When I think of figs, I think of imperial Rome, men in togas, woman with long earrings, houses with mosaic floors and central atriums with water features. There is something ancient and mysterious about figs. Inside their purple or dark green jackets are luscious, red filaments that make up their sweet inner flesh.
A few weeks ago when we were eating figs after lunch, my father told me a story about the fig tree that grew in his family’s garden in Italy. The first figs produced in early summer were enormous, about the size of a soft ball (8 to 9 cm diameter) and called fioroni di fico (giant flowers of fig). His father, my nonno Matteo, would pick one off the tree every morning when they were in season and eat it there and then. I can just imagine him eating figs in the morning sun of the beautiful Adriatic town of Pola (now Pula). I have never seen these figs in markets in Australia, apparently they are not as sweet as the figs that you find in late summer (3 to 5 cm in diameter) but you get the bonus of being able to enjoy them at the start of summer.
Figs are very versatile and can be eaten on their own, as part of a savoury dish (figs go beautifully with blue cheese and prosciutto), on a cheese platter, in jam or as part of a dessert. A lovely breakfast is to stuff them with some ricotta and drizzle some honey over the top. One of my favorite ways of eating figs is baking them in a cake. This week I made a rustic fig and hazelnut cake. The cake does not have many steps and apart from beating the butter, sugar and eggs with an electric mixer, it is mixed by hand. So it is hard to get wrong. Fresh figs are arranged in a pattern on top of the uncooked cake making the cake look festive. By pushing the figs down a little with your finger, the cake cooks around them and they keep the cake really moist. You can splash a bit of brandy on top of the cake once it is cooked and just before cutting it (I am Italian, most of our cakes have alcohol added in one form or another!). We ate the cake after dinner sitting on the terrace, sipping a glass of Moscato while the last rays of sun were disappearing from the late summer sky. It was a great way to end the day!
Fig and hazelnut cake*
140g plain flour
125g butter, at room temperature
160g caster sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons of baking powder
60ml milk (optional – replace 20 ml of the milk with 20ml brandy)
125g hazelnuts, ground
6 fresh figs, halved
Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Grease and line a 20cm diameter cake tin. Beat the butter and sugar in a food processor until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. Place the mixture in a bowl and add half the flour, mixing well with a wooden spoon. Add the milk (or milk and brandy!). Mix until incorporated, then add the rest of the flour and the baking powder. Make sure it is all evenly mixed and finally incorporate the hazelnuts. If you grind the hazelnuts yourself, it is nice to leave some bigger pieces that give the cake texture. Place the mixture in the prepared cake tin. Press the fig halves a few centimetres into the cake to any pattern you like, cut surface of the fig side up. As the cake rises in the oven, the figs will sink a bit into the cake, so don’t push them all the way down. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes. I found that I had to reduce the temperature to 170 degrees after half an hour because the top was burning a bit (my oven is fan forced) so make sure you check yours midway through cooking. The cake is ready when a skewer placed in the centre comes out clean. Rest for 15 minutes before turning put of the tin. I always use a cake tin with a removable base as I find it is easier to remove the cake that way. You could serve the cake with whipped cream, mascarpone, creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream. You can also splash some brandy on the cake if you did not put it in while you were cooking (or omit brandy altogether).
*adapted from Bill Grainger recipe