December 15, 2017
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The Burning Truth About Plum Pudding
Figgy_Pudding

The story of how a medieval stew of meat and dried fruits became a cake that people eat at Christmas.

It seems ridiculous that I, a person who puts her Christmas tree up on Halloween and wholeheartedly believes that Jingle All the Way was a cinematic masterpiece, have never tried the most Christmasy of desserts: plum pudding. This fact is even more ridiculous when you consider the fact that plum pudding (also known in various Christmas carols as “figgy pudding”) is the star of the English holiday table; regular readers of TASTE know that I am an unabashed Anglophile who enjoys dipping my toes into British food history in an attempt to find recipes modern palates would consider potentially edible.

People have been putting whatever ingredients they have on hand in a pot and boiling them since the dawn of mankind, but plum pudding, in a form that we might recognize today, was first born in medieval England, where it was known as pottage.

Who knows what the hell the English were putting into their pottages before 1390. It doesn’t really matter, because thanks to The Forme of Cury—the oldest known English cookbook—we know that by 1390 the Brits were making pretty gross food across the board, so any further research into the past would just lead to more embarrassment and cruel (but oh so easy!) jokes about British cuisine. It is assumed that pottage (which could fall anywhere between a stew and a pudding) was little more than scraps of food scrounged up from who knows where into a perpetually simmering cauldron set over the hearth: errant bits of meat and fat, stale crumbs of bread, foraged vegetables, and chopped-up fishes. The Forme of Cury organized the random ingredients into various recipes that could possibly be the direct ancestor of figgy pudding—like “rapes in potage” or “crustard of fyshee”—but it’s hard to tell since medieval English cookery consisted of the same 15 ingredients mixed up in about a million different ways.

The wealthy would have their cooks make a sturdier version of pottage—a “pudding,” if you will”—that consisted of prime cuts of meat chopped up with their fancy dried fruits, bottles of fine wine, cooked grains, and an ingredient that was even more expensive than silver: spices. Some cooks would pack this mixture into cof fyns made of flour and water (which we know today as pie), while others would tie the mixture up into the stomach of a pig or calf and boil it through, then hang it in a cold room to stay for the winter—creating sort of a big, congealed sausage. As it aged, all that wine and sugar would start fermenting, so when the pudding was finally cracked open at Christmastime, those uppity nobles would get freaking wrecked.

Christmas plum pudding has evolved a bit over the past 600 years, both in method and legend, to get to its current dessert iteration. Some say it should contain 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his apostles. The stirring of the pudding should be done from east to west to honor the journey of the Three Wise Men. Some make it in October, as in the days of yore, dousing it with brandy every few days to “keep it extra preserved”; devout Anglicans will prepare theirs the Sunday before Advent begins, the last Sunday in the church’s calendar year. At the table on Christmas Day, a sprig of holly is placed on top to represent Jesus’ crown of thorns, and a strong liquor is poured over the pudding and set ablaze to symbolize the burning passion of the Lord.

Like most Christmas customs—celebrating on December 25 in an attempt to lure pagans away from their solstice festival, or burning a Yule log instead of a person as a substitute for a human sacrifice ritual—these are all ways of rebranding older traditions that don’t fully synch up with hard-core Christian values. You can make your pudding whenever you damn well please.

Figgy Pudding

Figgy Pudding

1 pudding cake

Ingredients

  • Figgy Pudding
  • 4 ⅓ cups assorted dried fruit
  • 1 large apple, diced (I used honeycrisp)
  • ½ cup brandy or dark rum
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 bags Earl Grey tea
  • ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
  • ⅔ cups flour
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup half and half
  • 2 ½ cups panko bread crumbs
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ⅓ cup chopped walnuts
  • dried fruit (a total of 22 ounces)
  • 5 ounces dates, chopped
  • 2 ½ ounces apricots, chopped
  • 3 ½ ounces cranberries
  • 2 ½ ounces blueberries
  • 5 ounces black mission figs, chopped
  • 3 ½ ounces golden raisins
  • Equipment
  • 2 large sheets of cheesecloth, at least 2’ x 2’
  • ½ cup flour
  • Butcher’s twine
  • Large lidded pot or Dutch oven
  • A small plate or wire rack that will fit in the bottom of the pot
  • Hard Sauce (to be made the day you serve it)
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons treacle or dark corn syrup
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup rum or brandy
  • Pinch of salt

I wrote this recipe to be made in the traditional way, wrapped in cloth and fully boiled, rather than in a pudding steamer, because I wanted to be true to tradition (and I was not spending 40 bucks on a pudding steamer I was going to use once a year). You can relax a bit in the dried fruit department and use any combination you’re fond of (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were quite partial to prunes themselves), provided that the weight is the same. This pudding can be made weeks ahead of time, provided that it’s hung to age in a cool, well-ventilated place and checked daily to prevent mold growth on the satchel (though dunking it in booze every few days will pretty much take care of that). Personally I make it only a few days before Christmas, because I remember everything at the last possible minute (I’m a busy lady).

  1. The day before you make the pudding, put all the dried fruit and diced apple into an extra-large bowl. Steep the teabags in the boiling water for ten minutes, then wring them out well and discard. Pour the tea and alcohol into the bowl and stir well. Cover with plastic wrap and leave on the counter overnight.
  2. Also the day before: In a small bowl cut together the shortening with 2/3 cup of flour with a fork till you get small, pebbly bits. Place in the freezer overnight.
  3. The next day, begin by setting your wire rack into your large pot, or use an inverted small plate if you don’t have a rack small enough. Fill the pot ⅔ full with water and set over high heat, dropping to medium once it hits a rolling boil.
  4. Drain off any extra liquid that has not been absorbed by the fruit (save it in the fridge— it makes a nice cocktail ingredient). Make a well in the center of the fruit, add the eggs and half and half, whip them together till smooth, then stir into the fruit with a large spoon.
  5. Add the bread crumbs, 1/4 cup flour, baking powder, brown sugar, spices, and salt and mix very well. Remove the shortening/flour mixture from the freezer and toss that in, along with the walnuts. Mix well, then place in the freezer while you prepare your cloth.
  6. Boil your cheesecloth for a minute to sterilize, then remove with tongs and press well to wring out excess water. Unfurl one sheet, lay it out on a clean counter or wooden board, and generously sprinkle with some flour, gently rubbing it across the cloth to help create a seal. Lay the second piece of cheesecloth over it, rotated 45 degrees, and repeat the flouring process.
  7. Remove the pudding mixture from the freezer and, using your hands, scoop it out onto the center of the cloth, gently patting it into a round. Pick up the ends of the cheesecloth and bundle it into a tight satchel, tying it tightly closed with butcher’s twine. Gently lower it into the boiling water, adding more water to cover if not fully submerged.
  8. Place a lid on the pot, cracking it open slightly, and boil over medium heat for a minimum of six hours. Check every 20 minutes or so to top it off with some more water, ensuring the pudding stays covered.
  9. Once cooked, gently lift the pudding and place in a colander to drain for half an hour or so. Using a hook or length of twine, hang your pudding somewhere in the house that has plenty of ventilation so it can air-dry. Keep a bowl under it the first day to catch any errant drips.
  10. At this point, the pudding can be hung to age up to two months. Some people like giving it a nice dousing of booze every day or two, but that’s not at all necessary. Just make sure to check the satchel daily to keep it clean and mold-free if you’re choosing to age it. If you can’t wait to eat your pudding, you can get right to serving the day after it’s hung.
  11. To serve: Once again break out your large pot and wire rack setup, and either steam or boil the pudding for two hours to warm through.

Hard Sauce

  1. While the pudding reheats, make the hard sauce: In a 2-quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, then add the brown sugar and treacle (or corn syrup). Stir constantly with a wooden spoon, making sure you get into those corners, until the melted sugar looks smooth and begins to bubble like hot lava. Turn heat to low, stand at arm’s length, and slowly pour in the heavy cream. It will bubble and spit like mad until all the cream is stirred in, so be careful! Add the booze plus a pinch of salt, stir well until completely smooth, and set aside until ready to serve.
  2. Gently untie the pudding and place on a large serving platter. Add a sprig of fresh holly to the top if you’d like to be traditional. Pour the hard sauce into a fancy little gravy boat or something like that, and bring to the table with the pudding.
  3. At the table, pour a hefty ladleful of rum or brandy over the pudding, enough that some will pool onto the plate. Set it on fire, take a step back, and be really impressed with yourself.

Allison Robicelli

Allison Robicelli is a D-list celebrity-chef chef, author, humorist, entrepreneur, general polymath, and all-around good time. You may remember her from such places as Food52, Eater, Food Network, VH1, and many other quirky corners of the food Internet. She is the author of the critically acclaimed cookbook/memoir Robicelli's: A Love Story, With Cupcakes, which has been called one of the funniest food-related books of all time. You should buy it.

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