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I am awash in black Mission figs. I know, this is not the worst problem to have, and I am ready for the hate mail from my Northeastern and Canadian friends. But still. Our tree is five years old now and has been popping out figs since late June; only then it was a few at a time, perfect for fresh eating.
Now it’s a dozen or more at any given moment. Holly likes eating them fresh, and so do I on occasion, but because figs tend to lack that acidic tang blackberries, elderberries or really most any other fruit possess, a really ripe one feels like eating a blob of figgy sugar.
So, the annual fig dilemma: What the hell am I going to do with all of these things? Wasting them is out of the question, and, oddly, our local birds seem to not have noticed this tree (Shhh!), so leaving them to the magpies isn’t an option, either. I am drying a lot of them this year, both to make the Greek fig cakes I love so much and to just eat as-is; they make perfect hunting snacks.
But that’s old hat now. So I thought about figs for a while, wondering what, in essence, is a fig all about? (Yeah, I know I’m a little crazy. Deal.) What I kept coming back to is that figgy blob of an overripe fig: It’s Nature’s jelly bag — pure sugar. A really ripe fig can hit a brix reading of 23-24, a sugar level powerful enough to make wine (hey, THAT’s an idea!), so why not just go with it?
I started with fig jam. This one is easy, and I like eating it. I make an odd fig jam, however, spiked with ouzo and cooked with bay leaves and a little salt. It makes a far more “adult” tasting sweet than typical recipes.
A few tips on making this: Chop your figs small enough so that the skins, which don’t break down completely, will be small enough so you can still spread the jam on toast. If you use it in a sweet-savory pan sauce (it would go well with venison or wild turkey), you also want everything chopped small so it looks good as a sauce.
Stir the bubbling figs often, or suffer the fate of burned figs on the bottom of your pot, which smell nasty, and can ruin a batch, not to mention your pot. This can happen very quickly once the water content of the jam is boiled down, so stay close.
I did not add any pectin to my jam, so it is pretty loose. I like it this way, but you could add pectin if you wanted. A final tip: Add some of the ouzo at the very end, so it retains some alcohol. Then feed it to your small children when they’re rambunctious. Calms ’em right down…
I thought about making fig ice cream or sorbet, am was still mulling this when our neighbor Aleika offered to make some for us. Sure, why not? She did, and while it’s good, fig sorbet remains a work in progress. She added some Port to the sorbet — great idea — but for some reason it was not overly figgy tasting. And then there was the problem of the seeds.
Let me say for the record that I loathe fig seeds. OK, that’s an overstatement, as I don’t mind them one bit when I eat a fresh or dried fig. But I don’t like the gritty feel of them in the sorbet, and I like them even less in fig syrup.
Oh yes, I made fig syrup. Looks beautiful, tastes wonderful, but it is an absolute ball-buster to make.
Let me start by saying I do not make a lot of jams and jellies. My elderberry jelly did not set, and as a rule I don’t eat a lot of sweet things. So maybe there is a better way to make this syrup, and if you know of one by all means fill me in, as the process I used to get to this lovely garnet syrup was no fun.
First part is easy. Chop figs and cook down for 2-3 hours with some water, lemon juice and lemon zest. Tastes great, and would make a good fig jam. But a proper syrup should not have seeds. Ever try to strain out fig seeds before? They’re smaller even than strawberry seeds. Grrrr…
I started by running everything through the fine plate on my food mill, which has been getting a lot of use these days. That separated the skins, some pulp, and a few seeds. Then I tried pushing the figs through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth.
No dice. It was still way too thick, and it ruined the cheesecloth. Getting frustrated, I searched for my jelly bag. Oh yeah, that’s right, I don’t own a jelly bag. Sigh. I do own standard cotton undershirts, however, and so I cut out a big square of one and used that as my jelly bag.
Hanes did me proud. By squeezing and loosening the tension on the figgy mass, I got most of the good stuff out — and left those goddamn seeds in the shirt. Finally, I got out more cheesecloth and pushed the fig juice through a fine-mesh sieve.
Not done. I measured out the strained fig juice and added 2/3 its volume in sugar — normally a syrup ratio would be one-to-one, but figs are already sweet. I just eyeballed the ratio, and may have been able to go lower. Still working on it. I brought the syrup to a simmer and let it cook for 20 minutes to boil off some more water.
In the end, it was beautiful. But about five pounds of figs gave me two pints of syrup. Damn. The kicker? I have no idea what I am going to use this stuff in. I’m sure I can think of something, but I didn’t make fig syrup because I had a burning urge to make fig syrup. I did it to get rid of five pounds of figs.
Turns out you can buy an Italian version of fig syrup online. Who knew?
I went out to water my artichokes yesterday. They’re just now breaking dormancy and need a ton of water to grow fast if I want a crop by Thanksgiving. My artichokes live next to the fig tree, which I’d picked clean a few days’ prior so I could do all these figgy experiments. What did I see?
Sonofa… They just won’t stop. Don’t make me make fig syrup again, people. I need help with ideas to put up another zillion figs. Help!
MORE ON FIGS
- Simple Pleasures: Fresh Figs
- A recipe for sykomaitha, Greek fig cakes
- How to make fig jam
- Fig syrup recipe