Bring Them a Figgy Pudding

Having grown up in a small town and regularly attending its Methodist church, it has never occurred to me that a church service could be crowded or, heaven forbid, full. So when I marched into the Unitarian Universalist Church to attend a winter solstice celebration, promised to be “a night that ranges from meditative to raucous,” I was shocked to learn that there was no room at the inn.

Like the three wise men, I had come bearing gifts — a homemade figgy pudding — and like the virgin Mary, I was turned away. I was about fifteen minutes late, and the greeter was only acting in accordance with the city fire code. And it wasn’t a real figgy pudding.

Similarly to Joan Didion, I think of myself as a “can-do” person. Particularly around the holidays, I am inspired to open my oldest bottle and bake up seasonal confections in the traditions of the days of old. Last year, I made a fruitcake. This year, I planned to tackle the elusive figgy pudding.

The only problem is that figgy pudding appears to be little more than a holiday lyric.

At least, that seems to be the case with this dessert that everyone sings of and no one actually eats. The archives of The Saturday Evening Post make no mention of a popular dish called figgy pudding, but NPR explored the history of figgy pudding several years ago, and they maintain that it is, indeed, real and edible. The recipe they provide calls for beef suet, five to six hours of boiling, and — ideally — four to five weeks of aging. If you have that kind of time and enterprise, then, by all means, whip up the Victorian treat during a movie marathon.

Instead, I opted for a bread pudding recipe from the January 28, 1913, issue of this magazine. In “Old Bread in New Puddings,” Elisabeth Irving makes a convincing, if dubious, case for making bread pudding from all of those leftover bread crumbs that would be found in the early century home: “It seems to us that if, instead of the inevitable pie and cake so constantly served on some farm tables, the farm housewife, when concocting desserts for her family, would oftener utilize some of the fragments of bread that usually go to waste, in connection with the abundant milk and eggs always to be had on the farm, there would be better nourished bodies and less stomach trouble, and consequently fewer doctor bills.”

Having made the famous Thanksgiving classic, persimmon pudding, recently, I was in abundance of buttermilk (make Eva Powell’s award-winning recipe with very ripe persimmons, if you can get them, and serve it with whipped cream and a dusting of cinnamon), but I haven’t found myself baking loaves of bread lately, so I dried bread crumbs from store-bought baguette. I made the “Chocolate Bread Pudding” (see the flipbook below) from our archives, but I made a few changes, rendering Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding with Blueberry Preserves and Mandarin Orange Meringue.

The blueberries were an accident. I grabbed a jar in haste at the grocery store, thinking it was cherry preserves. When I arrived at home and discovered my mistake, I decided I would have to live with it. If medieval homemakers could mix meats and fruit, then I was allowed to get creative with dark chocolate.

The beauty of bread pudding is, just as Elisabeth Irving puts it, “there are so many possibilities, for the ingenious cook who takes a little trouble that there is no excuse for lack of variety in that direction.” Bread pudding is like sweet stuffing. You can throw anything you’d like into it. If you want to toss in dried figs (first cooked in brandy) and sing about your perfectly appropriate pudding, you can!

After my pudding and I were denied entry to the pagan celebration, I took it to a friend’s Christmas party. I had a vision of waltzing in with my festive dish, dousing it in brandy, and setting it aflame as the other party guests applauded my culinary achievement. When I arrived, the house was so packed full of people I could barely squeeze through to the dessert table. I searched for my friend, a student of performance art at the New School back home for the holidays, and ended up striking conversations with various lawyers while keeping one eye on my untouched bread pudding.

Would the other guests love it? Hate it? Would they wonder aloud who possibly could have created the dark chocolate bread pudding, announcing the taste of fruit and zip of citrus that ties it together so nicely?

When I finally found my friend, he introduced me to other, college-age, interesting people. They were involved in theatre or fashion and had the excited spark of students in their early 20s. One of them was terribly fit, and I learned that it was because he was a tightrope performer at École nationale de cirque in Montreal hoping to join Cirque du Soleil. My friend told me he was going to perform a piece of performance art in ten minutes. “It’s a very interactive performance,” he said. Oh no, I thought.

I hadn’t the time or the patience with the crowd to make my way back to the pudding to see if it had been devoured, perhaps fought over. My friend gave his performance, a combination of audience interaction and audio recorded on a day he had zip-tied himself to a fence in Manhattan. We maintained eye contact with strangers for ten minutes and shared how we felt about the sounds of our own names. Then he instructed us to find a spot around the room and to lie down. He told us to hold hands with the person closest to us. This is taking longer than I expected, I thought. I wonder how that pudding is doing. The person closest to me was the tightrope acrobat. I hadn’t said much to him up until that point, but we followed directions, grasping hands while lying in opposite directions.

Immediately after assuming a grip, I realized it was the most uncomfortable position possible. But it would also seem too imposing (or too intimate?) to spend time finding a better position for my hand. Minutes passed as the audio played. I realized I was slightly hovering my hand off the floor quite awkwardly, and it was starting to go numb. My partner stayed perfectly still, so I didn’t want to break anyone’s concentration. Of course he’s excelling at this, he’s an acrobat, I thought. He’s used to these kinds of endurance tests. Then I realized my palms were sweating. On the audio, a street drummer played an entrancing rhythm on buckets and bells while the wind ripped across the microphone. I wanted to check on the pudding.

Afterwards, I poured a glass of wine to the brim and headed to the dessert table. The pudding was gone! And its plate washed and drying in the kitchen. I would never know if the serving dish had been desperately licked clean by lawyers’ children who would be forever haunted by the mystery dessert they could never find again. Then, I realized I didn’t even know for myself whether the bread pudding was as delectable as I imagined, because I never got a piece. I chewed some peppermint bark and said my goodbyes, preparing for more intrusive thoughts about the best bread pudding I never had.

Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding with Blueberry Preserves and Mandarin Orange Meringue


  1. Melt butter, and stir in ¾ cup sugar. Add in molasses, milk, buttermilk, dark chocolate powder, bread crumbs, and salt.
  2. Separate egg yolks and stir them into the batter, taking care that the batter is not too warm from the melted butter. Save the whites for the meringue.
  3. Pour into a baking mold, and bake at 300 F for about 2 hours.
  4. Make meringue using the egg whites, 2 tbsp of juice from the mandarin orange, and 1 cup of sugar, added slowly.
  5. Once it is set, flip the pudding out of the mold. Using a filling syringe, pipe blueberry preserves into the pudding through the top, making your way around. Cover the top with meringue piled high. Broil in the oven, watching closely, for a few minutes to brown the meringue.
A page from an vintage issue of The Saturday Evening Post featuring a figgy pudding recipe
Read “Old Bread in New Puddings” by Elisabeth Irving from the January 28, 1913, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Shutterstock.

The Big Rock Candy Figgy Pudding Pitfall

This essay was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post on December 3, 1966 and also appears in our November/December 2018 issue.

You will perhaps have difficulty understanding why I conceived the idea of making 20 hard-candy topiary trees and 20 figgy puddings in the first place. The heart of it is that although I am frail, lazy, and unsuited to doing anything except what I am paid to do, which is sit by myself and type with one finger, I like to imagine myself a “can-do” kind of woman, capable of patching the corral fence, pickling enough peaches to feed the hands all winter, and then winning a trip to Minneapolis in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. In fact, the day I stop believing that if put to it I could win the Pillsbury Bake-Off will signal the death of something.

It was late in September, about the time certain canny elves began strategically spotting their Make It Yourself for Christmas books near supermarket checkout counters, when I sensed the old familiar discontent. I would stand there in the Westward Ho market, waiting to check out my frozen chicken tetrazzini and leafing through the books, and I would see how far I had drifted from the real pleasures. I did not “do” things. I did not sew spangles on potholders for my friends. I did not make branches of marzipan mistletoe for my hostesses. I did not give Corn Dog and Caroling Parties for neighborhood children (Did I know any neighborhood children? Were there any neighborhood children? What exactly was my neighborhood?), the Corn Dogs to be accompanied by Hot Santa’s Grog.

“Exactly what kind of therapy are we up to this week?” my husband asked when I arrived home with 20 Styrofoam balls, 20 flowerpots, and 60 pounds of, or roughly 6,000, hard candies, each wrapped in cellophane.

Nor had it ever occurred to me to buy Styrofoam balls, cover them with hard candies, plant them on wooden stalks in small flowerpots, and end up with amusingly decorative hard-candy topiary trees, perfect for centerpieces or last-minute gifts. At the checkout counter, I recognized clearly that my plans for the Christmas season — making a few deadlines — were stale and unprofitable. Had my great-great-grandmother come west in a covered wagon and strung cranberries on scrub oaks so that I might sit by myself in a room typing with one finger and ordering Italian twinkle lights by mail from Hammacher Schlemmer?

I wanted to be the kind of woman who made hard-candy topiary trees and figgy puddings. The figgy puddings were not in the Make It Yourself for Christmas books but something I remembered from a carol. “Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a happy new year,” the line went. I was unsure what a figgy pudding was, but it had the ring of the real thing.

“Exactly what kind of therapy are we up to this week?” my husband asked when I arrived home with 20 Styrofoam balls, 20 flowerpots, and 60 pounds of, or roughly 6,000, hard candies, each wrapped in cellophane.

“Hard-candy topiary trees, if you don’t mind,” I said briskly, to gain the offensive before he could mention my last project, a hand-knitted sweater which would have cost $60 at Jax, the distinction being that, had I bought it at Jax, it would very probably be finished. “Twenty of them. Decorative. Amusing.”

He said nothing.

Christmas presents,” I said.

There was a moment of silence as we contemplated the dining room table, covered now with shifting dunes of lemon drops.

“Presents for whom?” he said.

“Your mother might like one.”

“That leaves 19.”

“All right. Let’s just say they’re centerpieces.”

“Let’s just say that if you’re making 20 centerpieces, I hope you’re under contract to Chasen’s. Or maybe to Hilton.”

“That’s all you know,” I countered, wittily.

Provisions for the figgy puddings were rather more a problem. The Vogue Book of Menus and Recipes made no mention of figgy pudding, nor did my cookbook, although the latter offered a recipe for “Steamed Date or Fig Pudding.” This had a tentative sound, and so I merely laid in 20 pounds of dried figs and planned, when the time came, to improvise from there. I thought it unnecessary to mention the puddings to my husband just yet.

Meanwhile, work on the topiary trees proceeded. Pebbles were gathered from the driveway to line the flowerpots. (“Next time it rains and that driveway washes out,” I was informed, “there’s going to be one unhappy Santa’s Helper around here.”) Lengths of doweling to be used as stalks were wrapped with satin ribbons. The 20 Styrofoam balls glistened with candies, each affixed with an artfully concealed silk pin. (As it happened I had several thousand silk pins left from the time I planned to improvise a copy of a Grès evening dress.) There was to be a lemon-drop tree and an ice-mint tree and a cinnamon-lump tree. There was to be a delicate crystallized-violet tree. There was to be a witty-licorice tree.

All in all, the operation went more smoothly than any I had undertaken since I was 16 and won third prize in the Sacramento Valley Elimination Make-It-Yourself-with-Wool Contest. I framed graceful rejoinders to compliments. I considered the probability that I. Magnin or Neiman-Marcus would press me to make trees for them on an exclusive basis. All that remained was to set the candy balls upon their stalks — that and the disposition of the figs — and I had set an evening aside for this crowning of the season’s achievement.

I suppose that it was about 7:00 when I placed the first candy-covered ball on the first stalk. Because it did not seem overly secure, I drilled a deeper hole in the second ball. That one, too, once on its stalk, exhibited a certain tendency to sway, but then so does the Golden Gate Bridge. I was flushed with imminent success, visions of candy trees come true all around me. I suppose it was about 8:00 when I placed the last ball on the last stalk, and I suppose it was about one minute after eight when I heard the first crack, and I suppose it was about 8:15 (there were several minutes of frantic shoring maneuvers) when my husband found me sitting on the dining room floor, crying, surrounded by 60 pounds of scattered lemon drops and ice-mints and cinnamon lumps and witty licorice.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t we get the grout left over from when you were going to retile the bathroom, and make a ceramic candy floor.”

“If you think you’re going to get any figgy puddings,” I said, “you’d better think again.”

But I had stopped crying, and we went out for an expensive dinner. The next morning I gathered up the candies and took them to Girl Scout headquarters, presumably to be parceled into convalescents’ nut cups by some gnome Brownie. The Styrofoam balls I saved. A clever woman should be able to do something very attractive for Easter with Styrofoam balls and 20 pounds of figs.

One of the most celebrated writers of her generation, Joan Didion is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Year of Magical Thinking that won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. Her iconic essay on the 1960s, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” was first published in the September 23, 1967, edition of the Post.

This article is from the November/December 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.