Sunday, January 3, 2010

You Can’t Go Wrong with Figgy Pudding

I was in my late 20’s when I first tried traditional fig pudding at Christmas. I had grown up singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” when we did Christmas caroling, and there was that last verse, “Oh bring us some figgy pudding…” but I had no idea what I was singing about. The opportunity came when I was living under British rule. I was teaching English in Hong Kong at the time when it was still a Crown Colony of the United Kingdom. One Christmas, a gracious missionary lady served some of us American expatriates a fig pudding that she had prepared and steamed the old-fashioned way. Part of it was the novelty, but I truly loved the treat that followed our Christmas Day meal. I had come to love many things British during my stay overseas, and fig pudding was one of them.

Shortly after I returned to the States, I found a pudding mold in one of those up-scale kitchen boutiques in the shopping mall. I had to get it. (Did I mention that cooking is one of my great joys? It is like a kind of alchemy in which ordinary ingredients are transformed into something extraordinary.) I found a recipe for fig pudding and straightway put it to the test, even though it was in the middle of August. I introduced my new bride to the joys of figgy pudding. It was a great recipe and I repeated it on our first Christmas together. Fig pudding has been a tradition in our house at Christmas for the past 24 years.

A few years ago, I also came upon Julia Child’s recipe for “A Glorious Plum Pudding for Christmas” so I had to try that in my traditional pudding steamer mold. It had a spicier taste with cloves and cinnamon, and a zabaione sauce that is remarkable, but you shouldn’t touch if you are the designated driver. So for a couple of years, I offered our Christmas guests a sampling of both fig pudding and plum pudding.

This year, I discovered a recipe for figgy pudding in my prized “Laurel’s Kitchen” vegetarian cookbook. It required less steam time (2 ½ hours as opposed to 4), fewer eggs, and a few other interesting changes. I decided to try this recipe for Christmas this year. After I made the pudding, it turned out quite lovely in appearance but I began to panic. I realized that with its spices, it was going to taste more like the Christmas plum pudding, and less like the fig-newtony flavor of what I had been making. But the clincher was it didn’t seem to rise as much as I thought it should. I feared it was a flop. Then it hit me, Christmas dinner was approaching, and I was about to offer guests and untried recipe. I actually ran out and bought more eggs and made more bread crumbs thinking I would regroup and make my tried-and-true recipe, but alas, there was no time left. There were too many other things to be done. My wife assured me that everything would be fine, but I had that nagging fear that I would be caught in a Christmas failure, an anglophile disaster. But then there are those times when you have to put on your best face and proceed (a stiff upper lip as our British kin would say).

The day arrived. Getting the house in order and food prepared came right down to the wire. We were making those final preparations, and I was changing into my welcome-the-company-clothes just as the doorbell was ringing. We had 10 people (half of them in-laws!) around the table. Everyone enjoyed the holiday bounty and pleasant conversation. Then came the moment of truth when deserts were brought out. My daughter had brought a cheesecake, so that was our ace-in-the hole, and someone else brought a pecan pie (which no southern Christmas table should be without). But what about that figgy pudding – that thing which would add an Old World element to the season which some would sample for the first time – would it do the holiday justice? It was all heated up, sitting on the plate, hard sauce ready for the topping. I placed the dish on the table and made the first slice. I was relieved that at least it looked just the way a steamed pudding should look, but how would it taste? Plates were passed around to all who wanted to experience it, then I took a bite from my serving …the texture was just right… and pure traditional Christmas pudding flavor (no it wasn’t like the one I had always made before, but it was good, none the less). My relief was complete. Later, when an in-law asked to take some home, I knew that success was achieved.

I’m glad there was no disaster, and no offense registered to the British Isles, but I don’t think I’ll try serving anything again without a test-run first. I’m just not used to living life so close to the edge.


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