Fig Crostata For The Harvest Season
By Gina von Esmarch
What you don’t know about figs just might amaze you- this fruit has been considered a coffee substitute, used by pharmaceutical companies to help with pigmentation abnormalities and as a natural anti-smoking agent (more about that later)– and the ever popular just plop them into your mouth eat them straight up! This succulent teardrop-shaped fruit, which is actually a flower that inverted itself, is surrounded with either a sweet dark flesh or a vibrant green skin. There is nothing like their unique taste and texture. A lusciously sweet fruit with a texture that combines a fleshy chewiness, smooth skin, and the crunchy seeds.
Historically speaking, the fig is believed to be indigenous to western Asia and is thought to have been distributed by man throughout the Mediterranean area. Remnants of figs have been found in excavations of sites traced to at least 5,000 B.C. AND the fig is the first tree mentioned in the Bible in the story of Adam and Eve. And some biblical scholars think the fig, and not the apple, was the forbidden fruit picked by Eve in the Garden of Eden. Fast forward to 1892 when dried figs were first sold in a commercially manufactured cookie!
While not common knowledge, the fruit contains a proteolytic enzyme, also known as ficin, that is considered as an aid to digestion and is frequently used by the pharmaceutical industry. This proteolytic enzyme, which is primarily contained in the stem of the fruit, helps to break down tissue and was for many years the major ingredient in Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. Because of its high alkalinity, it has even been mentioned as beneficial to persons wishing to quit smoking. Another chemical found in figs, Psoralens, has been used for thousands of years to treat skin pigmentation diseases. Psoralens that occur naturally in figs, some other plants and fungi, is a skin sensitizer that promotes tanning in the sun.
From a baking perspective, figs contain a natural humectant – a chemical that will extend freshness and moistness in baked products. And this is where the core of my interest in this fruit lies. While I adore the fruit/flower in its natural uncooked form, sadly eating too many of them at once can have an ill effect on the stomach. And once picked, they tend to ripen so quickly that it is always good to have a few good tried and true fresh fig recipes at the ready.
I am fortunate to have access to both a mission fig tree, bearing a gorgeous purple fruit, and an Italian fig tree, with a lovely greenish-yellow fruit. And this year my bounty was unbelievable as I am one of the few in my extended family that eats them. I made Fig Newtons, fig and blackberry fruit roll-ups, fig bars and my most prized Fig Crostata. I like to make this recipe in stages. The crust keeps well in the refrigerator and if you opt to purchase a store bought variety, make sure it is butter based for best results. This recipe is a romantic blend of flavors, sweet fresh figs, a sugar almond paste, a lovely butter crust and the simple beauty of the shape of the cut fruit makes the presentation memorable. If you have ever been to the Tuscan region of Italy called Montecatini Terme, this frangipane recipe will remind you of their famous cookie - cialde. If you’ve never had one, add it to your list. Until then, I hope you enjoy this flavor twin.
1 recipe for a 9″ pastry dough (see recipe below, prepare ahead of time)
Approximately 10 large figs or about 15 small ones
1/4 the recipe of frangipane (see recipe below, prepare ahead of time)
1 egg meyer lemon, zested
Preheat the oven to 400F. Roll out your pastry dough to about 10-inch diameter. Spread about 1/4 of the quantity of frangipane on the dough, leaving a 1-inch parameter around the outer edge of the dough. Quarter the figs if ample in size, if on the smaller side then cut in half. Arrange the figs pointy end up in concentric circles to cover the frangipane. Fold the edges in, pinching to ensure it sticks to itself. Brush the dough with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for about 45-50 minutes, or until the pastry edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside. Zest a meyer lemon over the tart while it is cooling. Serve warm.
½ cup whole almonds
½ cup sugar, (½ granulated sugar and ½ confectioner’s sugar)
½ cup butter at room temperature
1 large egg
Preheat the oven, or toaster oven, to 350F. Spread the almonds evenly on a baking sheet and place them in the oven. Roast them for about 10 minutes, or until slightly toasted and fragrant. Transfer to a plate and allow to cool to room temperature. In a food processor, combine the cooled almonds and the sugar into a food processor and process until finely ground. Add the butter and the egg and continue to pulse until well-combined.
Note: To store the excess frangipane, divide into four equal parts, wrap each tightly in plastic. They will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, and up to a month in the freezer.
There are three ingredients: salted butter (yes you read that right, SALTED butter), plain all-purpose flour, and a little bit of water. That’s it. The recipe is so easy, do it twice and you’ll remember it by heart.
2 1/4 cup plain all purpose flour
8 oz cold SALTED butter, cut into cubes 1/4 cup water
In a food processor, combine all ingredients. Once processed, begin to combine by hand into a cohesive ball until all of the dry parts are incorporated and it is a solid mass. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate. After 30 minutes, remove the dough from the refrigerator and unwrap it. Liberally flour your work surface. Use enough flour so that the dough doesn’t stick to the surface or the rolling pin. Place the dough on the board and flour the top of the dough liberally. With a rolling pin, roll the dough out to an elongated rectangle. Pick up the pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough. Pick up one end of the rectangle, fold it 2/3 of the way in. Brush the flour off the newly folded section, then pick up the other end and fold it over that section. Dough is now neatly folded into thirds. Do not worry if the dough cracks or breaks. It is important to brush off as much flour as possible between folding so that additional flour is not unnecessarily trapped in the dough. Once baked crust should be flakey. Use all of the dough to prepare the crust for the crostata.
Note: If the dough seems very soft and becomes a little oily, wrap it up with plastic and refrigerate until cold before rolling it out again.
Bonus Basic Pie Crust Recipe
Pie Crust: If you are using this crust to make a pie, not the crostata, then lightly sprinkle more flour over the dough. Turn the folded dough 90 degree so that the seams are now on the sides, roll the dough out again into a rectangle, and repeat the brushing and folding again. The dough will continue to become smoother and more pliable. Repeat one or two more times as it is important to working the dough a little bit to build the strength so that it is not so fragile when rolling it out later. This is especially important when making a lattice top piecrust.
To make a pie, remove the dough rounds from the fridge. (If it’s been there longer than 30 minutes allow it to warm up so that it will roll out easier.) Roll each round into a circle that is 2-3″ larger than your 9″ pie plate. Line the pie plate, fill with whatever fruits you’re using, brush around the edges with some egg wash, then place the top dough over. Press down to seal, and crimp the edges or pressing the tines of a fork around it to create a pretty pattern. Cut a few slits to vent the pie before baking.
Gina von Esmarch is a Bay Area-based food writer, and fourth generation San Franciscan, who’s family has successfully run one of the City’s oldest fine dining restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf – Alioto’s #8, founded in 1925. In her free moments she enjoys spending time around the table with her family and friends and can often be found blogging at Bowl Licker (www.bowllicker.com). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org