Figgy pudding, and a cup of good cheer

  • Nancy Carlson carries on a generations-old tradition of making figgy pudding for the holidays. Her version is loaded with fresh cranberries.

      Nancy Carlson carries on a generations-old tradition of making figgy pudding for the holidays. Her version is loaded with fresh cranberries. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Updated 12/14/2010 10:35 AM

If you're in the market to adopt a new family tradition for the holiday table this year, Nancy Carlson's Figgy Pudding -- without figs just may be the one.

This dessert speaks to my taste buds, my funny bone and my love of old, family recipes and the memories they evoke.


It comes with a rich, buttery-sweet white sauce and an old-fashioned baking technique that you can watch online as Nancy demonstrates the dessert handed down from her grandmother through her aunt.

"It brings back very warm memories," says Nancy, a retired teacher who put in 22 years at the chalkboard, including 13 at Highland Elementary in Elgin. "It reminds me of my aunt and very nice Christmases when we would be together with cousins and family."

The simple "pudding" is studded with fresh, bright red cranberries, baked in a coffee can in a water bath and served with that lovely, cream-laden sauce while the family breaks into a chorus of "we must have our figgy pudding," adapted from the old classic, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas."

"It's a very different dessert, not a cake or a pie," says Nancy, who has served it for 32 years for Christmas dinner. "When I have company during the winter it's fun to share, too."

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Truth be told, Nancy didn't grow up with this recipe. Raised mostly in Fort Worth, Texas, her family sang out for her mother's butterscotch meringue pie at Christmas.

It wasn't until Nancy married Wally and they moved to Chicago that Christmas celebrations involved Aunt Margaret, the keeper of the Figgy Pudding flame.

That first year, after her cousins broke out in song, Nancy searched for the figs in her dessert and couldn't find any.

"Everyone laughed at me," she says.

Cut into pretty, round slices, "the cake is a little tart, not real sweet, and the sweeter sauce gives it just what it needs at the end."

Married for 41 years, Nancy has always been the chief cook at home, developing a repertoire of family favorites while always experimenting.


When the three kids were little she was adept at putting a home-cooked meal on the table every night after work, and turning leftovers into something new and appetizing.

Now, in retirement, she serves lighter meals, mostly for two, with plenty of seafood and fresh vegetables.

But today she brings us two more recipes with years of tradition behind them. The Baked Chicken and Beef Casserole is her "to-go" standard when she wants to take a dish to a neighbor in need or to a funeral luncheon. Lightning-fast to prepare, with some packaged ingredients, it bakes slowly for 2 hours, yielding moist, juicy chicken.

Cupcakes Supreme date back to her children's grade school birthday parties. A cream-cheese-and-chocolate-chip topping substitutes for frosting, and "Happy Birthday to You" substitutes for the "figgy" carol.

Laura Bianchi