12/15/2011 02:58 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2012

Christmas Pudding: What Is It, Anyway?

Most people are familiar with the Christmas carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." But have you ever wondered about that verse "now bring us a figgy pudding ..."? What is figgy pudding or Christmas pudding? It's not chocolate pudding, vanilla or even tapioca. What we as Americans know of as pudding is completely different than what the British call pudding.

The History
"Pudding" is in fact the English term for dessert -- not only the creamy concoction, but also cakes, pies, cookies ... you name it. But Christmas pudding (or sometimes called figgy pudding or plum pudding) is a specific cake-like dish made during the holidays. Classic Christmas puddings feature copious amounts of dried fruits, the use of which dates back to Roman times. The British Christmas pudding dates back to the Medieval times, but they became most popular in the Victorian era when cooks learned to preserve dried fruits and meats for the winter months. The meats and fruits were combined to create mince pies, which were the precursor to Christmas puddings.

The Ingredients
Pudding recipes combine all types of dried fruits, among them raisins, figs, prunes and glacé fruits, as well as citrus zest and nuts. Eggs, breadcrumbs and suet (beef or mutton fat from around the kidney) helps hold the mixture of fruits and nuts together. It is then pressed into a bowl, covered with parchment, and steamed in a pot on the stove for hours and hours until cooked.

The Long, Dramatic Wait
Like the American fruitcake, many people make the pudding at least four weeks before Christmas (typically the Sunday before advent) or even up to a year in advance. Then the pudding is hung in a cloth and kept in a dry place until the holiday meal. It's customary to decorate it with a sprig of holly and serve it poured over with brandy, which is then lit. Oftentimes the cake is brought out to a darkened dining room already flaming. It may also be served with brandied butter, hard sauce or custard.

See our Christmas Pudding recipe

A Little Bit Of Luck
Tradition has it that the person who makes the pudding -- and even each member of the household -- should make a wish while stirring the batter. Sometimes a coin is added to the batter -- the individual who finds it would attain prosperity in the new year.

The Modern-Day Christmas Pudding
In the video below, Marguerite Patten, one of the first "celebrity chefs" in the U.K., presents her new way of making Christmas pudding. The recipe is cooked in just 12 minutes in the microwave. A conventional Christmas pudding can take upwards of 8 hours to steam on the stove-top. Watch the video and you will immediately be smitten with this lovable lady!

What do you think of Christmas pudding? Would you make this 12-minute version this holiday? Let us know in the comments section.