I’ve had a fig tree in my garden for over ten years now. I originally planted it in a very sturdy oak half barrel where it grew to a small bush while we were living in Oxfordshire in Southern England.
Somewhat perversely, it only started to produce fruit that managed to mature to ripeness since moving to an urban setting in Northern England. This is due to the fact that figs LIKE their roots crowded and the fig had finally grown into its container. Also, we put it in a perfect sun trap on a paved patio sheltered by our late Victorian stone built house.
In the last few years, I managed to harvest a dozen ripe Brown Turkey figs before the weather turned and the leaves started falling, leaving many immature green figs the size of my thumb still attached to the tree. I knew of an old fashioned Greek method of preserving those immature figs into a “spoon sweet”, a candied fruit or nut (often in their immature form). They are traditionally served to guests as a form of hospitality. I have sampled a number of these spoon sweets over the years including baby figs. However, I could not find a method to produce these sweets from my crop of tiny green figs. In fact, my first experiment resulted in hardened, almost crystallised figs – completely inedible!
To confuse matters even more, a few years ago, a Greek friend offered to ask her grandmother how to make these candied figs. It was very kind of her and I will always be grateful for her effort, but the verbal instructions were vague and somehow involved begging a small amount of powdered lime from construction workers – since this additive was said to preserve the crispness of the fruit. Needless to say, neither my friend (a confirmed Athens urbanite) nor I attempted this method for obvious health-safety reasons.
This year I stumbled across a fantastic food blog called Mama’s Taverna. The entry for baby fig spoon sweets is translated into English from a 1950s Greek cookbook – the equivalent to my Better Homes and Garden gingham covered cookbook given to me by my mother, her holy grail of cookbooks.
I followed the clearly written instructions, helpfully aided with illustrations, and only diverged by increasing the amount of lemon juice, leaving out the vanilla and flavoring the syrup as it boiled down with whole cloves rather than the powdered spice. Also, instead of putting the figs back into the thickened syrup at the last stage, I placed them in warmed half pint canning jars and poured over the hot, thick syrup, then steamed them for ten minutes to vacuum pack. Finally success!
Mama’s Taverna has recipes for other spoon sweets: quince, orange peel and grape. These sweets are great on their own, but can be paired with plain cakes such as pound cake or a yoghurt cake (recipe below), or can be used as a topping for ice cream.
I’ve used a French method of dairy fat-rich substitute for butter in cakes. Greek yoghurt, sour cream or crème fraîche can be used. Greek yoghurt produces a slightly tarter flavour. The resulting cake is light, but not crumbly – more the texture of a French clafoutis without the fruit. Serve with a spoon sweet or a dollop of fruit compote.
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup Greek yoghurt, sour cream or crème fraîche
- 2 eggs
- 1-1/2 cup flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- zest of 1 lemon, chopped finely
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare a round 8 inch diameter spring-form baking pan by lightly greasing with butter and fixing a disk of baking parchment on the bottom before dusting with flour.
Whisk eggs and sugar in a mixer until light and fluffy. Add your choice of yoghurt or cream then add flour, baking powder and lemon zest. Combine well then pour into the prepared baking pan.
Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes until the top is golden in color. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack. Leave the cake in the pan until it completely cools. Remove and dust with powdered sugar. Store covered in refrigerator.