So the other day (when I was tired) I started thinking about all the dried figs I have from my mother’s figs. And I was contemplating Christmas. In my fatigued mind these two thoughts merged, and I started thinking about figgy pudding. I started doing some internet research. I was intrigued by this because of the Christmas song lyrics, because in my family tradition we had flaming Crosse & Blackwell plum pudding with hard sauce every Christmas Eve (which they do not make any more), because I love historic cooking, and the use of suet intrigued me (I saved the suet from Sydney this year). I ended up checking out ~50 different sites.
It is famous, of course, because it is referenced in the Christmas carol “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” in the lines:
Oh, bring us some figgy pudding,Oh, bring us some figgy pudding,Oh, bring us some figgy pudding,And bring it right here.
But also later in the song:
We all like our figgy pudding,We all like our figgy pudding,We all like our figgy pudding,With all its good cheers
But it is also referenced in Charles Dickens 1843 book A Christmas Carol. In a long passage, he shows Mrs. Cratchit steaming and preparing the pudding for her excited family:
Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! …All sorts of horrors were supposed….
In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
It does have medieval origins and a recipe for a form of figgy pudding is contained in the 14th century The Forme of Cury
“Take Almaende blanched; grynde hem and drawe hem up with watr and wyne; quartr figs hole raisons. Cast þerto powdor gingr and hony clarified; seeþ it wel and salt it, and seve forth.”
Christmas pudding has its roots in medieval English sausages, when fat, spices and fruits (the best preservatives of their day) were mixed with meats, grains and vegetables and packed into animal stomachs and intestines so they would keep as long as possible.
By the end of the 16th century, dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pudding made the shift from savory to sweet. The development of the pudding cloth—a floured piece of fabric that could hold and preserve a pudding of any size—further freed the pudding from dependence on animal products (but not entirely: suet, the fat found around beef and mutton kidneys, has always been a key ingredient).
By the mid-1600s, plum pudding was sufficiently associated with Christmas that when Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1647 he had it banned, along with Yule logs, carol-singing and nativity scenes. To Cromwell and his Puritan associates, such merry-making smacked of Druidic paganism and Roman Catholic idolatry. In 1660 the Puritans were deposed and Christmas pudding, along with the English monarchy, was restored. Fifty years later, England’s first German-born ruler, George I, was styled the “pudding king” after rumors surfaced of his request to serve plum pudding at his first English Christmas banquet.
In the mid-1600s, caroling was prohibited, businesses were ordered to remain open on Christmas Day, and soldiers were authorized to seize any Christmas food (and Christmas drink) they found while patrolling. This actual war on Christmas (there were literal pro-Christmas riots in England in 1647) even spread to the British colonies; the holiday was banned in Boston from 1659 through 1681, and people in many parts of New England were fined if caught celebrating in any form.
There is a nice blog about the history of Christmas pudding (figgy, plum and others) at https://whydyoueatthat.wordpress.com/
It was in this research that I first learned about Stir-Up Sunday. Per Delishably:
The Sunday before Advent was called “Stir-Up Sunday,” which came from the old customs in England and is still commonly referred to by that name in the United Kingdom. The traditions and lore attached to the pudding are very interesting. The traditional time to make the pudding was four to five weeks before Christmas, or the last Sunday before Advent.
It was common lore to include something in the pudding for good luck; silver coins for wealth in the following year, a silver thimble for thriftiness, or a wishbone for good luck, were just a few of the items that might be put inside the pudding. The lucky person who received the item in their serving was envied by all.
Many customs became associated with the pudding in early days, some of which remain to this day. Several of these customs are steeped in symbolism.
- When the pudding was being made, a common custom was to have each member of the household give a stir and make a wish.
- It was believed that it should contain 13 ingredients to be symbolic of Jesus and the Disciples.
- Another custom was that the stirring should be done with a wooden spoon, from east to west, to remember the three Wise Men.
- The holly sprig stuck on top of the pudding represents the Crown of Thorns that Jesus wore when He was crucified; the holly also was for good luck and healing for the coming year.
- The brandy that was poured over the pudding and set alight represented the love and power of Jesus.
There is an interesting article in the New York Times called A Dessert with a Past with this funny cartoon:
So I printed 4 recipes and used parts of each one to start making our own figgy pudding on this Stir-Up Sunday. These recipes are Hedgecombers Traditional Figgy Pudding, Mrs. Beeton’s recipe from 1861, Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Christmas Pudding, and Delishably’s Traditional Figgy Pudding Instructions. I am hoping it will taste better than the pudding from the above cartoon.
By the way, there is an Instant Pot version of the recipe if you want to be even less traditional than I was. There is also a vegetarian version, if you prefer.
The first issue was that I needed to get some supplies. Amazon came through for me with a pudding mold and treacle.
The next issue was the figs. I may have overdried them because neither I nor my Cuisinart could chop them. So I thought I would soak them in sherry to soften them up. It turns out we do not have sherry so I used Marsala instead (my first of many substitutions).
I ended up using 12 ounces of dried figs and about 350 ml of the Madera. They soaked for 2 days.
I mostly followed Felicity Cloake’s recipe but wanted to keep it to the traditional 13 ingredients. Because of this I omitted the candied peel and the pinch of salt. And this meant I needed to make my own mixed spice and self-raising flour (which has salt).
The recipe is metric with weights rather than volumes. So I used my little metric scale zeroed to a measuring cup to measure the ingredients.
I stupidly only had 1/2 a lemon and 1/2 an orange in the refrigerator this morning. So I ended up adding 2 tablespoons of dried orange peel to the mix as well.
Dealing with the suet was interesting. I have no idea what I am doing, but the recipes do mention raw suet so that is what I did. I chopped it up finely per Mrs. Beeton’s recipe.
Here are the dry ingredients. I chose not to blanch the almonds either.
Here is the black treacle about to be mixed with an egg. It turns out treacle is made from molasses and tastes just like it.
I could not find a British stout in our local stores so I bought Guinness. I know this is probably sacrilegious, but it is what is available to me. I also used almond milk instead of cow’s due to some family members with dairy allergies. Plus I now know that almond milk is medieval too (although not the boxed kind from the store).
So I stirred the mixture from east to west while I made a wish. I forgot to use a wooden spoon though.
Then Tom, somewhat reluctantly, also stirred it and hopefully made a wish.
I then chopped up the soaked figs and added them. Here it is all mixed up. I did end up adding another 1/2 teaspoon of mixed spice to add some more flavor. I decided to use the Delishably instructions to make the pudding one day, then cover and refrigerate it overnight.
It smells lovely. So tomorrow the plan is to steam it for 8 hours per Delishably.
Happy Stir-Up Sunday!
Wow! Did not know that there was so much history related to figgy pudding. I am looking forward to having some.
Thanks Mom- I hope it turns out!
http://weaverofgrass.blogspot.com/2019/11/christmas.html This is a lovely description of a family’s British Christmas traditions. It is a nice follow up to my figgy pudding efforts. Now I need to look into Lincolnshire Plum Bread.