By Rosie Hawthorne on August 27, 2020
In August, we celebrate the fig. Traditionally, Ocracoke Island has an annual fig festival to mark their passion for figs, but with the constraints of the coronavirus this year, instead of going to the figs, I’m bringing the figs to you.
First, let’s get some fun fig facts out of the way. Fig trees do not bear any blossoms on their branches and the fig is not a fruit. The fig is actually a ball of inverted flowers and the flowers bloom inside the pear-shaped pod, which later matures into the fig which we eat.
Now, if the flowers are blooming on the inside, this would necessitate a special process of pollination. Orthodox methods of pollination – bees and wind – won’t work here. And this, my friends, is where the fig wasp comes into play. The fig owes its existence to a most intimate partnership with this wasp. When figs are ready for pollination, they produce a strong scent. The female fig wasp smells the aroma and is attracted to the fig. The female fig wasp needs to crawl inside the fig to bring pollen directly to the hidden flower. She gains access by shimmying through a narrow passageway called an ostiole and deposits pollen and lays her eggs in unripe figs. Laying eggs is a one-way mission; the female wasp is committing reproductive suicide. By wriggling through this portal, the wasp’s wings and antennae are sheared off and eventually she dies inside.
In due course, an enzyme in the figs (called ficin) will break down the wasp remains into proteins which are absorbed by the plant. Now, it’s up to the baby wasps to continue the life cycle. The offspring hatch and mature. The males are born with no wings, their sole purpose being to mate with the females (yes, their sisters). The males then chew a tunnel leading to the surface of the fig and die when the task is completed. The females, armed with pollen from their birthplace and full of fertilized eggs, make the journey out of the fig, emerging from the tunnels and taking flight, riding the winds in search of more fig trees to begin the cycle anew.
Now that you know probably more than you want to, let’s dig into some figs.
Slice a bunch of figs in half, put a thin slice of blue cheese on each slice, and wrap each half in prosciutto. Place on oven-proof serving platters. If you’re not a fan of the blue, start out with a mild one. I like Cambozola, a combination of cream cheese and Italian Gorgonzola. You could also substitute with a Chèvre or Brie cheese. Run under the broiler until the prosciutto is crispy and the cheese is melted. Serve with a drizzling of honey and/or reduced balsamic vinegar.
To make a balsamic reduction: Pour a good quality balsamic vinegar (½ cup) into a small saucepan. Heat low and slow until balsamic vinegar is syrupy and has reduced by half. I always use diffused heat – place the saucepan inside a cast iron skillet. It’s very easy to burn the vinegar if you use direct heat and are not watching constantly.
Prepare poaching liquid:
Combine juices, zest, wine, water, vanilla, cinnamon stick, cloves, and sugar in medium saucepan. Stir over medium low heat until sugar dissolves, about 10 minutes. Add pears to liquid and simmer, uncovered, turning pears occasionally and spooning syrup over top, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let pears cool in poaching liquid.
Remove pears from saucepan, slice, and transfer to serving dish. Arrange fig slices around pears.
Bring poaching liquid to a simmer and continue to cook until reduced by half.
Spoon poaching liquid over top of pear and fig slices. Dot with crème fraîche and sprinkle toasted walnuts over top.
(Start making the night before you need to use it.)
Crème fraîche is like sour cream only better. Use it to enhance any recipe that calls for sour cream. It’s a naturally thickened cream with a tangy, buttery, nutty flavor and it has more body, richness, and complex flavors than the sour cream you buy. It’s excellent with fresh herbs added and used to accent meats, seafood, and pan sauces, or you can add vanilla and sweeten it to lift fruit flavors up a notch.
Mix all ingredients in small glass bowl. Cover with paper towel and leave at room temperature overnight, until thickened. Stir, cover, and refrigerate.
To accent the figs and poached pears, I mixed crème fraiche with a little honey and a pinch of cinnamon, to taste.
Toast the peppercorns in a dry skillet over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until fragrant.
Let cool, then transfer to plastic bag and crush with rolling pin. Set aside.
Add 1 TB butter and 1 tsp thyme leaves to small pan over medium heat.
Sauté sliced peaches for about 2 minutes each side or until lightly browned.
Remove from pan. Add remaining butter and thyme leaves. Add figs and cook for 2 minutes or until browned.
Arrange peach slices and figs on serving dish.
Spoon crème fraîche over top of peaches and figs. Drizzle reduced balsamic vinegar over top
and sprinkle with toasted, crushed peppercorns and fresh thyme leaves.
For the fig filling:
Combine in a small saucepan and simmer for about 30 minutes until it reduces a bit and thickens.
For the dough:
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender, cut in butter pieces until dough is crumbly. Whisk eggs and add to dough. Mix to combine. Form dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
When ready to bake, heat oven to 375°. Make an egg wash by mixing 1 egg with 2 tsp water.
Divide dough in half. Working on a lightly floured surface, roll out each portion into a rectangle about ⅛ inch thick. Cut dough into long strips about 3 inches wide. Paint around edges of each strip with egg wash.
Spoon filling down the center, then fold the dough over to enclose the filling and seal.
Place seam-side down on greased baking sheet.
Press lightly to flatten.
Bake at 375° 12-15 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Cool on racks, then slice into 1-inch pieces.
Makes about 3 dozen.