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Time to get in full fig

Don't get left behind this season. Use this versatile fruit to dress up just about any dish.

September 24, 2003|Mary Ellen Rae | Times Staff Writer

Figs, with their sweet, soft flesh and intriguing edible seeds, have been a cherished, sometimes even sacred food since biblical times. But nowadays, fig season can fly by unnoticed. Maybe it's because dried figs are always around, or maybe it's because so many other late-summer and early-fall fruits are vying for our attention. But from now to the end of October, it's worth pausing to savor the fig in its delicate, perishable state.

There are hundreds of varieties, but in California, two dominate the orchard: Black Mission figs, which were brought here by the Franciscans, and the Calimyrna, which was originally grown in Turkey as the Smyrna fig, and renamed after our state.

The skin of the fully ripe Black Mission fig is deep purplish black and the flesh a gorgeous magenta. The Calimyrna has a green skin and white flesh, and a nuttier flavor.

Although you need do nothing more than eat them out of hand, figs can also bring richness and depth to appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts because they combine happily with so many other flavors. Try slicing figs onto mixed greens with goat cheese to make a sweet-and-savory salad, or surround a roasted pork loin with shallots and figs for a fall dinner. To make a simple, elegant dessert, poach fresh figs in port wine or sherry and serve them with vanilla ice cream, drizzling a little of the poaching liquid on top.

Don't be put off if the skins have small cracks -- that means they are bursting with sweetness. Select fruits that give slightly when gently pressed. If they are too soft, they are past their prime. It's best to use them soon, although they can be refrigerated for up to three days. And don't peel them -- cooking softens the skin and much of the color is concentrated there.

In the Times Test Kitchen, we used Black Mission figs for these recipes because we love the look of the purple-pink flesh offset by golden-brown pastry or bread, but Calimyrna figs will work just fine too. Since figs seem to cry out for a bit of salt to offset their sweetness, two of our recipes take off from that idea.

In one, figs are paired with prosciutto to make fig "pizzas." Mediterranean flatbreads make an easy base; the pizzas can be fully assembled and refrigerated up to a day ahead. The other salty-sweet recipe is a dessert: a buttery fleur de sel cookie, topped with creamy mascarpone and a poached fig. A sprinkling of shiso leaf adds an herbal note.

Although this dessert combines many elements, it's a good choice for entertaining because you can prepare each part ahead then assemble just before serving. The cookies may be refrigerated or frozen without losing their crunch; poach the figs a day ahead and refrigerate them in their liquid until needed.

Finally, our fig jam crescents are a spin on rugelach. The simple dough should be chilled before baking. The cold butter in the dough emits steam as it bakes and causes the cookie to puff slightly. Meanwhile, the jam filling caramelizes, so the bottom becomes candied and crispy -- delicious, but apt to stick to the cookie sheet. Use cooking spray or parchment paper.

These tender, rich crescent cookies are, like the figs themselves, best eaten right away. Make a batch before the chance disappears for another year.

*

Fig-topped fleur de sel cookies

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: Makes about 32 cookies

Note: From Donna Deane, Times Test Kitchen director. Find shiso leaves at Japanese markets.

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon plum wine

4 figs, cut into quarters, then into eighths horizontally

1 3/4 cups flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon fleur del sel, plus extra for sprinkling

1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces

2/3cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg

Milk

1/2 cup fig jam

1 1/4 cups mascarpone cheese

1 shiso leaf, cut into thin strips

1. Combine the honey and one-half cup of the plum wine in a medium saucepan. Heat to boiling. Add the figs and reduce the heat to barely simmering. Cook until the figs are tender, about 5 minutes. Pour into a glass bowl and allow to cool, or cover and chill overnight.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Sift together the flour and baking powder. Stir in 1 teaspoon of the fleur del sel. Set aside.

3. Cream the butter until light. Add the sugar and beat until blended. Beat in the vanilla and the egg. Add the flour-baking powder mixture and beat until blended. Gather the dough into a ball and divide it in half.

4. Roll out half the dough on a lightly floured surface to one-fourth-inch thickness. Using a 2-inch scalloped cutter, cut out cookies. Repeat with the remaining dough.

5. Transfer the cookies to parchment-lined baking sheets. Brush the tops with milk and sprinkle a little fleur del sel on each cookie. Bake until lightly browned around the edges, about 9 to 12 minutes. Cool.

6. Heat together the fig jam and the remaining 1 tablespoon plum wine, stirring to blend.

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