The autumn equinox has passed, and at sundown today, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins. One of my favorite parts of this important but still joyous holiday is the mandate to start the year with sweetness. No radicchio, no vinegar, nothing bitter or sour. That will come in due time, as part of life. But right now, while the new year is still untouched and full of promise, it should hold nothing but sweetness. Honey is a traditional part of the new year’s table, as are new fruits, those that have just ripened during this autumn season but haven’t found their way into your kitchen yet. They can be served as is, baked into desserts, or slow-braised with chicken, duck, or brisket.
We have a rich variety of such fruits to choose from this season: dusty blue, oval-shaped French and Italian sugar plums, excellent for baking in cakes and tarts; luscious juice-dripping melons; grapes of all colors and sizes, from golden, winey Muscats to brilliant Autumn Flames; the first greeny-yellow Bartlett pears and rough-skinned amber Asian pears. And of course, figs, the crown of our fall harvest. There are Black Mission and Brown Turkey figs, green Kadotas and crazy Candystripes. They are frankly seductive, not juicy like a peach but lush and yielding when perfectly ripe.
Ripeness is all, though: an unripe fig is a hard, chalky thing with all the appeal of seedy spackle. So, first rule of thumb: make sure your figs are ripe. How to tell? A ripe fig should give a little. A drop of clear, sticky juice oozing from the tiny hole at the base is a good thing. You don’t want moldy or wrinkly, but softer is better.
It also depends on what you’re doing with them. Almost-mushy figs are the tastiest, but they’re not going to slice neatly. A wonderful salad for firmer figs this time of year is arugula and mixed lettuces tossed with wheels of peeled orange and quartered figs, dressed with a shallot-sherry vinaigrette and showered, just before serving, with sliced, toasted almonds and nubbins of fresh goat cheese (chevre). Or you can make a divine hors-d’oeuvre by cutting a cross in the top of each fig, tucking in a nubbin of goat or blue cheese, drizzling them with pomegranate molasses and running them under the broiler until the fruit swells and the cheese just begins to melt. Truly, one of the best ways to treat a fig that I’ve ever discovered.
A warm fig is a sexy fig, and so I love baking with fresh figs this time of year. I can imagine this schiacciata d’uva made equally delicious with halved figs instead of grapes. The cake below started as your typical fall apple cake, loaded with diced apples, toasted walnuts, a sweet spice mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. But it grows up and becomes a little more elegant when the apples and walnuts are swapped out in favor of figs and almonds, and when the cinnamon is nudged out by the fragrant, camphor-y aroma of cardamom. The seeds of one or two pods of fresh green cardamom, freshly ground or crushed into a cup of sugar, will give more than enough perfume to this cake. You could also crush the dried blossoms of a few stalks of lavender into your sugar instead, to a different but equally lovely effect.
Recipe: Fig Cake with Almonds
Summary: Want to go wheat-free? You can replace the white and wheat flours in this easy autumn cake with a mixture of oat and barley flours.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 25-30 minutes
Total Time: 45-50 minutes
Yield: 1 cake
1 cup all-purpose unbleached white flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 oz (10 tbsp) butter, softened
1 1/3 cup cardamom or lavender sugar
grated rind of 1 orange
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk
8 ripe fresh figs, stems removed, quartered
2 tbsp honey
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 10” round baking pan or 9″x13″ rectangular pan.
2. Sift flours, baking powder and soda, and salt together in a large bowl. Set aside.
3. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing until each one is thoroughly incorporated into the batter before adding the next. Beat in orange rind and vanilla.
4. Beat in one third of the buttermilk. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with the remaining buttermilk.
5. Spread batter in the prepared pan. Press figs lightly into the batter, cut side up, in a decorative pattern. Drizzle with honey and scatter with sliced almonds.
6. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean and cake is pale golden-brown. Let cool on a rack before removing from pan.
7. Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche or Greek yogurt mixed with honey.