Theres a magnificent, century-old fig tree on the farm my friend Bob Cannard has near Sonoma, Calif. It keeps giving fruit year after year. Its a mammoth of a tree, with thick, gnarled, low branches that span outward, then twist to form a natural gazebo 20 feet in diameter. You dont climb up the tree so much as step into it to find a place to perch.
It is possible to take refuge there year round, of course, but summer is the ideal time for it. Fat, ripe, juicy figs are always within arms length.
Alas, most of us dont have a fig tree in the yard. This means you must either befriend someone who does, or do the best you can with store-bought figs. My advice is to buy more than you need.
A cook who possesses good figs can go sweet or savory. I like to bake them in an almond batter for a rustic cake to have with coffee or tea. Easier still are sugar-dusted baked figs, paired with creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.
Warm figs and goat cheese make a great first course, with a little sliced prosciutto or not. Or try a simple arugula and fig salad, with mashed figs and shallots in the dressing.
With figs, ripeness is everything. A ripe fig (the object of your desire) is soft, yielding, beginning to crack, nearly wrinkled. When you cut into it, the flesh is bright and juicy and the taste is ethereal.
Because most figs come to market under-ripe, the percentage of truly ripe ones in your purchase may be small. Heres what to do: Line a tray with a kitchen towel and lay out the less-than-ripe specimens, making sure they dont touch. Leave the tray at room temperature and pray. With luck, your figs will soften in a day or two. (Hard figs may never ripen, and you will probably lose some figs to mold.)
This is what fig lovers do when they are far from the source, although some plant trees in giant pots and bring them inside for the winter. Ive done that, too, but my real fantasy is to have a giant fig tree like Bobs, right outside the kitchen door.
To see printable recipes, click on the links below:
HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan or pie pan; set aside. Put almonds and 1/4 cup sugar in a food processor and grind to a coarse powder. Add flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt; pulse to combine.
WHISK together eggs, melted butter, honey and almond extract in a large bowl. Add almond mixture and beat for a minute until batter is just mixed. Pour batter into pan.
REMOVE stem from each fig and cut in half. Arrange fig halves cut-side up over the batter. Sprinkle figs with sugar and bake for 30 minutes, until golden outside and dry at center when probed with a cake tester. Cool before serving.Yield: 9-inch cake Fig Vinaigrette 1 small shallot, finely diced 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar Salt and pepper 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 4 ripe figs, peeled and mashed 3 tablespoons olive oil
PUT shallot in a small bowl. Cover with vinegars and season with salt and pepper. Macerate for 5 minutes.
STIR in mustard and mashed figs and mix well. Whisk in olive oil.Yield: 1/2 cup Baked Figs and Goat Cheese 1 8-ounce goat cheese log 4 fresh fig leaves, optional 10 ripe figs, stems on, halved lengthwise Salt and pepper 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or rosemary 3 tablespoons olive oil
HEAT oven to 400 degrees. Cut goat cheese into 6 thick slices. Line an 8-by-12-inch earthenware baking dish with fig leaves (if using). Arrange goat cheese in center of dish and surround with fig halves. Season lightly with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with thyme. Drizzle with olive oil.
BAKE uncovered for 15 minutes, until both cheese and figs are softened. Run under broiler for 1 minute to brown. Let cool slightly before serving.Yield: 6 servings