Sweet & Spicy: Fresh figs

reminds Southerners of home

Fig Tart with Honeyed Goat Cheese. The tart shell is filled with fresh, halved figs covered with a light topping of fresh goat cheese, heavy cream, honey and orange zest. Baked at high heat, the fruit softens into the shell and the delicate cream topping caramelizes. (Lisa Williams)

As an expatriate Southerner, I’m always happy to meet someone who also was raised in the South, the more rural the better. Conversation quickly shifts to food. Did you have purple hull peas? How did your mother make dressing? At some point, one of us may grow misty eyed and sigh, “I miss figs.”

Figs are not native to the United States but arrived from the Mediterranean area several hundred years ago. Spanish explorers introduced them to Florida in the late 1500s. Spanish missionaries brought them to California where the fruit is now a commercial industry. Italian immigrants tucked cuttings in their suitcases and brought them on their journey to America. As people moved and settled, the fig tree came along.

Fig trees are commonplace in the South. (Lisa Williams)

Fig trees are found widely in Southern states, and not just on rural homesteads, but planted along city streets and in backyards. With their large (and fragrant) leaves, fig trees are a beautiful addition to the landscape. My grandmother had a huge tree in her yard, and it seems like everyone in our community did, too. With the death of our parents, the family homestead was sold. I still think about our two mature fig trees and hope the new owners appreciate the treasure they have. (Also the 6 feet tall azaleas.)

Our breakfast table was never complete without fig preserves. Whole fruit soaked in sugar then slowly cooked until the juices and sugar formed a dark amber syrup. Older trees usually produce fruit in such abundance that there’s enough for people, birds and the occasional raccoon or opossum. The bounty often was so great that cooks used the fruit in creative ways, such as preserving them with strawberries, adding to ice cream or baking in cakes.

Fresh California figs can be found in the Corridor. (Lisa Williams)

I looked forward to jars of Mother’s fig preserves arriving by mail every summer. They’d be nestled in a box and cushioned with one or two new dish towels. Later that fall, she sent fruitcakes that included fig preserves as one of her multitude of ingredients.

Lately I’ve been delighted to find fresh California figs in stores here in the Corridor. If the price is right, I’ll buy enough to make a few jars of preserves. Besides pairing the preserves with homemade biscuits, I also love them with cheese, especially goat’s or sheep’s milk variety, as an appetizer. Add some arugula and crusty bread to make a lovely sandwich.

This year, I’ve enjoyed figs simply eaten fresh. For this column, though, I decided to showcase them in a simple tart adapted from a recipe by Deborah Madison. The quick to make tart shell is filled with fresh, halved figs covered with a light topping of fresh goat cheese, heavy cream, honey and orange zest. Baked at high heat, the fruit softens into the shell and the delicate cream topping caramelizes. It’s a sweet bridge of past and present, summer and autumn.


Fig Tart with Honeyed Goat Cheese

One 9-inch tart shell, partially baked

20 ripe, soft figs, sliced in half

3/4 cup fresh goat cheese or creme fraiche (depending on the amount of goat cheese or creme fraiche you have on hand, you can also add heavy cream to reach the desired quantity)

2 tablespoons of light honey

1 to 2 tablespoons of orange zest, plus extra for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have the partially baked shell ready. Cut off the stems from the figs and cut lengthwise in half. Arrange the figs in the tart shell, cut sides up.

Mix the goat cheese or creme fraiche with the honey and orange zest and pour it over the fruit, smoothing out the top. Bake until the cream is puffed, about 35 minutes. Garnish with a bit of orange zest. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Source: Adapted from Deborah Madison

Tart Dough

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks

1 tablespoon cold water mixed with 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and/or 1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Put the flour, sugar, salt and zest in a food processor; pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is broken up into pieces the size of baby peas. Drizzle in the water-vanilla mixture and pulse just until large, moist-looking crumbs have formed.

Gather the crumbs together in a mass. They should stick together. Shape the dough into a disk about an inch thick. Place this into the bottom of the tart pan and start pressing it out using the heel of your hand. When you get to the edge, begin building the dough up the sides. The walls should be about 1/4 inch thick. Remove the dough that rises over the rim with your fingers and use it to patch another part of the dough that looks thin. Use a finger to make a slightly shallow impression at the base of the rim so that when the dough slides down during baking, it won’t end up too thick at that point. Refrigerate until ready to bake.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set the tart shell pan on a sheet pan. Line the tart shell with foil and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, then carefully pull the foil away from the dough. If the dough sticks, return the shell to the oven for a few more minutes or until the foil easily comes away. Once you’ve removed the foil and the pie weights, return the empty shell to the oven and continue to bake until the crust is clearly set and pale gold, about 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove from oven and proceed with recipe.

Source: “Seasonal Fruit Desserts” by Deborah Madison

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