Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Here A Figgy, There A Figgy…

Happily, in my little kitchen, everywhere a figgy figgy !

Even though I most certainly am NOT a fan of typical Summer weather (although, honestly, I got nothing to b*tch about this year in SoCal….so far….although I’m sure, dead-bang sure our time is comin’….), I absolutely AM a fan of the bounty of fruits and vegetables that comes along with the heat and the long, sunny days.

I’ve already shared my reverence for vine-ripened, sun-warmed straight-from-the-vine beefsteak tomatoes (got another haul in the CSA share this week and about another 6 ready to ripen in the backyard in the next few days…*big grin*).  Corn is plentiful, sweet and tender, and we’ll be seeing some corn dishes real soon, because they’ve been featured in the little kitchen for the past week.  Corn….how do I love thee??

But there goes that silly digression trait of mine again.  Because the reason we’re gathered together here today, my friends, is to celebrate the pinnacle of the late Summer/early Fall produce bounty.  The fig.  To me, the fig, in all of its succulent, jammy, sweet, seedy glory, is what all fruits aspire to be.

I came late to the fig love.  Oh, I’d eaten my share of Fig Newtons when I was a snot-nosed kid, and even purchased The Newts pretty frequently as an adult, but I honestly can’t remember seeing a fresh fig commercially until about 5 or 10 years ago.  I think I might have had some friends that had fig trees in their yards, but I wasn’t interested enough to ask them to share (or they were too covetous of their bounty more likely).  I’d certainly seen them dried, and again, purchased them, used them in cooking, and eaten them.  I liked them (as I did The Newtons), but thought, “eh, no big whup”.

Then….at a Farmers’ Market a few years back, I saw a carton of fresh ones.  They were hideously expensive, but since I’m the die-hard trendoid foodie that I am, I took the plunge.

I got home, rinsed one off, took a bite and…

 ...immediately understood that whole getting tossed out of the Garden of Eden for yielding to temptation thing.  Immediately.  (OK, even though it was *supposedly* an apple that actually did the deed, and now some people are saying it was a pomegranate, seriously, between an apple, a pomegranate and a fig….? The fig wins the temptation game hands down.)

I don’t think I’d ever tasted anything so unique, so sensual, so varied in texture, from crispy and crunchy in the seeds to the softness of the flesh and the resistance of the peel, with such a layered, honeyed deep sweetness.   I think I swooned; in fact I’m pretty sure I did.  And then I rinsed off another, and another, and another, and ate them until I think the whole basket was gone before I’d even put the rest of my produce away.

After accepting my new addiction (hey, it could be worse, figs are very high in antioxidants), I did a little research, and between what I’d read and what I’d come to experience in my now ongoing purchases of fresh figs, I realized why I hadn’t seen them commercially before.

These puppies are fragile.  Very.  You look at them wrong, and they start to melt in a puddle of figgy liquid.  They don’t ship well, they bruise and start to weep if you think of them crossly (actually, as do I) and they don’t keep for very long after they’ve been picked (again, actually as do I).

Luckily for me, California is the fig-growing capital of the US.  Just another reason to love this special place.  Most of the fig crop comes from the Central Valley, and most is dried after harvest.  But enough comes through, and more comes from other local orchards in Southern California, that fresh figs have become, while not common exactly, much more available than in the past.  I can find them at local specialty food stores, of course at Farmers’ Markets, at my beloved Trader Joe’s and luck of all luck….my CSA !

Yep.  Number 457 in the continuing list ‘o’ reasons why I’m glad I joined my CSA.  We get figs in August and September.  Brought home 25 of the little beauties this week (mostly California Black Missions and a few Calimyrnas).  I have big, big plans for those…..yummy plans at that.  We’ll see more of them later.

But before the windfall from The Growing Experience, I scored a pound of Black Missions from TJ’s and made my favorite summer dessert.  Favorite, why?  Because, it’s made with….figs, silly !

Let’s make a Fig Upside-Down Cake.

What’s that you say…..sounds rich?  Yeah, it is.  Sounds really sweet….yeah, that too.  But so satisfying, and so balanced with the fluffy cake, it all works.  If you’re a fig lover, well, this will rock your world.  If you’re a fig newbie, this will bring you into the realm of us Fig Lovers.  If you really don’t like figs….well, the cake is good, and you can pick the fruit off and give it to your fig-loving dining partner(s).

Here’s whatcha need:

Basic supplies for a cake.  Flour, sugar, butter, brown sugar, honey, figs, baking powder, vanilla, eggs and milk. 

Yeah.  That’s a naturally blue egg, no dye.  From the CSA’s free range chicky birds.  I guess they have one (or more) of the chicky bird breeds that lay blue eggs.  Isn’t it pretty ?  No, the actual egg inside doesn’t look different from other eggs.

Start by preheating your oven to 350°F and buttering a 9x2-inch cake pan.  I actually used an 8-inch diameter pan, my two 9-inchers were in use for something else that day, and I think I liked the smaller, higher cake better.  I’ll use the 8-inch one from now on, and would recommend it, but either size will work.  Line the bottom of the pan with parchment, and I’d grease that as well.  I didn’t, and had some stickage with the caramel onto the parchement.  I was able to scoop it back off with a thin spatula, and reapply it to the cake, but I think a thin slick of butter or oil (or spray) would've taken care of the issue.

In a small saucepan, melt together some butter, brown sugar and honey until the sugar dissolves and you get a nice, smooth caramel sauce.

Then pour the sauce into the bottom of the prepped pan.

Cut the stems off of some figs, and then slice them in half top to bottom, and lay them, cut side down in the caramel sauce.  Don’t crowd them together too much, leave some room between them so the caramel will sink down into the finished cake.

Awwwww, man.  Look at that.  Will ya just look at that?  I could just jump into that pan myself.  What a beautiful sight….

*Snapping back to reality*, then set that aside while you make the cake batter.

Cream together more butter and the white sugar until it gets nice and smooth and fluffy.

Beat in some vanilla.  In another bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together.  To the butter, add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth each time.  Then add in the dry ingredients, in 3 equal additions, alternating with milk.  Make sure everything gets nice and mixed and incorporated, and lovely, like this:

Then scoop that into the pan over the figs and caramel, and smooth the top out as much as you can.

Don’t be too concerned if a bit of the caramel sauce wants to ooze up a bit around the edges, or if the batter doesn’t go quite all the way out.  It’ll all smooth out and even out in the oven.

Bake at 350°F for 45 minutes (for the smaller pan) to an hour for the larger, but start to test after 45.  A cake tester should come out clean.

Let cool in the pan on a rack for about an hour, then run a thin knife around the edge of the pan to loosen it, and invert onto a cake plate to unmold.

YOWZA !  *THAT* is a thing of beauty, if you ask me.  Which I guess you sort of are, since you’re reading this.  A little *plop* of barely sweetened, very, very softly whipped cream lovingly dolloped on the top your very small slice simply gilds the lily and takes an already sublime treat to the next galaxy.

*PHEW*…is it getting hot in here or is it me?

Yeah, sorry.  No picture of a slice with the softly whipped cream.  I was too caught up in the moment of the figgy cake to think about a camera.......if you try it, you'll most certainly understand.

Find some fresh figs, and make this cake for the person in your life you most want to seduce.  He/she will be putty in your talented, and fig-stained, hands.

Fig Upside-Down Cake
makes 1 8, or 9-inch diameter cake

1&1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons honey
10 (or so) fresh figs, stems cut off and halved from top to bottom
1&1/2 cups all purpose flour
1&1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter an 8 or 9-inch round cake pan, line the bottom with parchment and grease the parchment.

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a sauce pan with the brown sugar and honey.  Cook until smooth and the brown sugar dissolves.  Pour into the bottom of the cake pan, tilting to cover evenly.  Place the figs cut side down on the caramel syrup, spacing evenly.

Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and set aside.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the remaining stick of butter, the sugar and vanilla on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well in between.  Make sure the batter is smooth before adding the next egg or starting with the flour mixture.  Add the flour mixture in 3 equal parts (lower the speed to avoid the dreaded flour poof action), alternating with the milk.

Pour the batter into the cake pan, and smooth out the top, spreading to the edges as cleanly and smoothly as possible.  Place pan in oven and bake for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the size of the pan.  Use a toothpick or cake tester in the center; it should come out dry.  Let cake cool, in the pan, for an hour on a rack.  Then run a thin, sharp knife around the edge of the pan, and invert onto a cake plate.  Let cool completely, or serve still slightly warm.

Now.  If all y’all excuse me, there’s a piece of leftover Fig Upside-Down Cake in the little kitchen, just seductively a’ callin’ my name.

Postscript:  The current (August/September 2011) issue of “Saveur” Magazine (number 140 in their system) has the most wonderfully written, evocative piece I’ve ever read about the special place that is California’s Central Valley since The Grapes of Wrath (which the article quotes).  “Saveur” is my absolute favorite of the current crop of food magazines, for the quality of the recipes, but even more so for the quality of the writing.  This article is a stunning example of the latter.  As a California-almost-native, it made me want to jump in the Little Red Wagon right now, and hop on the I-5 and explore.  Do yourself a favor, find the magazine, and read that article.  It’s called “Heart of the Valley” by Gerald Haslam.  If you live in the US, you need to read this to understand where most of your produce comes from.  If you live in California, you need to read this to understand where WE all came from.  Unfortunately, the article does not appear to be available on line, and I can't give you a link, so you'll need to track down a print copy.  It's worth it.  A lovely piece of writing.

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