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There’s so much baking in the run-up to Christmas that I rarely worry about the centrepiece dessert for the actual feast. A generous selection of cookies, bars, and fudge is more than enough to keep me happy. I like to graze amongst all the choices, and then settle down with a heaped plate and nibble each item up, one by one.
But preparing a really grand dessert–something beautiful and luxurious and eye-catching, a focal point for the meal–is special, too. There are certainly plenty of traditional dishes to choose from . . . Christmas cake, plum pudding, mince pies.(Which seem to be the iconic Christmas treat in Britain; you can’t turn up to any festivity without getting handed one, warming cup of mulled wine on the side.)
For our first English Christmas, however, I have decided to make the dish that is synonymous with a classic British celebration in my mind: figgy pudding. It’s because of the carol, of course. For although we do sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the States, you rarely hear the verse that rousingly calls to “bring us some figgy pudding.”
I suspect most Americans have never tried figgy pudding, which might be why they don’t sing that part of the song. Once tasted though, this is a pudding anyone would be glad to sing for!
I love the moist tenderness of steamed puddings, and their rich, spicy flavours. But the long list of dried fruits required to produce a traditional Christmas pudding always dampens my enthusiasm a little. I like long, complicated recipes, but not long shopping lists. A figgy pudding, which only demands one type of dried fruit, seems the perfect solution. You still get all the spice and citrus and dried fruit flavours (and a pleasant little spike of rum), without being left with the odds and ends of half a dozen bags of dried fruit cluttering up the cupboard.
The recipe comes from my own cookbook, actually, and I remember the photo shoot very distinctly. It was a beautiful sunny day in the middle of April and a handyman had come over to repair a broken hinge on our dishwasher door. So there he was, kneeling on the kitchen floor with his toolkit, and there I and my figgy pudding were, on the other side of the room, with camera and tripod and a heap of Christmas decorations–bows, candles, platters, etc.–spread out around me. I couldn’t help wondering what he thought of it all! I now know how the staff of food magazines feel, when they’re testing the recipes for the December issue in June.
And you know what, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, Christmas is always wonderful. But of course it is best in December, celebrating along with all your neighbours and friends–and yes, even all the retailers. So bring us some figgy pudding!
Excerpted from my cookbook, Potato Pie and Cherry Pickle: Vintage Recipes from Pennsylvania’s Historic Bucks County
. . . a dessert that most emphatically shows the British influence on Bucks County cuisine. I’ll never understand why steamed puddings have fallen out of favor on this side of the Atlantic. They have a moist, yet cakey, crumb that is such a pleasure to sink a spoon into, especially if a pool of softly whipped cream is melting over the warm slice of pudding.
12 oz. (340 g.) dried figs, chopped
¼ cup (60 ml) orange juice
¼ cup (60 ml) dark rum
¾ cup (180 ml) cooking molasses
1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
¾ cup (170 g.) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup (110 g.) brown sugar
3 cups (435 g.) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon hot water
Whipped cream, for serving
- Heavily grease and flour a large, heatproof bowl. Place the figs in a microwavable bowl and pour in the orange juice and rum. Microwave on full power for 2 minutes to soften the fruit.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the molasses, milk, melted butter, and brown sugar.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and spices.
- Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water and stir it into the liquid mixture. Add the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Tip in the figs and soaking liquid, and fold to distribute them evenly throughout the batter. Pour into the prepared heatproof bowl.
- Bring a few inches of water to a simmer in a deep, wide stockpot with a tight-fitting lid. Place a steamer insert (or something else high and sturdy enough to keep the pudding bowl suspended above the water) in the simmering water and balance the bowl on it. The water should not touch the bottom of the bowl.
- Cover tightly and steam for 3 hours. Check the water level occasionally and add additional water if necessary.
- Remove the pudding from the pot, very carefully because of the steam, and invert it onto a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream.
Yield: 12 to 16 servings