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Figs, to round out the season

August 29, 2007|Amy Scattergood and Noelle Carter | Times Staff Writers

The end of summer in Los Angeles can sneak up on you, the heat lingering, even rising, the days stalling out into a blissful torpor. Then suddenly it's Labor Day and the school buses and USC Trojan linemen are on the move, and you look into the market stalls and those glorious ripe figs have vanished along with your vacation time.

So grab up the baskets of sweet dusky Black Mission figs, mild Brown Turkey figs, pale green Kadotas with their soft mauve interiors. Take them down from their branches if you're the lucky proprietor of a backyard tree or pick them up from the farmers markets or grocery produce aisles. For the next few weeks, figs will be as ubiquitous as late-season tomatoes.

They'll be pretty spectacular too. After a summer of slow heat and almost overwhelming dryness, the region may be a bit parched, but this season's figs are outstanding.

Tree-ripened, their sugars built by the final weeks of summer, figs are most flavorful when they're near the end of their season. Unlike dried figs, sturdy and familiar, fresh figs are also surprisingly ephemeral. Their soft, leathery skin, which houses a system of tiny florets -- it's not really a fruit, but an inverted flower -- is delicate, and fully ripened figs should be eaten quickly. Left for even a few days, their rich interior can lose flavor and get woody in texture.

Fabled to have grown in the Garden of Eden, the fig has a beautiful, secretive architecture and a rich, low flavor that makes it a nearly perfect dessert. Eaten alone, just off the tree, its taste is subtle, almost cool. Halved and placed on a plate, maybe drizzled with honey, a splash of balsamic vinegar or served with a nub of young goat cheese or assertive blue, the fig is magnificent.

Wrapped with prosciutto, grilled and tossed into a frisée and walnut salad or poached in red wine, figs pair equally well with sweet and savory dishes. Or, for a stunning display, layer a mascarpone tart with slices of sweet Black Mission figs, the lush purple and pale magenta colors of the fig like an edible palette, the sweet notes of the figs balanced by the sheen and faint bite of a balsamic glaze.

"Nothing is sweeter than figs," observed Aristophanes. Especially now, when they're at their peak, their flavors concentrating in the closing weeks of summer. Just don't wait too long.



Fig tart with mascarpone cream

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus chilling time

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Adapted from "The Pie and Pastry Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Sweet nut cookie tart crust

1/2 cup pecans

3 tablespoons sugar, preferably superfine

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes

3/4 cup bleached all-purpose flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 egg yolk

4 teaspoons heavy cream

1. In a food processor, pulse the nuts and sugar until the nuts are finely ground. Add the butter and pulse about 15 times, until no loose particles of the nut-sugar mixture remain. Add the flour and salt and pulse again, about 10 times, or until the butter is no larger than small peas. Alternatively, finely grate the nuts and place them in a medium bowl. Add the sugar, flour and salt, stirring to combine. Cut in the cold butter using a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

2. In a small bowl, stir together the yolk and cream. Add it to the mixture and pulse or mix just until incorporated, about 8 times. Knead the dough lightly, just until it holds together. Flatten it into a 6-inch disc, wrap the dough well in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes or freeze it for 10 minutes, until firm enough to pat into the pan or roll.

3. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and lightly flour it on both sides. Place the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap and gently roll it out into a one-eighth-inch circle slightly more than 12 inches in diameter. At this point, if the dough feels too soft to place in the pan, place the dough, still between the plastic wrap, onto a cookie sheet and into the refrigerator for a few minutes to firm up.

4. Remove the top sheet of plastic wrap from the dough and use the bottom sheet to lift and invert the dough over a 10-inch-by-1-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Evenly drape the dough into the tart pan, pressing it gently into the sides. If the plastic wrap sticks, refrigerate or freeze the dough until it is firm enough to be removed easily.

5. Trim any off the top of the sides, leaving about one-eighth-inch dough over the sides to accommodate any shrinkage during baking. Use the excess dough to patch cracks. You will probably have a little dough left over.

6. Place the tart pan in the refrigerator for at least one hour to chill the dough before baking. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

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