A Fig Story

I hated figs for most of my life. Except for Fig Newtons to gently dunk into afternoon tea. I also didn’t mind a small plop of fig jam as an accompaniment to a pungent liver pâté.

Then we moved to a neighborhood filled with Middle Eastern shops and I gradually made friends from Turkey, Syria, and Palestine. In late summer, market bins filled with figs. My friends bought them three or four baskets at a time and, almost always, plucked a couple from the bag as soon as we were on the street again. There are tastes that linger in memory–good and bad, those you hunger for or avoid the rest of your life. My first bite of a fig is among the great ones.

Figs are one of my indications of the coming fall. The days grow short and, before twilight descends, the sun’s rays slant closer to the ground, golden and dazzling. Cicadas sing in waves their mating calls. The perfectly ripened figs in the market will soon be gone. The memory of my first fig–the beauty of its purple, green-tinged skin giving way to sweet, soft flesh surrounding a red hollow filled with crunchy seeds–all of this is why four tiny baskets of figs now crowd in the refrigerator, waiting for me.

But what to do with them? Besides devouring them whole, there are recipes for grilling, baking and jam making. I decided to bake a clafoutis because it is one of the easiest desserts to make in late summer and I found a good bottle of rose on sale at the liquor store. The pairing tricks me into feeling rather sophisticated, a weak, though arguably not so insignificant, disguise to hide behind these days.

One of my notes: The classic clafouti recipe calls for cherries but whatever fruit is ripe at the moment works just as well. The one thing to adjust is the choice of spirits in which to soak the fruit. This was the most difficult step in choosing to make a fig clafouti. I could have gone with brandy but I didn’t want a boozy flavor overpowering the figs. The same was true for another suggestion to use blackberry or fig infused vodka. I went with Amaretto with a prayer that it’s almond and apricot notes would melt well with figs.

Another note that veers dangerously into a rant: This recipe, with a few clarifications, is guided by the one you’ll find in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The link will take you to a bizarre article published in 2009 on Slate which warns you to not cook from this essential book and it’s accompanying second volume. The article’s thesis is that their recipes are too daunting and laborious, the whole too fussy and complicated for today’s cooks. This is a classic WTF issue for me. Any cookbook that dives deep into the foundations of another country’s cooking is daunting. Among my personal ones are The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diane Kennedy and Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. I’ve cooked from both and became close to the bed-ridden level of exhaustion merely by the required grocery list and the multiple instructions that, in my dyslexic ways, had to be read a dozen times to follow. I’m woman enough to admit there were moments when I was close to tears. The first rounds at a recipe were never perfect but I truly believe that’s not the point. A successful outcome is the hoped for goal but it should be more important that you gain an intimate understanding of a people and a way of life that only learning about how they cook and what they eat provides. So you might labor for days instead of hours and your sink and counter looks like a war zone, so what? Try the recipe again another time and it will be delicious and you’ll have legitimate boasting rights. Best of all, you’ll have enriched your cooking repertoire and know a host of new techniques, flavors and ingredients.

Now, if you’re still with me, on to the recipe.

Fig Clafouti

1 pound of ripe figs

About 1/2 cup Amaretto

3/4 cups milk

1/3 cup gradulated sugar

3 eggs

1 tablespoon vailla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup sifted all-purpose flour

a dust of confectionery sugar

To serve options: vanilla ice cream or heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a fireproof baking dish or deep pie plate.

Cut the figs in half and arrange them face down in a bowl or or plate big enough to ensure they’ll be evenly doused in the liqueur. Pour the Amaretto over them and let sit for an hour to absorb the flavor.

Drain the figs and set aside. Add the liquid to the milk–you should have a total of 1 1/4 cups of milk. If not, add more milk. Pour the milk into A blender, food processor or mixing bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and beat the batter on high speed for about 1 minute. You want the batter to be frothy.

Pour a thin layer of batter into the baking dish or pie plate. Set over moderate heat for a minute or two until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish. Remove from heat. (I didn’t have a fireproof dish so I placed mine in the preheated oven for a minute.)

Arrange the figs over the batter in a single layer and pour in the rest of the batter. Smooth the surface with a spatula. (I drizzled on a scant more Amaretto.)

Place in the middle of the oven and bake for about an hour. The clafouti is done with it’s puffed and brown and a needle or knife comes out clean when you piece the center.

Serve at room temperature or warm. Dust the top of each piece with confectionery sugar. If you have warmed the clafouti, add a spoonful on the side or a small puddle of cream.