For those of us of a certain age, our first encounter with figs came not in life but in a movie theater when Oliver Reed used a fig, deftly cut open from the bottom, to help Alan Bates appreciate the pleasures of sensuality as he struggled with his attraction to Glenda Jackson in the 1969 classic, “Women in Love.” Watching Oliver Reed spread open that ripe fig was the height of eroticism to a young boy.
After the movie I rushed out and bought a basket of figs and marveled at their round fullness. The ones that were ripe had a heaviness that made my juvenile heart race with excitement. But to my young palate, used to simple fruits like apples and pears, figs were much too strong tasting.
An irresistible bargain inspires new fig creations
I learned to appreciate figs when I lived in a house with a fig tree. I enjoyed watching the fruit slowly form, first as a small bulb attached to a twig, then bulging into a soft, round shape, expanding into a fullness that invited the touch.
In one of my most pleasurable, early food moments I watched a fig ripen and picked it just as its nectar collected at the bottom. Biting into its warm sweetness, I was hooked. My breakfast routine after that required only a cup of black coffee, a piece of dry toast and a trip to the fig tree.
Recently I visited a fresh produce store in our neighborhood. Because I buy my fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, nothing much tempted me, but as I was about to walk out empty-handed, a display near the checkout counter caught my attention: A flat of 40 figs was priced at $3.99, usually the cost of a single basket. Seeing me staring at the display, a store clerk confided that the figs were so very ripe they had to be sold immediately, hence the extraordinary price.
Indeed, some were bruised, others already attacked by mold, but with the clerk’s permission, I replaced the bad figs with good ones and carried home a wonderful prize.
Yet, as anyone with a fruit-bearing tree knows, while the first appearance of fruit on a tree seems akin to a miracle, as the season progresses and the small gathering of fruit turns into a seemingly unending torrent, that miracle can become a curse.
Now that I was home, what to do with all those figs?
Crystallized ginger crust
Given that I had so many figs, a rare occasion, I allowed myself a day of baking. I made, variously, a tart with a sweetened fig puree and quartered figs only, a second with a light sprinkling of raw sugar added, a third that included the puree, figs and sugar but allowed a drizzle of custard, and, another that had all of the above and added roasted, chopped almonds. All the tarts were good, but I still felt unsatisfied, as if there were one more adjustment I needed to make.
In the past I had experimented with crystallized ginger in pie crusts. Finely ground, the ginger and its sugar are so thoroughly spread throughout the crust, their flavors influence but do not dominate the flavor profile of the dessert.
With that last addition, I felt I had a winner. The crystallized ginger added a sense of heat, contrasting perfectly with the sensual figs. Served at a dinner party, my choices were confirmed. The fig tart was approvingly declared “not too sweet, so full of flavor.”
A pate brisee dough, thinly rolled out, creates a flaky starting point for the layers of flavors in the tart. The fig confit has a rich huskiness. A simple custard binds those flavors together. The roasted almonds complete the contrasts of flavor and texture. All four ingredients can be prepared days ahead so the tart can be easily assembled on the day.
Fig Tart With Custard, Crystallized Ginger and Almonds
Makes a 9-inch tart, or three or four 3-inch tartlets
- Use a chef’s knife to chop up the crystallized ginger as much as you can before further grinding in a food processor with a metal blade. Don’t worry if you’re left with large pieces. Add the flour, sea salt, sugar and butter. Pulse for 30 seconds until well combined.
- With the food processor on, slowly add the ice-cold water in a steady stream. If the flour accumulates on the sides of the processor, shake it loose. Add enough water so the flour gets crumbly and sticks together.
- Lightly flour a work surface and your hands. If you are making smaller tarts, divide the dough accordingly. Gently work the dough into a flattened disk about 5 to 6 inches in circumference for the large tart, 2 to 3 inches for the small, turning it so all sides are dusted with flour. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight.
- Brush melted sweet butter on the tart pan. Place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes or overnight. This will guarantee that the dough will not stick to the pan.
- Before rolling out the dough, let it sit on the counter 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
- Again, lightly flour a work surface. Roll out the dough evenly, starting in the middle and working to the outer edges, keeping the round shape as much as possible. Create a circle of dough 2 to 3 inches larger than the circumference of the tart pan so there’s enough to line the sides.
- Take the tart pan out of the freezer. Use the rolling pin to transfer the dough onto the pan. Start on one edge, lifting the dough onto the rolling pin, moving forward until the dough has wrapped around the rolling pin. Gently place the dough on the tart pan, being careful to press the dough against the sides of the pan. Use a paring knife to gently cut off the excess dough.
- Use pieces of the excess dough to fill any holes or close any tears. Tarts are very forgiving.
- Using the paring knife, poke holes every few inches on the bottom of the tart to release steam during baking. Pour pastry weights or uncooked rice to cover the dough. Bake 10-15 minutes in the preheated oven or until the crust is lightly browned. Cool on a rack. Carefully remove the pastry weights or rice.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F.
- Using a pastry brush, spread the fig confit evenly over the bottom as well as the sides of the crust. Cut off and discard the stems from the figs and quarter them lengthwise. Lay the figs on the bottom of the tart, cut side up, in a decorative way, which usually means placing them in circles within circles. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon raw sugar. Place the tart on a baking tray and put in the oven. Bake 20 minutes.
- Remove the tart from the oven. Drizzle custard over the figs. Sprinkle with roasted almonds. Return to the oven for another 30 minutes.
- Check to see that the custard has set. Be careful not to burn the figs. Remove the tart and let cool on a rack.
- Serve warm, dusted with powdered sugar and with a bowl of vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream.
Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.