The Ladies' Tea Guild

Monday, December 31, 2018

Historic Cooking: Fig Bread Pudding from 1907 and the history of Figgy Pudding.

Happy New Year!  "Time flies ..." and all that.  I have settled in to my new place -- a vintage Airstream trailer from 1967 -- but haven't got the oven up and working yet (it runs on propane and involves open flame every time you use it ...) so the only historic cooking I've done so far has been on the stovetop (also propane, involving open flame) and I haven't gotten many photos of the projects.  I am working on a Twelfth Night Cake for the coming week (I'll bake it in my mom's regular electric oven), so hopefully I'll get that written up and posted within the month.  One Historical Food Fortnightly challenge which I made this year, I also did last year but didn't get around to posting about it -- Figgy Pudding.  I decided to use a different recipe for figgy pudding, one that didn't take as long to boil as the one I usually use, so the research for that sent me down the rabbit hole of figgy pudding history.  I ultimately decided that I like the flavor of the Victorian recipe better than this one, but it was still an interesting recipe.

Just after Thanksgiving I made another figgy pudding for my Christmas caroling choir – the Lyric Theatre Victorian Carolers – as I have for the past several years, but this year I wanted to try a different recipe.   In researching other recipes, I followed one of the many "bunny trails" that I remembered from my previous research on the topic of figgy pudding: what is it and how old is it? 

Fig Bread Pudding.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Figgy pudding seems like such an old-fashioned treat, the kind that dates back to at least the 18th century, but my own investigation into period cookbooks has turned up surprisingly few recipes for it -- under the name "figgy pudding" -- that date before the Victorian era. In The Monthly Magazine: Devonshire and Cornwall Vocabulary from 1810, it defines "figs" as: "Figs, raisins. A "figgy pudding"; a pudding with raisins in it; a plumb pudding." Also, there is a somewhat sniffy (in my opinion) entry in The Oracle—A Weekly Journal of Response, Research, and Reference from December 1882, which states, in answer to the question "In Somersetshire the poor people call raisins figs and a plain pudding they speak of as a figgy pudding. Why is this?" that "It would be hopeless to seek a rational explanation of the error. We can only surmise that in the days when communication was less facile than at present, the rural population having little acquaintance with colonial produce, used figs as a convenient generic term for the dried fruits sold by grocers. ... We do not think the error is peculiar to the poor: it is rather characteristic of the rural population." Well, la di da!

The authors of most "history of figgy pudding" articles on the Internet seem to agree that figgy pudding, plum pudding, and Christmas pudding are all names for the exact same thing, that none of those dishes actually contain figs or plums, and that this somehow made sense to the people of the past because they were weird like that way back then.  However, that kind of explanation for "why people in the past did things a certain way" always makes me suspicious, because it so often turns out to be totally untrue!

Plum pudding served as Christmas
Pudding.  Photo:
The above-mentioned articles I read online which seemed to insist that figgy pudding and plum pudding and Christmas pudding are all the same thing, went on to discuss only the history of plum pudding, as if there were no recipes for figgy pudding, or as if actual figs weren't available in England at all until more modern times.  Figs were probably first brought to England from the Mediterranean by the Romans, and then by returning Crusaders, and later, by direct trade with Mediterranean merchants.  In fact, according to "The Festive Fruit: A History of Figs" by David C. Sutton, published in Celebration: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2011, fig trees had been planted in England before 1257, and figgy pudding was actually a Medieval Easter tradition, inspired by the Biblical account of Jesus and the fig tree, on the road to Bethany, just before His crucifixion. 

Christmas Plum Pudding. Image:
The Graphics Fairy.
Searching through my digital collection of old cookbooks, I found English recipes calling for figs, dating back to at least the 15th century, and some are similar, in many ways, to the later Victorian recipes for figgy pudding.  I am still searching for the earliest recipe for a boiled pudding containing figs; the Medieval dish called "Fygge" is a possible ancestor, although it is more like a dish of stewed figs.  It seems to me that figgy pudding, while similar to plum pudding/Christmas pudding because it contains dried fruit and breadcrumbs, is actually not only a totally different dish but is likely more closely related to sticky toffee pudding, than to plum pudding. Christmas pudding, or plum pudding, was a 17th or 18th-century development from plum pottage, which became especially associated with Christmas Day when Christmas celebrations became partially secular again after Charles II was restored to the English throne. (Cromwell and his government disapproved of the old way of celebrating Christmas, because it involved so much drunkenness, greed, and riotous behavior, even descending into theft, rape, and murder as people used the celebrations and their attendant alcohol, masked costumes (mummers and plays) and sense of freedom from social and religious mores as an excuse to behave in decidedly un-Christian ways.  Parliament decreed that businesses should remain open on Christmas Day, and banned Christmas carols, evergreen decorations and special Christmas foods like plum pudding and mince pies!)

Serving the Christmas
Pudding. Image: Grandma's
There are many very old recipes for both "Fig Pudding" and "Plum Pudding," and they are quite different in their ingredients (and they exist in the same cookbooks)!  Christmas pudding or plum pudding recipes tend to call for many different ingredients, including currants, raisins, nuts, candied orange peel, spices, alcohol, breadcrumbs, suet, and eggs; some articles online claim that Christmas pudding should contain 20 ingredients, but I haven't been able to find the origin of that custom.  By contrast, the older fig pudding recipes (unlike the modern ones that confuse fig pudding with plum pudding) call for relatively few ingredients: figs, flour or breadcrumbs, suet or butter, eggs, sugar, and spice.  Some recipes don't even call for all of those ingredients, including the one I chose to make (yes, I did get back around to the real topic of this post!).

As for the carol "We Wish You A Merry Christmas," there is some disagreement about its origins;  it may not even be a centuries-old Christmas carol at all!  The first known publication was in 1935, arranged by Arthur Warrell, and was described as a traditional song from the West Country of England. 

The Redone Challenge: Foods Mentioned in Songs (September 23 - October 6, 2016). Find a historic song that mentions a food - and then cook a historic recipe around that food and the time of the song. Whether it’s Yankee Doodle’s macaroni, mussels a la Molly Malone, or the Muffin Man’s muffins, make sure it’s documented!

The Recipe: while the first figgy pudding recipe I made, several years ago, came from a cookbook from around 1890 (but originally published in 1868), this year I decided to use a recipe from 1907, just after the end of Queen Victoria's reign.  The cookbook is called Fruit Recipes: A Manual of the Food Values of Fruits and Nine Hundred Different Ways of Using Them, by Mrs. Riley Maria Fletcher Berry, and I found it on Google Books. 

FIG BREAD PUDDING Soak three cups of breadcrumbs in one and one-fourth pints of water and beat into this four eggs, a pinch of salt, two tablespoons of sugar, and one and one-third cups of chopped figs. (The figs should be first dredged in flour.) Flavour with lemon or nutmeg. Beat well, then place in pudding-dish and bake slowly for an hour and a half, or place pudding in tight-covered vessel which is to be placed in a pot of boiling water and kept at a boil for two and a half hours. Serve with hard sauce.
-- Fruit Recipes, 1907. 

The Date/Year and Region: New York, NY, March 1907.

How Did You Make It: I decided to make this recipe because it looked like it would make a reasonable amount (I wouldn't have to cut the recipe in half in order to avoid being buried in figgy pudding), it took about half the time to boil as the recipe from the 1890s, and also because it calls the recipe a "Fig Bread Pudding." In previous years, my recipe called for breadcrumbs, and I have attempted to use very dry, hard, stale bread; grating this bread into crumbs is a very time-consuming, difficult process, however.  I really should make the breadcrumbs when the bread is still fresh enough to crumble easily in the hands, and then dry them out.  I have noticed, however, that when I use stale, but not rock-hard bread, and cut or tear it into pieces, the pudding has a lighter texture, due to the remnants of structure left in the pieces of bread, instead of being a heavy, dense cake.  I had some stale, but still semi-soft bread leftover from dinner, so I pulled that to pieces, and measured out the full 3 cups, and then covered them with the water. 
Fig Bread Pudding ingredients.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.

The bread was immediately soaked through, and sitting in at least ½ cup of excess liquid, which I tried to pour off, intending to re-add it later; the bread collapsed in the water and lost half its bulk!  I ended up adding another ½ cup or so of the soft breadcrumbs in order to make the mixture fill my mold at least halfway!  I continued with the recipe, following it as written until I got to the part about adding the figs.  My dried figs had crystallized and were covered with sugar and quite dry; usually when I cook with dried figs I soak them for a minute in hot water first, so heated the water that I'd poured off the bread crumbs, and put the fig pieces in it as I chopped the figs, overlooking the part in the recipe about dredging the figs with flour! 

I flavored the pudding with about a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, stirred it together (although it was still so liquidy that I didn't want to "beat" it, and make a splashy mess!) thoroughly, and put it in a covered bowl in the fridge.  The next day, when I got home from work, I got my grandma's large enameled pot, put about 5 inches of water in it, and put it on the stove to boil; meanwhile I transferred the pudding mixture to my vintage mold (actually an ice cream mold, but I use it for boiling puddings every year, and it tolerates it really well), which I lined with waxed paper.  I tied the lid on to the mold with kitchen twine, put a clean kitchen towel at the bottom of the pot of boiling water, and lowered the filled mold on top (to prevent it from wiggling around as it boiled and damaging my vintage pot and vintage mold).  I covered the pot partially, lowered the heat to medium-low, and set the timer for 2 hours (since I had a slightly smaller pudding).  The water gently boiled, and I removed the pudding from the water when the time was up.

Fig Bread Pudding ready to boil.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Time to Complete: 30 minutes prep time and 2 hours boiling time.

Total Cost: everything was in my pantry, but it would have been less than $20 to buy all the ingredients new. 

How Successful Was It?:  The pudding was very moist, but firm when I removed it from the mold, and I was worried that it wouldn't be cooked all the way through.  I let it cool about 10 minutes before covering it with aluminum foil for the trip to caroling rehearsal, where it sat on a table for an hour until we could take our break, and eat it.  It was still warm, and it was cooked through the middle, although a moister texture than I would like.  It was nicely flavored with figs, it was just sweet enough, and had a very light feel in the mouth, probably from soaking the bread with water rather than milk.  Now that I think about it, this is probably as close as you can get to a low-fat figgy pudding because I didn't use any butter or milk in it; eggs are the only source of fat in the whole recipe! 

Fig Bread Pudding, sliced. Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
I like this recipe, although I would use drier breadcrumbs the next time, and maybe soak them in milk instead of plain water, to make the pudding a little richer.  My friends liked it too, so much so that it disappeared before I could take a photo of it!  I had to make another pudding in order to have a photo of the finished recipe.

How Accurate Is It?:
The usual use of a modern gas stove and modern ingredients; I also used too-fresh bread crumbs, and soaked the figs in hot water instead of dredging them with flour as instructed.  I think the water level in the pot might have been an inch or so too high because the lid on the pudding mold wasn't completely watertight, and I think some of the cooking water might have gotten into the pudding.  I also lowered the heat too soon, so the water left the boil for a while (I don't know how long!), which is one of the things that every cookbook I've read forbids you to do when boiling the pudding!  Altogether, though, I think this is pretty close to being what it would have been in 1907, maybe 70% accuracy.  

"Oh, Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding" from The Cup That Cheers

"We All Like Our Figgy Pudding" from The Cup That Cheers 

"Give Us Some Figgy Pudding" by Dr. Bruce Rosen 

"Bring Us Figgy Pudding" from the Historical Recipes 

"Figgy Puddings" from The Old Foodie 

"Figs in Many Ways" from The Historic Foodie 

"Christmas Pudding" from The Historic Interpreter 

"Recipe #2: Fig Pudding" from Attack Laurel on LiveJournal 

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)