten the treat, maybe even have never laid eyes on it. We don't have much of a Christmas pudding tradition in America, but the way I see it, now — a week before the holiday — is the perfect time to start a pudding revolution and make up for our lapse.

Figgy pudding — aka plum pudding, plum porridge, Christmas pudding and steamed pudding — is a quintessentially British sweet with a history that might go back to Shakespeare's time. We know it was around in the mid-1600s, because that's when the English Puritans banned it — and Christmas, too. There probably aren't too many sweets that have been banned, but then there aren't too many sweets that are as alcoholic as this one.

The pudding, a steamed cakelike treat that's chockablock with dried fruits — mine has figs, raisins, cherries and cranberries — is a sturdy sweet that gets its good keeping qualities (you can make it now and stow it away until Christmas), its lovely moistness and its bona fides for being banned from alcohol: brandy or cognac and rum in the mix, and the same over it, if you want to present it aflame.

Here are the reasons I think we should all be making Christmas pudding — immediately:

It's delicious. It's sweet and fruity, spicy and boozy, sturdy, generous, filling, and, in its own simple way, exotic: It will taste like nothing else in your holiday spread. (OK, it's a little like fruitcake — I was trying to avoid mentioning that — but there is nothing green, bright red or fluorescently yellow in it.)

It's fun to make. The batter for the cake comes together very quickly (you don't need anything more special than a whisk in the equipment department) and cooks in a most unusual way: It gets steamed for a couple of hours, so while it's cooking, you hear a rat-a-tat-tat as it rocks gently in its water bath, and you have the pleasure of being in a kitchen fragrant with sugar, spice and spirits.

It's beautiful. The pudding is made in a Bundt, Kugelhopf, turban or other ring mold and emerges from its steam bath honey brown and lavishly studded with fruit. It's even more beautiful brought to the table in flames.

It's a keeper. You can make it tonight, and it will keep until Christmas. In fact, it will get better because the fruits, brandy and rum will have more time to flavor the cake more deeply. Once it has cooled, wrap it up in plastic film, stow it in the fridge and just re-steam it before you're ready to serve.

It's got a lovely ritual attached to it. Everyone in the house is meant to have a hand in making the pudding, so everyone should grab the whisk and, together, give it at least one turn around the bowl while — here's the best part — making a wish. If you'd like, you could even stir a little trinket into the batter. Do this, and the person who finds it will be guaranteed good luck.

The recipe that follows is my take on this traditional sweet. I hope you'll enjoy it, and I hope that when the carolers come to the door singing, "We want some figgy pudding," you'll get as much of a giggle as I do out of being able to give them just what they asked for.

Sweet and Steamy Christmas Pudding

Snipped Calymyrna figs. i i

Snipped Calymyrna figs. Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
Snipped Calymyrna figs.

Snipped Calymyrna figs.

Coburn Dukehart, NPR
For a dramatic presentation, you can serve the Christmas pudding aflame. i i

For a dramatic presentation, set a match to the finished Christmas pudding ... Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
For a dramatic presentation, you can serve the Christmas pudding aflame.

For a dramatic presentation, set a match to the finished Christmas pudding ...

Coburn Dukehart, NPR
And serve it aflame. i i

... And serve it aflame. Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
And serve it aflame.

... And serve it aflame.

Coburn Dukehart, NPR

Dorie Greenspan, author of Baking: From My Home to Yours, created this recipe for figgy Christmas pudding for All Things Considered.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

12 plump dried Calymyrna figs, snipped into small pieces

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup dark rum

1/3 cup cognac or brandy

1/2 cup raisins

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

1 (packed) cup brown sugar

2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (made from about 8 inches of baguette)

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 cup dried cherries

1 cup dried cranberries

1/3 cup brandy, cognac or rum, to flame the pudding (optional)

Softly whipped, lightly sweetened heavy cream, vanilla ice cream or applesauce, homemade or store-bought, for serving (optional)

Getting ready: You'll need a tube pan with a capacity of 8 to 10 cups — a Bundt or Kugelhopf pan is perfect here — and a stock pot that can hold the pan. (If you've got a lobster pot, use that; it'll be nice and roomy.) Put a double thickness of paper toweling in the bottom of the pot — it will keep the pudding from jiggling too much while it's steaming. Spray the tube pan with cooking spray, then butter it generously, making sure to give the center tube a good coating.

Put the figs and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and, keeping an eye on the pan, cook until the water is almost evaporated. Add the cognac or brandy, rum and raisins and bring the liquids back to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, make sure it's in an open space, have a pot cover at hand and, standing back, set the liquid aflame. Let the flames burn for 2 minutes, then extinguish them by sealing the pan with the pot cover. For a milder taste, burn the rum and brandy until the flames die out on their own. Set the pan aside uncovered.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt and keep at hand.

Working in a mixing bowl with a whisk, beat the eggs and brown sugar together until well blended. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir in the bread crumbs, followed by the melted butter and the fig mixture (liquids included). Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and gently mix them in — you'll have a thick batter. Fold in the cherries and cranberries.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and seal the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Set the pan into the stock pot and fill the pot with enough hot water to come one-half to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the baking pan. Bring the water to a boil, then cover the pot tightly with foil and the lid.

Lower the heat so that the water simmers gently, and steam the pudding for 2 hours. (Check to make sure that the water level isn't getting too low; fill with more water, if necessary.) Carefully remove the foil sealing the pot — open the foil away from you to protect your arms and face — and then take off the foil covering the pan. To test that the pudding is done, stick a skewer or thin knife into the center of the pudding — the skewer or knife should come out dry.

To remove the pudding from the pan (a tricky operation), I find it easiest to carefully empty the water into the sink, and then carefully ease the baking pan out on its side. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let the pudding cool for 5 minutes. Detach the pudding from the sides of the pan using a kitchen knife, if necessary, then gently invert it onto the rack. Allow the pudding to cool for 30 minutes.

If you'd like to flame the pudding — nothing's more dramatic — warm 1/3 cup of brandy, cognac or rum in a saucepan over medium heat. Pour the warm liquid over the top of the pudding, and then, taking every precaution that Smokey Bear would, set a match to the alcohol. When the flames die out, cut the pudding into generous pieces. Actually, there's so much fruit in the pudding, the only way to cut neat slices is to make the slices generous.

Serve the pudding with whipped cream, ice cream or applesauce.

Alternatively, you can cool the pudding completely, wrap it very well in several layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate it for up to two weeks. When you are ready to serve, butter the pan the pudding was cooked in, slip the pudding back into the pan, seal the pan with foil, and re-steam for 45 minutes.

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