Dried Figs: Try A February Fruit Fix

In the dead of winter - when fresh fruit is scarce, expensive, and usually bad - you probably get to the point where you'll scream if you have to eat another banana. That's the time to consider dried figs for a fruit fix.

Figs have a long and venerable history. They were one of the first fruits to be cultivated, some 5,000 years ago, and one of the first to be dried for storage. In the days before refined sugar, figs were valued for their high sugar content. And it's not just the fruit itself that figured in antiquity; fig leaves were the first manifestation of Adam and Eve's lost innocence.

But you can't eat history, so maybe we should move on to more practical information. Most figs are grown to be dried, since fresh figs are delicate (they must be picked ripe) and difficult to transport. The two dried-fig varieties you're most likely to find are Calimyrna and Mission, both grown in California. Mission figs are black, with a deep, rich flavor. Calimyrnas are golden, with a nutty sweetness. They can be used interchangeably in recipes.

If your only knowledge of dried figs is in Fig Newtons, you're missing out on a big part of the experience. Their sweet flavor and chewy texture make them an interesting, versatile ingredient.

  • Add chopped, dried figs to the liquid when braising pork or lamb.
  • Dried figs add texture and sweetness to chutneys, preserves, and compotes.
  • Simmer figs in sherry and honey until they're tender, then serve over ice cream.
  • Poach dried figs along with fresh pears in red wine, sugar, and mulling spices.
  • Make dessert of dried figs with a really ripe blue cheese and some sliced apples.
  • Simmer chopped figs and nutmeg in water then add oatmeal or any other hot cereal.
  • Figs go well in almost any kind of quick bread, from bran muffins to banana bread.
  • Make couscous, bulgur, or rice pilaf with chopped, dried figs, apricots, pine nuts, and a touch of cinnamon.
  • Add halved figs to apple cobbler or crisp.
  • Spice up bread pudding with figs and ginger.

Dried Fruit Pudding

This is a Brazilian dessert which originated in Sao Paulo. Traditionally, it was made using stale bread and sugar. This recipe, however, adds extra ingredients to make it a rich, delectable dessert.

3/4 pound white bread or challah
3/4 cup milk
2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces orange jam
3 ounces mixed dried fruit
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup orange liqueur
1/4 lemon
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon crème de cassis

Raspberry Sauce

4 1/2 ounces raspberries
1/2 lemon

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

1. Soak the bread in the milk for 10 minutes. Squeeze the bread to remove excess milk and crumble it. Separate the eggs. Zest the lemon.

2. Combine the egg yolks with the bread, half of the sugar, the vanilla extract, orange jam, dried fruit, grated lemon rind and baking powder. Mix well.

3. Beat the egg whites until frothy and fold them into the mixture. Prepare a caramel in a saucepan, using the remaining sugar and a little water.

4. Pour the caramel into ramekins, filling them to coat all sides.

5. Pour in the pudding mixture. Set the ramekins in a large baking dish containing water, and place the baking dish in the oven.

6. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until set and lightly brown. Remove the baking dish from the oven, and remove the ramekins from the baking dish. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before unmolding.

7. Make the raspberry sauce: Squeeze half the lemon into a blender with the raspberries and puree.

Serve at room temperature, or (preferably) warm.

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