Cooking with Hardtack: Figgy Dowdy

Posted By on May 9, 2013

Dowdy ready to serve. Custard sauce is optional and wouldn't have been available to the foremast jacks, though the officers might have had it.

Dowdy ready to serve. The sketchy little pan behind it is custard.

With bags of ship’s biscuit stashed around the house after a recent hardtack-making binge, I realized I needed to start figuring out some good recipes to use them in. As I’ve said in a previous post, they make great dumplings in soup, but man does not live on soup alone.

Along came figgy dowdy.

There’s a great conversation in Patrick O’Brian’s book Post Captain in which some of the characters explain how the dish is made, and their directions are pretty close to the exact recipe.

‘We take ship’s biscuit, put it in a stout canvas bag –’ said Jack.
‘Pound it with a marlin-spike for half an hour –’ said Pullings.
‘Add bits of pork fat, plums, figs, rum, currants,’ said Parker.
‘Send it to the galley, and serve it up with bosun’s grog,’ said Macdonald.


Figgy dowdy is a boiled suet-and-crumbs pudding fairly typical of its class. My recipe comes from Lobscouse and Spotted Dog.

The recipe:

Hardtack bashed to crumbs.

Hardtack bashed to crumbs.

1 pound Ship’s Biscuit, or enough to make ~4 cups of crumbs
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup chopped figs
3/4 cups currants
3/4 cups raisins
1/2 lb pork fat or suet, finely grated
2 tsp freshly grated ginger
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup rum (more for the cook if necessary – Editor’s note)
3/4 cup water


How do you pound the hard tack to crumbs? Traditionally a marlin spike is used, but I’ve used everything from a chunk of kindling wood to a baseball bat (put the hardtack in a bag first).

The dowdy all wrapped and ready for boiling.

The dowdy all wrapped and ready for boiling.

Put the crumbs in a large bowl, add flour, sugar, nutmeg, and salt; stir to combine. Add the raisins, currents, and figs, breaking them apart (the flour and crumbs will coat them and keep them from clumping together). Mix in the fat. Add the ginger, eggs, rum, and water, and work the mixture thoroughly with your hands.

Tie tightly in a well-floured cloth. Place in a large pot with boiling water to cover. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, and cook rapidly for three hours. I recommend keeping a kettle going throughout this process so you can top off the pot without dropping the temperature.

Remove the pudding from the pot, untie it, and turn out into a serving dish. Slice into thin wedges and serve with custard sauce.

The custard sauce is optional and wouldn’t have been available to the foremast jacks, though the officers might have had it. Officers could sometimes carry a few animals along on larger ships to supplement their rations with eggs, milk, or extra meat.

When this was cooking, the suet scent was strong. It smelled like an exotically spiced stew. After a while of boiling, the meat smell went away and was replaced by the delicious home-warming aroma of spices and raisins. The water looks sketchy while you’re cooking this, but that’s normal for these things. I live on a very rustic farm with primitive facilities (including a lack of running water), so this was boiled on top of our old woodstove.

If you’ve floured your cloth heavily enough and kept the water temperature up the whole time, the pudding should come out with little effort or mess. When warm, it’s got a surprisingly delicate texture and tastes like a slightly sweet and spicy raisin bread. Be warned, though – when it gets cold, it’ll get hard. Cold suet puddings are a real stick-to-your-ribs (and roof of your mouth) dish. They soften up again when reheated, though.

Finished dowdy turned out onto a trencher.

Finished dowdy turned out onto a trencher. Yes, it looks like a brain fresh out of the vat.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but it’s also delicious to fry leftover slices in butter for breakfast the next morning.



About the author

I'm a museum professional with an MA in Museum Studies and Atlantic History. A lot of my research has been in colonial and maritime history, as well as material culture of the 16th - 19th centuries. I've held a lot of weird jobs covering everything from beekeeper to tall ship deckhand. I currently live with my partner on the Canadian border in Vermont.


2 Responses to “Cooking with Hardtack: Figgy Dowdy”

  1. Bethanny Allain says:

    Your hardtack pudding reminds me of the plum pudding my family would at Yule. We would put hard sauce on it.

  2. […] before about my adventures and misadventures in making ship’s biscuit or hardtack, and in cooking with it. I’ve made it a bunch of times but never seem to get it […]

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