A prolific fig harvest calls for classically delicate recipes
The leaves wave in the breeze, like giant’s hands, beckoning. “The figs are ready.” I have spent much of this summer up a ladder, stretching to grab the constantly ripening fruits. Those teasingly out of reach fall days later, splattering the terrace with their sticky red juice. Figs from the uppermost branches are left for the blackbirds, still nesting in the ivy. The garden smells of jam and wine.
The little tree I planted 20 years ago has outgrown its space on the terrace. I remember thinking how whimsical a fig tree seemed under the grey winter sky of the city. Now, there are fig trees all over, their dinner plate-sized leaves providing the best shade of all. The trees are tough, which should be obvious when you spot them growing from a crevice in a wall or from a pile of rocks in Greece or Italy. The harder it is pruned, the more its grey, twisting branches reach for the clouds. This year, the roots burst through the walls of the metal box that confined them and are now tunnelling under the stones. I have never known a harvest quite as prolific as in 2020.
Figs are breakfast in this house; sometimes with ricotta, on other occasions on their own. Rarely does a fig feel the heat of the oven. But this year the harvest has become unstoppable. Sliced in half, the fruits have been warmed in jelly and served with walnut cakes or a cinnamon panna cotta. I have baked the smaller fruit whole with honey and sherry or settled them into a cake of polenta and ground almonds and made a pickle with cardamom and fennel seeds. If they carry on ripening at this rate, there will be pots of syrupy, seedy jam, too.
Walnut madeleines, figs and honey
I time these little cakes precisely. I find they take 12 minutes in both our testing ovens, but the exact cooking time will depend on your own oven, so I suggest you start checking at 10 minutes. The madeleines are done when they are springy to the touch and a little hillock has risen in the middle. Remove from the oven, let them rest for a couple of minutes, then carefully remove them, using a small palette knife, and transfer to a cooling rack until the figs and their sauce are ready. The recipe makes enough madeleines for 2 per person, plus a few extra that will keep for one day.
Serves 3 (with some left for later)
For the madeleines:
caster sugar 100g
walnut halves 45g
self-raising flour 50g
For the figs:
soft brown sugar 50g
liquid honey 50g
figs 3, large
sherry 50ml, medium-dry
double cream 125ml
Cut the butter into small pieces and put them in the bowl of a food mixer. Add the sugar and a couple of drops of vanilla extract and beat until soft and fluffy, pushing the mixture regularly down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Grind the walnuts to fine crumbs in a food processor. They need to be roughly the same consistency as ground almonds.
Break the eggs into a small bowl and combine the yolks and whites with a fork or small whisk. Introduce the beaten egg to the butter and sugar mixture a little at a time. Stir in the flour and ground walnuts.
Divide the mixture between 12 madeleine tins. Bake for about 10-12 minutes. They are ready when they are lightly firm to the touch.
Make the fig compote: put the sugar, honey and sherry into a wide, shallow pan and warm over a moderate heat. As the sugar starts to melt, cut each fig in half and place them, seeded side down, in the pan. As the figs start to soften, transfer them to a serving dish. Stir the cream into the pan, leave to bubble for a minute then pour over the figs and serve with the walnut madeleines.
Cinnamon panna cotta, roast figs
Makes 4 small panna cotta
For the panna cotta:
gelatine 2 leaves
double cream 350ml
cinnamon 3 sticks
vanilla 1 pod
caster sugar 100g
For the figs:
figs 8, small and ripe
redcurrant or apple jelly 4 heaped tbsp
Put the gelatine in a bowl of cold water to soften. Pour the cream into a small nonstick saucepan and add the cinnamon sticks broken in half. Split the vanilla pod in half lengthways and scrape the seeds into the cream. Add the empty vanilla pod and sugar to the pan, then bring to the boil.
Remove from the heat, cover and leave to infuse for at least 20 minutes. Warm the cream briefly (it doesn’t need to be very hot), then gently squeeze out the water from the softened gelatine, then add it to the cream and stir to dissolve. Pour the buttermilk into the cream, stir gently, remove the cinnamon then pour through a fine sieve placed over a jug.
Pour the mixture into 4 small ramekins, glasses or cups, place in the fridge and leave to set for 4 hours. Should you wish to unmould the panna cotta, dip each ramekin into a bowl of hot water, briefly. Tip on to a plate and shake firmly until the panna cotta slides out, then serve with the figs below.
For the sauce: melt the redcurrant or apple jelly in a shallow pan over moderate heat. Unless the figs are very small, cut them in half and place them, cut side down, in the melted jelly. Let the figs cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until they have started to soften. Transfer the figs to a serving dish and spoon the melted jelly over them.