September 29, 2009

the month of figs

Another month came and almost ended, and so did the season of figs, a most beautiful, seductive fruit you find this time of the year. They are found all around the world and can come in a number of different cultivars, but the one that is most prevalent at stores in Tokyo is a brown-skinned and white-and-pink-fleshed kind that I believe may be closest to the one called Brown Turkey in the US, only they are a lot larger here.

In the past here on my blog, I have confessed my enthusiasm for figs more than once, so I refrain from waxing lyrical all over again.

But I couldn't help but doing a post about what I did with them over the month of September - because I spent quite a bit of time taking pictures of the beautiful fruit like I had never seen them before, and eating them like there was no tomorrow.

While I love eating fresh figs fresh, I found myself popping them in the oven (or putting them under the grill) a lot this year. One of the easiest and most delicious ways was this:

Open-face sandwich with fig and goat cheese. Here, a buttery, flaky croissant was halved, smeared with mashed fig flesh, topped with tomato slices and goat cheese pieces as well as salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence, drizzled with olive oil and grilled briefly. This was inspired by this recipe, which really is for a pie. But as I felt too lazy to roll out a puff pastry dough, I opted for something that is easier and quicker to deal with and just as puffy and tasty; croissant.

The original recipe also calls for gruyere cheese as a topping, but as the one I found at my local store was ridiculously expensive, I gave up on it. Instead, I used a cheese croissant from Paul, a bakery chain I don't head to that often when in Paris but keep going back to in Tokyo, if nothing else for their cheese croissant (which they don't seem to offer in France or in the UK). This would make up for a lack of cheesiness in my sandwich, I hoped.

Adorned with some torn fresh basil leaves, my version of savory fig pie was ready in a flash. And now that you realize that these are more of sandwiches or maybe tartines than pies, I've been making other forms of fig-cheese tartines over and over again in the past, using other types of cheese and/or bread. But ripe tomato slices really made a nice addition to the sandwich, and the use of a croissant definitely turned the whole thing into a really rich (but light) fare.

Another savory dish I did:

A salad of fresh fig slices and arugula dressed in a sherry vinegar-based vinaigrette, topped with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and chopped pistachios and bitter chocolate. In its original recipe found in A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table (Simon & Schuster, 2009), the book by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette, the key players of the salad are arugula and bitter chocolate. But as Molly tells us that she first had it with fresh figs and Permigiano cheese, so I did the same. And I thought it was better that way, with the fig and cheese making the salad a more substantial meal, not to mention their affinity with chocolate and pistachios.

The rest is all on the sweeter side....

One of the first things I did was clafoutis. Which, to be honest, isn't a kind of dessert that I care for the most; I seem to have some complicated relationship with some of the custard-like things such as clafoutis and flans, for their eggy taste (then again, I love creme caramel and creme brulee - don't ask me why). But I remembered once making clafoutis that used ground almonds and liking it, so I dug up the recipe and gave it a try, using figs, grapes, and peaches.

After about an hour of baking (longer than it was required in the recipe, thanks to my stupid oven), what came out was warm, golden-crusted ramekins of... tofu. No, you did read it right. TOFU. How it turned out that way with no soy milk nor any other soy-based ingredient used, I do not know, but it tasted exactly like tofu - only warm and sweet. Yes, quite distasteful. I so wanted to chuck the lot away, but did eat them in the end, though very reluctantly.

Overcome with the shock of making such a flop, and wondering if this was because I had bookmarked the wrong recipe in the first place or else simply my oven had failed to produce a decent stuff again (or maybe I had?), I went desperately for a similar recipe that looked promising:

Frangipane clafoutis with figs and grapes, though you don't see figs anywhere in the picture (they were all buried deep). What is instantly visible here is butter-sauteed grape halves sitting on top of crusty cake, which is so light and airy it is more like souffle. I turned to the recipe for one of Helene's beautiful creations, and it worked all good, except mine didn't rise as much as hers had (but didn't sink much, either). Still puffy and light, it made a nice vehicle for juicy grapes (and figs, of course).

Although this clafoutis was a breeze to make, it might just have been the most elaborate recipe I did this month - in that it involves whipping egg whites (which I did with an electric mixer anyway, but still). My point is, everything else I did was even easier and simpler to make - like bread and butter pudding.

Made based on the recipe here, this pudding had its sweetness largely from honey-roasted figs layered between the slices of fruited bread.

I was supposed to save some of the roasted figs for topping, but I ended up not having any left, so I just sliced up another fig and placed them on top of the pudding before it went into the oven. And because I used French-style fig and walnut bread here, my batch turned out as double-fig bread and butter pudding, using both fresh and dried figs. Re-heated in the morning following the day I'd baked it, this made lovely, hearty breakfast - especially when it was one of the first cooler mornings.

Another quick treat built upon honey-roasted figs:

Honey-roasted fig trifle; a simple deal with layers of fruit(s), custard, cream, and sponge. The idea of using figs roasted with honey in trifle came from here, but otherwise I pretty much played it by ear, making an easy microwave custard and using what is known here as brandy cake.

Now 'brandy cake' in Japan generally refers to some sort of plain loaf of butter cake or sponge doused with so much brandy it almost knocks you out by merely opening the package. Or so as far as I know; when I was a kid, we would sometimes receive brandy cake as a gift from someone, and no matter which cake shop it came from, it would invariably be over-the-top heady - even to someone who has always loved her cake boozy and would willingly overdose on brandy- or rum-soaked dried fruits in her Christmas cake even when she was a high school kid (never mind who she is).

I hadn't had brandy cake in a long time, and when it did, it came, alas, as a gift. And just as boozy as I always remembered it to be. Since I couldn't eat too much of it on its own, I used most of it in the trifle. And surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), the trifle was quite tipsy even though I hadn't soaked the sponge with liquor like you'd normally do with trifle. The cake was that boozy in the first place.

And one more quickie treat:

Fig and chestnut pie, made with store-bought puff pastry and candied chestnuts along with fresh figs. I didn't even bother to make filling, such as almond cream or custard - just topped puff pastry rounds with fig wedges and chestnut halves, and drizzled a bit of honey (again) over them. But really, when figs became caramelized and all tender to the point they effectively melt in your mouth, who needs creamy filling in your pie? Well, I wouldn't refuse it if you served me one that way, but for now I was quite content with its simplicity. Some home-made fig ice cream did make a nice accompaniment, though.

Because baked desserts weren't the only things I did with roasted figs this year...

You might have noticed that I was making a lot of ice cream this summer, with a number of different fruits but always using honey as the only added sweetener. The trend continued on as summer turned into autumn, now with fruits of autumn like figs and Italian plums (and even sweet potatoes, which aren't a fruit but often used in Japanese desserts like these ones - trust me they are good!). Other than these main ingredients themselves being more autumnal, the method of preparing them was now also more suitable for a cooler season; baking.

As far as fresh fig-based frozen desserts go, I just made fig-nectarine frozen yogurt last month, and a year ago I tried this fig ice cream (though it never made it to my blogs). Both use fresh figs uncooked, and I enjoyed them both, but when I thought about making fig ice cream a few weeks ago, I wanted to further boost the flavor of fig in my ice cream. And as I was making other recipes and struck anew by how concentrated fig's flavor got when roasted, it seemed suddenly natural to roast my figs for ice cream.

Of course, I am aware that the idea of roasting fruits before adding them to an ice cream base is nothing original or unique. I, for one, was inspired also by my own experience of trying a recipe for plum ice cream that requires the fruits to be roasted first with butter and sugar; it made the richest, most luscious ice cream ever. So I only adopted the concept to figs, while making the ice cream sugar- and egg-free as I had done all summer.

And it hit the spot. I'm a genius, I thought to myself (I haven't said it to anyone aloud, so you could give me a break...). The intoxicating aroma and sweetness of figs only become more intense when roasted, taking on a slightly caramelized flavor in addition to a hint of honey. And that translated well into the ice cream.

The preparation overall is the same with the other fruit ice creams that I was making; pureeing the fruit, adding a few spoonful of honey and a dash of spirit/liquor, freezing it, processing it in a blender until smooth and adding lightly whipped heavy cream, re-freezing it and re-processing it, and freezing once more. The only big difference was that the fruit was first roasted with honey.

While I was mostly happy with my first batch of honey-roasted fig ice cream, it still felt that it might need a bit of acidity to balance out the intense richness of figs. So in my second trial, I roasted figs with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar along with honey.

I also used rosemary as it is one of my favorite flavors to add to figs. While it smelled heavenly while baking, the scent of the herb got lost once the figs had been blended with cream and frozen; next time I might try and boost the rosemary flavor perhaps by adding minced leaves to the puree, or infusing the cream with a few sprigs.

Although the flavor of rosemary didn't shine through as much as I had hoped it to be, I still found that cooking fruits gives me a chance to add a flavor to my ice cream through the heating process. This was something I had deliberately left out when making other ice creams during the summer, in an attempt to make the ice cream-making as simple and as quick as possible (i.e. so that no cooking is involved). But if I do cook my fruits, I should might as well add something, I thought - such as herbs and spices.

And if I do add spices to my fig ice cream, what spices would I use? Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and black peppercorns would be my usual suspects. Now, wouldn't this set of spices remind me of something? Mulled wine. Wine? Why not cooking figs in wine then?

This string of ideas led me to make another type of fig ice cream.

Which was red wine and fig ice cream, or maybe fig and mulled-wine ice cream. And it made another hit - here, the flavors of fig, wine and spices all came through beautifully and well mingled, and just like roasted fig ice cream, this seemed also very suitable to cooler seasons; too bad I can't make it at the heart of winter!

I used sliced ginger root, cinnamon, cardamom, black peppercorns, and cloves as well as a few slices of lemon to poach the figs. And I'll let you into the secret: I used some leftover from the last jar of honey-ginger syrup I'd made for home-made ginger ale, and it worked perfectly well.

And there is one last thing with figs - and ginger ale:

Quick fig-nectarine preserve with red wine and spices (never mind if it sounds rather like some ice cream you've just read about), and ginger ale scones. Yes, you read it right again: ginger ale scones. These were a cousin of lemonade scones I found here, which are scones made using lemonade.

I was intrigued by the mere sound of 'lemonade scones', but you might need some explanations if you, like me, are someone who associates the word 'lemonade' with a cold, sweet and sour soft drink that has a distinct flavor of lemon. The term 'lemonade' can refer to something completely different in some other parts of the world, which include the UK and apparently Australia where the recipe author is from; it is, in my mind, better called Sprite or 7-up - a carbonated sweet soft drink that is not necessarily lemon-flavored.

So the trick here is to use lemonade - I mean Sprite - so that it reacts together with baking soda to make the scones rise when baked. So most sodas should work here - including ginger ale, I suspected.

Hence my ginger ale scones here. Now, to be straight with you, they didn't taste of ginger at all. Which I had half expected, especially when I used stronger-tasting whole wheat flour (which happened to be the only flour I had sitting around in my kitchen) rather than regular plain flour. If I really wanted to make my scones taste of ginger, I could add grated ginger root or even crystallized ginger, I reckon, but the fun part of this recipe was to use fizzy drink in a scone dough, and it was fun to watch how the dough felt almost fizzy when added with ginger ale.

And oh, scones tasted good anyway - though it tasted more like biscuits when they were hardly sweet and packed with the flavor of whole wheat (not that I can always tell apart scones and [American] biscuits, but I always see the former a little sweeter and the latter a little more rustic). But the fig preserve and cream sufficiently made them look and taste like proper scones, I think.

So this was how I spent this year's fig season...

I have a long list of recipes using fresh figs to go through, and I wish I could have tried more from it. It would also have been nice to make something a little more elaborate, such as cakes and tarts, but I haven't been feeling composed enough to opt to make anything complicated, with a lot of things occupying my mind during the month. Or maybe you can just call me a lazy cook - I'm a one!

As we are getting close to the end of the fresh fig season, I seem to keep grabbing a pack of figs whenever I go out grocery shopping, telling myself that 'this could be my last figs of the season' - which can be true! They could disappear from the store shelves anytime soon, and I will have to wait for almost a year until they arrive again next summer. Better safe than sorry, right?

The only problem is, they are extremely perishable and I have to be careful to make sure I eat them before they are spoiled. So excuse me as I'm off to save another couple of fresh figs sitting countertop for a couple of days now... hope you enjoyed your dose of fresh figs, too! -c x


Clea said...

I would love to try the pudding... Would you give us a quick recipe?

chika said...

hi Clea - there's a link to the recipe for the bread'n'butter pudding if that is what you need!

Anonymous said...

Hello, I always look forward to reading your posts! Your recipes and pictures are beautiful. This year there was also an abundance of figs in London. They are more purple in colour and seem to have thinner skins. But very sweet and yummy.

mycookinghut said...

I really love your first 2 photos of figs!

Claudia said...

What a post, you left me breathless again.

I followed you along the post waiting for the moment you would show the fig ice cream, I knew there would be an ice cream sometime down there in the post. It was an amazing recipe, to roast the fruits with rosemary. However, I must confess, if I have serious emotional problem with rosemary which are used as main component in an incense that used to be burned by everybody else in my life during my childhood-youth. Damn, I hate the smell of burning rosemary as much as I adore figs, cream and honey. What a crossroad of references a simple ice cream recipe can be...


chika said...

hi - thank you all for leaving a note!

chasingbawa - i love those dark purple figs too. we don't get them in japan.

mycookinghut - thanks! me, too :)

Claudia - oh such a shame! but it is absolutely not necessary for this fig ice cream to have rosemary in it; i made my first batch without it and it still turned out great.

Abby said...

Hi, I just stumbled upon your blog and your photos are amazing! Those figs look great!
Just a quick question, what camera and lenses are you using?

Nikki said...

I just have to say that I have a soft spot for anything fig and your fig photographs are truly art! Wonderful blog, amazing talent!