Once upon a time, when I did not live in California, I would see recipes featuring figs and wish desperately for the chance to make them in my own kitchen. In cookbooks and on blogs, without fail these recipes drew me in. Figs! They looked so lovely, with their short woody stems and round bottoms, with tiny seeds and pink hues encased within nondescript brown skins. When I first began admiring the fig, I’d never eaten a fresh one, though I was a sincere fan of the dried variety. I was sure I would appreciate fresh figs, too. How could they not be wonderful, with a look like that, a punchy little word for a name and people using them in the most delicious of preparations — putting them atop tarts and in cakes and on toasts and over salads? (Those are all of the best things, in case you were not aware.)
I can’t recall what city or state I was in when I first spotted a box of figs, but I was at Trader Joe’s, and I was traveling. Despite lacking a kitchen, I made the purchase and ate the figs out of hand. They were softer than I’d imagined, and with a different sort of sweetness than their dried relation. I was, perhaps, even further intrigued.
Only upon this move out west have figs become accessible to me. If my Internet research proves correct, it seems that we arrived in California at the height of the fig’s second summertime season. Finding that my husband likes fresh figs as well (he wasn’t sure — we both hail from the Midwest, after all), we have, with unbounded enthusiasm, purchased small baskets at the farmers market each week, topping morning oats and yogurt and delicate, buttery tarts filled with mascarpone with sweet slices of our bounty.
Of course, even in California, the land of plenty when it comes to produce, the fig season isn’t endless. Still a bit disoriented, however, I had no idea when that end would come until I arrived at the market last Saturday to see signs declaring, “Last week for figs!” And so I come to you with a plea — if you’re in one of these lucky parts of the world — to find a few more figs if you can and make this cake to celebrate the season’s end. I do apologize for the short notice, though I blame my California-ignorance. And further, this is our opportunity to revel in the joy of appreciating all things, fully, in their season.
(And I plan to revel just a little bit more with another recipe featuring the fig before the week’s end. So maybe save three or so, if you can!)
Thinking back to my longing for figs, I’m reminded to be grateful. If I’d had figs around forever, I’d not be purchasing the little green boxes at the market with such giddiness, confirming with my husband, again and again, “You DO like them, too? You do! I’m so glad!” Maybe I’d be like his middle school students, small California natives who peered at the slice of cake he brought to work the other day and asked him what that was within it.
Figs, perhaps, are like San Francisco to me. At least now, in my wide-eyed appreciation for that which is new, these two are intensely unique, like nothing else I’ve seen. Which other fruit is like that, really? Those squat bottoms! The pink flesh inside! The texture, soft but punctuated with the minute seeds! And which other city compares to this one? Have you ever seen fog roll in like that, or cover buildings with a haze so thick? Have you ever seen it tumble out? Where else are there this many restaurants, and such intense, beautiful diversity in all aspects of life?
But maybe more things exude that kind of magic than we think. Even in the midst of change, I could take the goodness in my life for granted. Yet if I recall the way things were not so long ago, I am full of gratitude: that even if we don’t have our routine figured out, Ben and I come home to the same place; that I have time to cook and to write; that our present situation gives me the chance to reevaluate my professional life; that there aren’t a million monumental decisions staring me in the face (i.e. Do I marry Ben? When do I marry Ben? Where do we live? Etc.); that we don’t have to spend our time planning a wedding, for Pete’s sake.
And that there are figs, right there at our neighborhood market, if only for a season.
This recipe is one that I admired for years while I was without figs to make it. I’d stop whenever I flipped through the pages of cakes (my favorite) in Dorie Greenspan‘s Baking: From My Home to Yours. Her recipes are so dependable, and with the figs tucked atop a simple cake made with cornmeal and honey (precisely the ingredients I like to see in a cake), I knew it had to be wonderful. Dorie associates this cake with fall, too, which makes it a fitting recipe to share with that first autumnal day fast approaching.
This cake is, as you would expect, a bit crumbly from the cornmeal, not too sweet and punctured by sweet, jammy figs. A rather dry cake, it goes perfectly with a mug of hot, midmorning coffee, and ice cream is an excellent companion if it is serving as a proper dessert. We felt it got better with age — it was still going strong by day four, though that’s when the last crumbs were consumed, so I can speak to nothing further.
And whether or not you have fresh figs, this is our chance to celebrate the end of a season, and whatever magical things we find around us. Here’s to all of that.
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours
My cake, you might notice, got a bit dark in the oven. If you have aluminum foil (which I did not), I suggest tenting the cake at the 40-minute mark, which will prevent at least some of the browning. Additionally, many sources suggest reducing the oven temperature when using honey as a sweetener; you could try reducing the heat by 25 degrees (to 325) if you wanted to experiment with that. Let me know what happens if you do!
In her original recipe, Dorie poaches the figs in port sweetened with honey and then reduces the remaining liquid to make a sauce for the cake. I wanted something simpler, and so I skipped all of this. But I do think the dressed-up version would be lovely and quite autumnal. I imagine the poached figs and added sauce would also make the cake slightly less dry. If you’d like to give this a go, boil 3/4 cup ruby port, 1/2 cup honey and 2 thin slices of lemon in a small saucepan. Lower the heat and add the figs, poaching them for 4 to 6 minutes, until they are soft but not falling apart. Remove the figs and continue cooking the liquid at a slightly higher heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until it is slightly thickened. Set aside and serve, at room temperature or warmed, with the finished cake.
12-16 fresh figs, stemmed and halved
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat / whole wheat pastry / all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
zest of one lemon
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces, at room temperature
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper, butter the paper and dust the inside of the pan with flour.
Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.
Put the sugar and grated zest in a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, and rub them together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and aromatic. Toss in the butter. With a hand mixer, or the paddle or whisk attachment of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until creamy, about 3 minutes.
Add the eggs one by one, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Add the honey and vanilla; beat for 2 minutes more. (The mixture may look curdled and not particularly attractive at this point, but it will improve.)
Reduce the mixer speed to low. Add the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. The batter will be thick. Scrape it into the prepared pan, gently shaking the pan from side to side to even the batter. Scatter the figs on top, pressing them down slightly with your fingertips.
Bake the cake for 50 to 60 minutes. (The recipe calls for 55 to 60 minutes, but my cake was finished in just under 50. See the headnote for additional comments re: browning.) The cake is finished when it is puffed and golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Transfer the cake to a rack and cool slightly before running a blunt knife around the edges and releasing the sides of the pan. Cool the cake further before serving. Options for delicious accompaniments include ice cream, whipped cream, greek yogurt and/or the sauce noted above.
Yield: 8-10 servings