Beautiful, black bursa figs – with their soft, edible dusky-leather jackets, and their tiny crunchy seeds – are my favourite fruit of autumn. I know this sounds a bit poncey, but eating one transports me back to the garden of an old house we stayed at in southern France. It was a beautiful, sprawling house, isolated from the rest of humankind and overlooking a heat-hazed valley, checkered with fertile plots and poky wee villages. The best thing about this house – other than the bracingly cold pool – was the overhanging fig trees, with fruit so ripe we would find them smashed on the path each morning; useless to us but bliss for the birds. We managed to snaffle a few before they dropped, but even just the scent as we passed under the heavily-burdened boughs was heavenly.
Since then I have greedily bought up ripe figs when in season, trying to briefly experience a glimpse of that wonderful family holiday when we grazed from markets, drank local wine, and skinny-dipped with impunity.
Like plums, I enjoy figs most in their natural, raw state. When at their best – their little bottoms anointed with just a droplet of natural syrup – it seems a sin to do anything but slice them; enjoying their glorious heady perfume with little more than a some soft, spicy leaves – like rocket – and a perhaps a few pinches of creamy, young mozzarella or chalky, lemony, goat’s milk cheese. A sparing drizzle of raspberry vinegar doesn’t go amiss either. See, greedy.
And then there is cake. Terrific in cake, providing a crunchy contrast to the softness of the crumb, figs turn a plain cake into, well, a quite sexy cake. Or at least faintly exotic one. They also work their magic in savoury bakes, such as generous wedges baked onto a pizza or bread, with blue cheese, rocket and a drizzle of truffle oil to add further elegance and earthiness. But today it’s about the cake, a polenta-based one, but you could easily use figs and the flavours I suggest in a Madiera (pound) cake or any other plainish cake. Studding a French-style yogurt cake with slices of fig would be wonderful.
I don’t image the Turkish bursa fig will be around for much longer, so I am making the most of them while they are at their dusky, fragrant peak. After this month I will be getting my fig hit in the form of candles. To burn, not eat.
Are you crazy about figs? How do you best enjoy them?
Fig and Walnut Polenta Cake
I’ve ground up toasted walnuts in my blender to make a flour, but use bought ground almonds if this seems one step too far. But the walnuts are absolutely fantastic here, and so different to almonds. Also, you can leave out the possibly tricky to get anise seeds, or substitute with lightly toasted and ground fennel seeds (both are a little liquorice-like), but in the amount used they add a haunting, almost irresistible note that you can’t quite put your finger on – but want all the same. Anise and figs are an amazing match.
The bundt type tin is my favourite tin for most cakes – so easy to make even slices – but use a square tin or loaf tin if that’s what you have or prefer, perhaps covering the cake towards the end and leaving in a further 10 minutes. I’ve only made this in a bundt tin so can’t give specifics on the timings for other tins. Also, I haven’t tried this recipe with a gluten-free flour blend but if you are celiac this option should be fine with a little added moisture in the form of orange juice. Adapt as you would normally. Enjoy! xx
Oil spray or butter, for pan
150ml light olive oil or cold-pressed rapeseed oil (organic or best quality)
100g golden caster sugar or raw sugar of choice, blended to fine sand + extra for top
3 medium organic eggs
100g walnut pieces, lightly toasted in 180C/350F oven for eight minutes and blended into a fine meal/flour OR bought ground almonds
100g fine polenta*
75g unbleached spelt flour or plain/AP flour* + a little extra for pan and chopped figs
1 ½ tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract or 1 fat vanilla pod, seeds scraped out for use
1 ½ tsp anise seed, lightly toasted in a pan and then crushed – optional (plus extra for garnish)
Zest of one small orange or a clementine
6 small black figs – 4 chopped and 2 sliced for top
* You may use 175 grams polenta instead of the flour, but it will be a different, denser, cake. Do use flour to line the tin and to coat the chopped figs – gluten-free in this case is fine.
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan/350F. Butter or oil a bundt-type pan (or savarin) or 9-inch square tin. Add 1 tablespoon of flour to the tin and turn the tin to coat the buttered inside in a light coat of flour. Shake out excess and set aside.
2. Add the oil, sugar and eggs to the bowl of an upright food mixer, food processor or use a large bowl and big spoon. For the food mixer use the paddle attachment. Blend on high for a couple of minutes, or beat well with a spoon until lighter and, if not quite fluffy, changed in texture.
3. Toss the chopped figs in 1 tablespoon of flour
4. Turn off the machine and add the walnut flour, wheat flour, polenta, baking powder, vanilla, anise seed and orange zest. Beat until well-blended, then fold in the chopped figs. Pour the batter into the prepared tin.
5. Dot the batter with the sliced figs, sprinkle with a little sugar and anise seeds and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, or until the cake slightly pulls away from the sides and the top is starting to brown. The figs will get darker and bubbly too.
6. Cool in the tin, and then carefully turn out, helping it along with the edge of a knife or plastic spatula if necessary (the figs can make things a little sticky). Serve with warm custard, ice cream, yogurt or just as it is. This not too sweet cake is also nice at breakfast with some yogurt, extra figs and blueberries.