Nature works in mysterious ways. Despite my mother coddling the fig tree in her yard last year, it produced a scant yield of figs in 2010. This summer, however, she has not paid much attention to the tree and it is overflowing with gorgeous plum-hued fruit.
I went for a visit this weekend and she told me to pick as many of these aubergine jewels as I wished. Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. With the assistance of my mom, niece, grandfather, and a pair of shears, I whittled the fruit off the tree, yet we still couldn’t seem to make a dent in the burgeoning fig population. As grandpa picked and murmured away, I discovered something very interesting about this tree…
My Fig Family Tree
Fig trees are ideal candidates for propagation by cutting. With that in mind, my grandfather had given my parents a branch of his fig tree several years ago. With a little tender lovin’ care, the transplanted branch turned into a sap and began thriving and adapting to its new home on their property, eventually blooming into a full sized tree. This part of the story is moderately interesting on its own. However, what I wasn’t aware of, is that this tree we were picking from traces its roots back to Molfetta, Italy circa 1900. Apparently, the fig tree my grandfather gave my mom a branch from was propagated from the tree his father, Giuseppe, brought from Italy to the United States when he immigrated in 1920. In all likelihood, he wouldn’t have been able to bring an actual fig tree on board the ship, but, instead, smuggled a branch he snipped from his family tree in Molfetta to begin a garden in his new country. The ship’s quarters were tight and, consequently, most immigrants brought limited possessions along for the voyage. This fig tree clearly meant something to young Giuseppe since it made its way into his suitcase for his family’s life-changing journey. Maybe he simply prized the fruit from his tree back in Molfetta, knowing it would be years -if ever – he tasted it again. Or maybe it was something deeper. Perhaps it was a tie to his past and his roots (literally) in Italy; a reminder that he could look to of the family and life he left behind. I’ll probably never know why he brought it, but I speculate it was about more than good fruit. And, whether or not we understand the “why,” it’s entertaining to think that the DeGennaro family is still harvesting and enjoying fruit from a tree that has spanned four generations and a transatlantic journey. This fig tree literally tells a story – the story of my family tree.
When life gives you figs, you make…. < drum-roll > birthday tart. Birthday tart? Hear me out. This past weekend, we celebrated my husband’s birthday and he’s not a big cake guy, so I opted to break away from convention and make him a tart instead. After digging around online, the most appealing recipe I came across was from the L.A. Times. I made a couple subtle tweaks and ended up with a fantastically rich seasonal dessert. The almond frangipane (pastry cream) is enough to bring any sweet tooth aficionado to his knees, and the oven transforms these teardrop-shaped fruits’ flavor from their youthful sweetness to a more mature depth of flavor. Encase these fillings in Thomas Keller’s buttery-flaky crust and you have a recipe for yum.
Crostata di Fichi
Yields 1 9-inch tart
Slightly adapted from the L.A. Times recipe
Prepared pastry for 9-inch pie pan
2 cups slivered almonds
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. Disaronno amaretto
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. lemon zest
14 small to medium-sized figs
2 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. water
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly flour a clean surface and a rolling pin. Roll the pastry dough until 1/4-inch thin. Place in a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom or a pie pan. Use a knife to scrap along the edges and trim any excess dough. Discard scraps. Refrigerate until firm.
Grind almonds, sugar, eggs, vanilla, amaretto, salt, butter, and lemon zest in a food processor for three minutes. The end result should be a smooth, slightly flowing paste. Set aside.
Remove the stems from the figs and cut the fruit into lengthwise quarters. Set aside.
Remove the firm shell from the refrigerator and prick all over with a fork. Lay a sheet of parchment paper or foil on top of the shell and fill with dried beans or baking beads. Bake in oven until the rim is dried and lightly golden; about 10 – 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and discard the beans and parchment.
Use a spatula to spread the almond mixture in the base of the tart. Smooth over with the back of a spoon. Arrange the cut-up figs (skin side down) on top of the almond mixture. Press them in gently to secure their position. Transfer the dish to the oven and bake 40 – 45 minutes or until the almond mixture is puffed and golden.
Right before you remove the tart from the oven, warm the honey and water in a small bowl in the microwave in 10-second intervals until fluid. Mix well and lightly brush the top of each fig with the honey water.
Serve at room temperature.
A few notes:
- Cheaters can use prepared pastry. The rest of us can use the L.A. Times adaptation of Thomas Keller’s tart dough on the second half of the page. The instructions were thorough and I followed them to a “T”. Dough was perfectly manageable and the end result divine. Give it a go.
- I do not own a tart pan with a removable bottom. I used my porcelain quiche dish and it did the trick.