Many of you have no doubt lain awake at night during many a Christmas past wondering just what the heck a figgy pudding is, and why it’s so urgent to bring one right here.
As with many foods of Ye Olde English origin, this started off as something that might taste icky to the modern palate — a mostly savory dish containing meats, fruits or vegetables, grains, nuts, spices and sometimes wine. It evolved into a sweeter concoction soaked with rum or brandy, stewed for weeks and boiled for hours before being served on Christmas Day. Besides being spectacularly flammable, liquor had the added benefit of preserving this calorically dense dessert for days or weeks.
Don’t be misled by “pudding.” For speakers of British English, that’s a term that encompasses all desserts. Because this dish has been eaten for centuries, however, there are more recipes for figgy pudding than pine needles on a Christmas tree. Some are very complicated, but I chose the simplest, most cakelike one and endeavored to make it more complicated in my own fashion. I won’t call it an authentic figgy pudding but I will call it a thing I’ll eat with pleasure.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Into a saucepan, put two generous cups of any combination of the following dried fruits, chopped into smallish bits: figs, prunes, raisins, dates, crystallized ginger, candied orange peel, cranberries or cherries. There’s no need to be a figgy purist, just use what you like, fruit-wise. Add 1 cup milk and 3/4 cup whiskey or other tipple, like brandy, bourbon, rum or Grand Marnier. If you like a less tipsy cake, use all milk. Heat on low for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the milk separates, don’t worry; once it’s in the cake, no one’s the wiser.
In a medium bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups flour with 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon each cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger and a scant teaspoon of salt. I also threw in cloves, cardamom and allspice because nobody was there to stop me.
In another bowl, beat 4 eggs for one minute on high. Stir in 1/2 cup melted butter, 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs and 2 tablespoons grated orange peel. Slowly fold in flour mixture until just blended.
Pour the batter into a greased Bundt pan and cover with tin foil. Place the Bundt pan in a roasting pan filled with enough water to cover the bottom 2 inches of the Bundt pan. Put everything very, very carefully into the hot oven and bake for 2 hours. When the cake is firm and starts to pull away from the sides, it’s done.
Remove everything even more carefully from the oven, because the water is now boiling hot and it would be a disaster of monumental proportions if you spilled it. Wear a NASA-approved heat- and water-resistant bodysuit with a helmet to mitigate injury to self or others. Remove the Bundt pan from the roasting pan and leave to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.
Invert the Bundt pan onto a cake stand or large platter and keep your fingers crossed that it’s going to come out in one piece. Don’t actually cross your fingers, because that will make the whole operation harder. Once it’s unmolded, breathe a sigh of relief and take a nap to calm your nerves. Serve with ice cream or make a whiskey sauce by heating 1/4 cup whiskey with 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup heavy cream and 1 teaspoon vanilla. You can pour all the sauce onto the cake before serving, but skip the pyrotechnics. 2020 isn’t a good year for playing with fire.
Another steamed pudding I’ve always wanted to try is spotted dick, a raisin- or currant-studded vanilla cake usually cooked in a specialized pudding mold. Most recipes call for self-rising flour, finely ground caster sugar and suet, a kind of shortening made from beef or mutton fat. I don’t have any of those things and I can’t stand following directions anyway, so I thought I’d wing it. Maybe what I made isn’t really spotted dick. Who cares? It’s almost Christmas! Just put a sprig of holly on it and use it as a tree-topper.
Cream 1/3 cup butter with 1/3 cup white sugar, blending in two eggs, 1 tablespoon vanilla and 1/3 cup milk. In a separate bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups flour with 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, then stir in 1/2 cup raisins or currants.
Spoon into a well-buttered ovenproof bowl or small metal mold. (I used a copper gelatin mold.) Set the pudding on top of a second, upside-down ovenproof bowl or small strainer placed at the bottom of a large ovenproof stockpot, leaving some room for the cake to rise. Fill the pot with enough water to reach halfway up the pudding bowl. Put the lid on the stockpot and steam for 11/2 to 2 hours or until set, then invert onto a plate and serve with English custard or softly whipped cream.