I like the flavor of figs which is a good thing, because when one possesses an established fig tree it will produce a large quantity of fruit. After two or three years you’ll be offering figs to friends and neighbors and preserving them for winter use. I was surprised the first year my tree produced figs that fruit appeared without the tree having bloomed first, but nature has a strange way with figs as I found out later. The blooms are inside the figs.
We aren’t going to look for the origins of figs because they’ve been eaten and admired since antiquity. Instead, let’s take a quick look at how thrifty housewives used their bounteous harvest in times past.
Fig puddings date to the medieval era and remained popular through the 19th century. Today’s palate might think one a dense cake rather than a pudding. They are perhaps best known from the Christmas carol, “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding”. Early recipes may use either fresh figs or dried, drying being the most widely used method of preservation. They freeze quite well. Cooking methods for the puddings included boiling in a pudding cloth, baking, or steaming in a pudding mold.
CHOICE FIG CAKE. A large cup butter, two and a half of sugar, one of sweet milk, three pints of flour with three teaspoons baking powder, whites of sixteen eggs, a pound and a quarter of figs well floured and cut in strips like citron; no flavoring. – Wilcox, Estelle. Practical Housekeeping. 1883. Minneapolis.
FIG PUDDING. Mince five ounces of beef suet fine. Add four ounces of sifted bread crumbs, four ounces of orange peel cut small, mix all together. Take eighteen figs and cut them in slices. Butter a pudding mould and ornament with figs as with raisins. The remainder of the figs are to be mixed in with the other ingredients. Boil an English pint of sweet milk and pour it over them. Beat up a table-spoonful of sugar with four eggs, adding one at a time. Mix all together, adding a few drops of the essence of cinnamon, pour all into the mould, and boil for three hours. – Williamson, Mrs. Practice of Cookery and Pastry. 1854. Edinburgh.
FIG PUDDING. Half pound of figs, quarter pound grated bread, two and a half ounces of powdered sugar, three ounces butter, two eggs, one tea-cup milk; chop figs fine and mix with butter, and by degrees add the other ingredients; butter and sprinkle a mold with bread crumbs, pour in pudding, cover closely, and boil for three hours; serve with lemon sauce. – Wilcox, Estelle. Practical Housekeeping. 1883. Minneapolis.
STEWED FIGS (A very nice compote). Put into an enameled or a copper stewpan, four ounces of refined sugar, the very thin rind of a large and fresh lemon, and a pint of cold water. When the sugar is dissolved, add a pound of fine Turkey figs, and place the stewpan on a trivet above a moderate fire, or upon a stove, where they can heat and swell slowly, and be very gently stewed. When they are quite tender, add to them two glassfuls of port wine and the strained juice of a lemon; arrange them in a glass dish and serve them cold. From two hours to two and a half of the gentlest stewing will generally be sufficient to render the figs fit for table. Orange-juice and rind can be used for them at pleasure, instead of the lemon; two or three bitter almonds may be boiled in the syrup to give it flavor, and any wine can be used for it, but port is best. This compote may be served in the second course hot, in a ride-border, or cold for dessert. – Acton, Eliza. Modern Cookery for Private Families. 1845.
Fruit jam has been a welcome sweet accompaniment since antiquity, and fig jam never fails to please. There were no instructions with the recipe given here, but it’s pretty basic. Put everything on and let it simmer then remove and discard the lemon slices before putting the jam into the jars.
FIG JAM. Six pounds figs, three pounds of sugar, two lemons sliced, one half cup of sliced green ginger root. Boil three hours. – Lummis, Charles Fletcher. Out West. June 1911.
FIG LOAF CAKE. 1 c. butter, 2 c. sugar, 5 whites of eggs, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 c. sweet milk, 4 c. flour, 1 lb. figs, cut up. Put dough and figs in alternate layers in the pan and bake. – Owens, Frances. Mrs. Owens’ New Cook Book. 1897.
Figs were made into fritters, sweet bread, and around the turn of the century cookbooks were filled with recipes for either fig ice cream or fig and walnut ice cream. If the flavor of the figs is liked, they can be chopped and used in most recipes as a substitute for raisins. The possibilities are endless.
For those people who claim they don’t cook, don’t worry, there’s something for you as well. Try wrapping fresh figs in prosciutto, splitting them and inserting a candied pecan half in the middle, or quartering them in a salad.