This week, we fly down across Europe to the warmer climes of Turkey and the Middle East to sample one of the fruits that is just about perfect right now.
We’re making much use of the beautiful fig for this recipe. I’ve been a fig fan for ages, and for much longer than I can actually remember, for many of my jars of 1970s baby food were apparently fig-based, and over the years I’ve eaten more fig roll biscuits than I can count.
Until becoming a cook for a living, I never really ‘noticed’ the fig in any great way – it was just the strangely crunchy brown paste inside my elevenses biscuit. But now I adore making use of them in my recipes whenever possible.
The fig is one of the very oldest cultivated fruits, commonly believed to have been first grown as a crop in Syria about 11,000 years ago.
Nowadays, there are well over 800 varieties of cultivated common fig, in all shapes and sizes. Look out for the excellent Smyrna, Black Mission or Brown Turkey varieties to taste true figginess at its very peak.
With a fig, it’s love at first sight – usually the fruits come, stalk intact, wrapped in delicate folds of tissue paper and seated in special cardboard trays that cradle the delicate, easily-blemished flesh. The fig does not care for being jostled much, and every care is taken to ensure they get to their destination in one piece.
When unwrapped, the fig reveals its gorgeous dark green or blue-black skin, often with a beautiful whitish bloom of powder – this is actually the excess sugar leaking through the skin and drying into fine crystals. When cut, beneath the creamy snow white layer, the deep red juicy flesh is exposed, laden with those seeds that provide much of the fig’s eating pleasure.
The fine crunch as one eats a fig is an absolute delight. When dried, figs become even muskier and sweeter, developing the texture of chewy toffees, perfect for Christmas cakes and other slow-baked treats.
The fig is everywhere in the cuisine of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, dried and fresh, in all manner of dishes from stews and roasts to tajines, couscous and baked rice dishes.
It marries up well with dairy, and features frequently with yoghurt and mild cheeses, and the crunch of nuts, especially hazelnuts or almonds goes brilliantly with that unique texture. Further around the Med, where pork becomes a staple ingredient, we find the fig providing the perfect foil to cured ham. In the height of summer, I don’t think there’s a much better way to start a meal than with some fragrant folds of Parma or Iberico ham with wedges of fresh fig; sheer simple perfection.
All of which brings me to this week’s dish, a combination of fresh and dried figs in a harmonious trio of elements making a rather fancy and deeply delicious dessert.
The dairy element is taken care of with a classic crème brûlée – always a joy – and this is bolstered with a thin base of thick fresh fig purée.
On the side we’ll serve a roast fig drizzled with a little honey, and for a bit of texture and the deep flavour of dried figs, we’re making a sort of fig roll biscuit to serve on the side. A great dessert to show off the wonderfully versatile little fig in all its glory.
FOR THE FIG JAM:
4 fresh black figs
The juice and zest of 1 lemon
A little unrefined golden caster sugar
FOR THE BRULEES:
600ml double cream
2 vanilla pods, split
100g unrefined golden caster sugar
6 large free-range egg yolks
FOR THE FIG ROLLS:
110g unsalted butter, softened
80g golden caster sugar
1 large free-range egg yolk
150g plain flour
50g ground almonds
juice and zest of 2 large oranges
A pinch of Maldon salt
200g semi-dried figs, diced
1 small apple, peeled and grated
1 tbsp honey
FOR THE HONEY-ROAST FIGS:
6 fresh figs
A little local honey
Refined caster sugar for glazing
2 egg yolks with a little milk for glazing the rolls
First, the fig jam for our brûlées; finely chop the figs and simmer gently in a small pan with the sugar, lemon juice and zest. When the mixture is completely soft and nicely thick, pass through a sieve and cool for use later.
Now, make the pastry for the fig rolls; cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolk and add the juice and zest of one of the oranges along with the flour, ground almonds and salt.
Gently bring everything together to form a ball of soft dough. Flatten into a rough square, wrap in cling film and refrigerate while you make the filling. Whizz the figs and the remaining orange juice and zest together in a food processor, then add the apple and honey, making a firm paste. Heat the oven to 180ºC / Gas 4. On a well-floured surface, roll out the pastry into a large 30x40cm rectangle, and cut into 4 lengthwise. Gently spoon a quarter of the dried fig paste along the centre of each of the pastry pieces, and brush one side with a little beaten egg yolk and milk. Roll up the pastry, sealing well all around and making sure the seam is underneath.
Cut these long rolls into suitable lengths (about 5cm) Place on baking trays lined with parchment and chill for about an hour. Glaze the rolls with the egg and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake the rolls for 10-15 minutes until golden and oozing stickily. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Now for the brûlées; turn the oven down to 150ºC / Gas 2. Prepare a deep baking tray lined with newspaper or an old teatowel. Bring the cream to a boil, along with the pods. Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla seeds until mixed. Strain the boiling cream over the eggs and whisk well until mixed, avoiding too many bubbles. Return to the pan and heat gently, stirring constantly until the custard thickens slightly, leaving a clear trail when a finger is drawn through it over the back of a spoon. Spoon a little of the fresh fig jam into the base of each ramekin, and carefully pour in the custard. Set the ramekins in the tray, and fill the tray with boiling water to a level just below the top of the ramekins. Bake, uncovered for about 40 minutes, until they are set, but with a still-discernible wobble. Allow to cool. Turn up the oven to 220ºC / Gas 7.
Lightly butter a small baking dish, and cut the remaining fresh figs at right angles, almost all the way through. Gently push around the base of each fig, opening the top like a flower. Arrange tightly in the dish. Drizzle with honey and bake for about 8-10 minutes, or until they are just beginning to sizzle and caramelise.
To serve, pop a fig and a fig roll on each plate. Sprinkle the surface of each brûlée with unrefined sugar and blowtorch to deeply caramelise the top. Serve immediately, garnished with a few flaked almonds and a little fresh mint.