Fresh figs are thought to have been used as early as 2000 B.C. One of the first fruits to be dried and stored, figs appear regularly in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and they’re revered in many world religions as a symbol of peace, fertility and prosperity. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries introduced them from the Mediterranean region to the New World, especially California, and in the 1790s figs were first planted at a San Diego Mission. Eventually, fig trees were planted at each mission and settlement, going north through California where fig orchards took hold in the Central Valley. Today, California fig orchards provide all of the dried and nearly all of the fresh figs grown commercially in the United States. In culinary circles, they’ve sweetened all types of desserts before the widespread use of sugar, and they still appear as the main ingredient in popular holiday
CHEESEBOARD WITH FIG SPREADS
SERVES 8 TO 10
A cheeseboard is a wonderful way to showcase fresh and dried figs, and a spoonful of sweet fig jam, savory fig chutney, or citrus-laden fig compote on a good piece of cheese is a match made in heaven.
MAKES 2 CUPS
Using a combination of Mission and Kadota figs for this easy jam will result in lovely color and interesting flavor. While the jam cooks, use kitchen shears to cut the figs and lemon into bite-size pieces.
2 pounds fresh figs, stemmed and halved
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 lemon, seeded and thinly sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1. In a non-reactive pan, combine figs and sugar; stir to distribute sugar. Cover and leave overnight.
2. Over medium-high heat, cook figs and sugar for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the sugar dissolves; stir in lemon and cinnamon stick. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 hours, or until mixture thickens and registers 220°F on a candy thermometer. Remove cinnamon stick.
3. Spoon hot mixture into clean glass canning jars or plastic freezer containers, leaving at least 1/2-inch headspace. Refrigerate for up to 3 weeks or freeze. Serve at room temperature.
MAKES ABOUT 3 CUPS
For a savory fig spread, this chunky chutney ticks all the boxes.
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 pounds fresh figs, stemmed and chopped
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup golden raisins
1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1. In a large nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar, vinegar, figs, apple, onion, raisins and salt to a boil; cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook for 45 to 50 minutes, or until mixture thickens.
2. Remove from heat; let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Serve at room temperature.
FIGS POACHED IN PORT, VANILLA AND SAFFRON WITH HONEY YOGURT
This fig dish is an elegant offering for breakfast or brunch, especially when you serve it in a stemmed glass with honey yogurt and crunchy granola.
For the figs
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup port
1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped out
Pinch of saffron
12 fresh figs
For the topping
1 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon honey
Granola, for topping
Mint sprig, for garnish
1. Poach figs. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring sugar, water, port, vanilla bean, seeds and saffron to boil; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until sugar dissolves.
2. Add figs, reduce heat to simmer, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until mixture is syrupy; remove vanilla bean. With a slotted spoon, remove figs to a plate; let cool. (For a thicker syrup, continue to cook poaching liquid while figs cool).
3. Make topping. In a small bowl, whisk together yogurt and honey.
4. To serve, divide yogurt into stemmed glasses and arrange 2 figs on top; drizzle with some of the poaching liquid, sprinkle with granola and garnish with mint sprig.
SPICED FIG AND WALNUT CAKE
SERVES 8 to 10
You’ll love the flavor of the tea-soaked figs in this cake. Soaking dried fruits in a liquid like tea is a technique many cooks use to plump up fruit in fruitcakes and tea breads.
2 cups hot black tea
10 large dried golden figs, halved
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
10 tablespoons butter, at room temperature)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Crème fraîche, for serving (optional)
1. In a medium bowl, soak figs in tea for about 30 minutes, or until softened.
2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch round baking pan, line bottom with parchment and butter parchment.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle (or with a hand mixer), beat butter and granulated sugar on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Beat in brown sugar and 1 egg. Beat in flour mixture and remaining eggs in 2 additions; beat in vanilla. Stir in walnuts.
5. Drain figs and cut into small pieces; stir into batter. Transfer to prepared pan; smooth top.
6. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around edge of pan to loosen. Invert cake onto serving plate, remove parchment and then return to upright. Dust top with confectioners’ sugar before cutting into slices. Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche, if desired.
Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page now includes “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work, including how to order her new cookbook, Festive Flavors of Ireland, visit www.irishcook.com.