Prior to the 1960s, the fig tree was a ubiquitous fixture in many home landscapes in the Houston area. As the baby boomers bought houses, they drifted away from the more bushy and spreading habit of the messy fig tree in favor of taller more vertical ornamental trees. However, it seemed that everyone’s grandmother had a fig tree -- which meant every summer, they had fig jam.
As a child, fig jam never really appealed to me. It was very foreign looking with big chunks of fruit, but the “old” folks loved it and eagerly awaited its arrival. It appears that recently, the fig tree is making a comeback. Every year, you see more and more of them peeking over backyard fences loaded with fruit and opportunistic birds. We are one of those houses. Our fig tree, chosen by a child and once relegated to a pot, was planted a few years ago along the wrought iron fence in our backyard -- primarily, in my mind, to give us some privacy. For the first two years in its new home, it grew slowly, dropping leaves and putting on new ones at seemingly random times of the year while producing few fruit and none larger than a marble. While it was slowly fulfilling its role as a privacy screen, the lack of fruit made me start thinking about removing or replacing it with a different variety. This was rather odd to me, since I am not a huge fan of of figs, and other than preserves, I wasn’t quite sure what else to do with figs, but the allure of summer fruit, memories of Mimi’s fig tree and my Mediterranean blood kept me from getting rid of our little tree.
This year, our little fig tree shot up to about five feet tall and produced its first significant crop of figs - a whopping 2.5 lbs. They were small, about the size of a half-dollar, but tasted great. Being pretty perishable fruit, we ate them daily with dinner usually in salads but sometimes in things like pasta sauces or on the side with our entree. I found myself really enjoying the figs, and since my tastes for so many foods from my youth has changed over the past few years, I decided it was time to re-examine the fig preserves.
We found a recipe in “Joy of Cooking” and gave it a try. It did not use pectin and turned out pretty well. It had a very good taste, but I thought the cinnamon overpowered the fig (my wife disagreed). We did a second batch with half the cinnamon that I preferred but again, wife disagreed. I guess I’ll learn to appreciate cinnamon.
Here is our modified version of the recipe from “Joy of Cooking”1 used for our second batch. It is an old-fashioned multi-step process that takes some time, but is well worth it. It uses an additional step called “plumping” where the cooked preserves macerate in their own juices overnight in refrigerator. This “plumps” up the fruit and keeps them from floating in the jars. It is not a required step.
• 3.5 lbs figs (stems removed and quartered lengthwise)
• 3.5 cups light brown sugar
• 2 cup apple juice
• 7 Tb lemon juice (bottled is okay)
• 3.5 Tb orange juice
• ⅛ tsp cinnamon (this is half the cinnamon in the original recipe - you can go up to ¼ tsp.)
Yield: Seven half-pint jars
1. If the fig skins are tough, cover with boiling water for 10 minutes, drain and proceed.
2. Mix figs and brown sugar together. Let them “steep” around 4 hours at room temperature.
3. Pour figs into a pot and add apple juice (2 cup). Simmer for 25-30 minutes until the peels are soft. Smaller figs may take less time. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.
4. Add lemon juice (7 Tb) and orange juice (3.5 Tb) and rapidly bring to a boil. Stir frequently until the gelling point is reached. Here at sea level, that is 219-220 degrees Fahrenheit.
5. Once the gelling point is reached, remove from the heat, skim off any foam, and add the cinnamon (or not).
6. Plump overnight in the refrigerator.
7. The next day, If you are canning the preserves, you will need to bring them to a boil before filling your jars leaving ¼ inches of headspace. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. As an alternative, fill jars and refrigerate.
I have done a 180 on fig preserves. I really liked these. They were firmer than the ones I remember and the popping of the little microseeds is a great contrast to the smooth soft chocolate texture. In fact, it was so good, that having used our final figs to make our first batch of preserves, we bought figs at the farmer’s market to make the second batch, sans cinnamon, that I preferred.
I’m going to move the fig this winter to a location where it can grow and sprawl a little more. I’m guessing that will set back production for a year or two, but I will be ready when it starts cranking out figs again. If you have any suggestions for fig recipes, please pass them along to me at email@example.com. Thanks.
1 Irma S. Rombauer et al., Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition, 75th ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 2006), 938–39.
Ed Hudson is a biochemist for NASA in Houston. His free time is filled with gardening and an ongoing list of food preservation projects with his lovely wife, Jennifer. You can read more MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts from Ed here and contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is always looking for comments, new ideas and suggestions.
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