MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
(Soundbite of song, "Figgy Pudding)
Mr. BING COSBY (Singer; Actor): (Singing) Oh, bring us some figgy pudding. Oh, bring us some figgy pudding. Oh, bring us some figgy pudding and bring it out here.
NORRIS: For years, I've been wondering, what exactly is figgy pudding.
(Soundbite of song, "Figgy Pudding)
Mr. COSBY: (Singing) We won't go until we got some. We won't…
NORRIS: And why would someone, Bing Cosby for instance, refuse to leave until he got some. What's up with that grammar? And is figgy pudding any good? I invited baker Dorie Greenspan to my kitchen to find out.
Ms. DORIE GREENSPAN (Author, "Baking: From My Home to Yours"): Figgy pudding is a little bit like a fruitcake.
NORRIS: Oh, no, say it ain't so. A fruitcake?
Ms. GREENSPAN: Actually, I was afraid to say it because fruitcake has such a bad reputation. But it's steamed, it's chockablock with dried fruits, it's so boozy. It's got rum - oh, it's delicious - and brandy.
NORRIS: 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. And if its reputation is on par with fruitcake, I understand why.
Ms. GREENSPAN: I would love to be responsible with you for rehabilitating the figgy pudding.
NORRIS: Now, during our year of baking together, Dorie Greenspan has never stirred me wrong. And she seems so enthusiastic about the pudding that, well, before I knew it, we were snipping figs into quarters, tearing up bread crumbs, and laying out the spices.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Actually, it's a spice cake as much as it is a fruitcake.
NORRIS: Our figgy Christmas pudding will be steamed. This may sound a little strange, but don't worry, directions and tips are on our Web site.
(Soundbite of spraying)
NORRIS: While I sprayed and buttered a basic Bunt pan, Dorie told me about the custom of making the Christmas pudding.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Everyone would take a turn stirring the pudding. The wooden spoon would be passed around. In some cases, it was considered good luck if you did it. I've seen recipes for figgy pudding that make 10 puddings at a time or 20, so I wonder if it wasn't just that you made such a huge quantity and it was really hard to stir.
NORRIS: Oh, you get tired out.
Ms. GREENSPAN: It's a little bit like beating, you know, bread dough or something. Yes, so that everybody who took a turn, a little elbow grease from everyone. And then it also made that pudding of yours as well that you've worked on.
NORRIS: Oh, you love that.
Into a mixing bowl, we whisked together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, ground cloves and salt. The bowl is set aside and we move on to the figs, which have been placed in a sauce pan with one-half a cup of water and boiled until the water is almost gone. This leaves the figs plumped. Next, we pump those figs in the pan, along with raisins and a half a cup of dark rum and a third a cup of brandy. Wait, careful. Oh, my goodness.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Doesn't that smell great?
NORRIS: Oh, my goodness.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Okay. Now, stand away and like that.
NORRIS: We turn off the stove and we strike a match and light the alcohol. Pretty blue flames burned for about two minutes, then they're extinguished when we cover up that pan. We set aside the fruit and then move on to the base of our pudding.
(Soundbite of whisking)
NORRIS: It takes three large eggs, brown sugar, bread crumbs, and melted butter before we add our pumped up fruit.
Ms. GREENSPAN: These are very happy figs and raisins.
NORRIS: With the smell of alcohol, we're gonna be happy in a second too. Whew, I'm going to let you stir for a minute and take a walk.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: And while I take that stroll, a little figgy history. Puritans in England banned Christmas pudding in 1664 as a lewd custom, believing the fruits, spices and spirits inflamed passions. But it made a comeback after the Restoration thanks in part to King George I. He loved Christmas pudding.
Okay, back to our pudding. We add the flour and the spices.
Ms. GREENSPAN: See now, I guess this would be the time as it's thickening up and actually we just did it naturally. As we said, everyone would take a turn.
NORRIS: And it is, I know, I know where everyone had to take a turn, so you get fresh air.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GREENSPAN: You know, you're probably right. It had nothing to do with the thickness of the pudding. It really is boozy.
Ms. GREENSPAN: But, you know, these puddings were made way in advance of the holiday. It was the alcohol that really kept them; that was used as a preservative, so that you could make this pudding two months ahead.
NORRIS: Dorie and I trade off stirring again before pouring the pudding into the Bunt pan and tightly covering it with two layers of foil. The pan then goes inside a big pot, which is filled halfway with water, brought to a boil, and then reduced down to simmering. The pudding steams like this for two full hours. After that, Dorie pulls the pan out of the pot and peels back the foil.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Opening it away because it really is steamed. Totally transformed.
NORRIS: The pudding is firm, golden brown, cake-ish and very aromatic, very Christmasy. We let it cool and then we slip it out of the Bunt pan.
Ms. GREENSPAN: It's not an L-I-T-E kind of dessert, but I think it's beautiful.
NORRIS: It's not an L-I-T-E dessert, but it's time for us to L-I-G-H-T.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Okay, this is the exciting part.
NORRIS: Oh, more matches for the part made famous by Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol."
CHRISTOPHER TURPIN: In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered - flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy.
NORRIS: Okay, that's not Charles Dickens; that's our executive producer, Christopher Turpin. He's British, and he just loves Christmas pudding. Dorie and I warmed the brandy, poured over the dessert and then strike that other match. And, poof, more blue flames that gently die out. Is it just for presentation?
Ms. GREENSPAN: Drama?
Ms. GREENSPAN: Drama, and holiday is certainly a good time for drama.
NORRIS: Okay, this is not family drama. This is the good kind of drama.
Ms. GREENSPAN: That's exactly what I was thinking. Okay, it's warm.
NORRIS: And ready to serve. Our Christmas pudding is smooth, spicy and fruity and with a kick. Whoa.
Ms. GREENSPAN: Talk about holiday cheer.
NORRIS: That's Dorie Greenspan, the author of "Baking: From My Home to Yours."
If you want to add figgy pudding to your repertoire, go to our nopr.org. We've got the recipe there and pictures of this flammable dessert. And remember, especially if you're having some of that figgy pudding, please drive safely. Happy holidays.