By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
Figs are one of those fruits I developed a taste and appreciation for as an adult. When I was a kid, all I knew about figs was Fig Newtons. Right? I loved those. I would probably still love them if I were ever to buy store-bought cookies.
Figs have a distinguished pedigree. They were domesticated as far back as 9000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. They have been a religious symbol for many different religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. This luscious fruit was referenced in both the Old Testament and New Testament.
Turkey produces the most figs globally. Their main variety is the brown Turkish fig. When these are fresh, they have a pinkish brown color, but when dried, they turn a light brown. Some are dusted in sugar. Figs are a very good source of fiber and calcium.
Fall, in particular, is when figs ripen in the U.S. and the market is flooded with these beautifully shaped and colored fruits. The California season actually begins in mid-May. My personal favorite is black Mission figs, named by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries who brought them to southern California in the 1500s from Spain. Missions are the most popular fig grown in this country.
I have a fun fact about figs, albeit disgusting. Figs are not vegan! What!? How is that possible? There is a pollinating fig wasp that burrows into figs and sometimes the remains are just that, remains! The wasp’s skeleton does not fully disintegrate. So fig fans, you are ingesting bits of wasps. Get over it! The FDA allows a certain amount of larvae and insect parts per gram flour, macaroni, rice, cornmeal, and the like. That said, don’t think about it! We’re still here, aren’t we??
Louise Ferguson, an extension specialist at the University of California, Davis Department of Plant Sciences wrote In the September issue of Bon Appétit magazine, “There’s no fig wasp in there by the time people are eating the fruit.” The female fig produces an enzyme that completely digests the exoskeleton before hungry humans can take a bite. “The crunchy bits are seeds, not wasp parts,” Ferguson added. If I Iet my imagination go, sometimes I think of the wasp skeleton and not the seeds, but that’s me! However, I eat them anyway.
Figs are a great dried fruit to have in your pantry. They are actually inverted flowers. Each hollow ball of vegetal tissue is lined with hundreds of tiny buds that bloom inside the pod, wrote ecologist Mike Shanahan, in his 2018 book, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers The Secret History of Fig Trees.
Figs–call them fruit or flower–are a great offering paired with cheeses, cured meats, or a variety of other dried fruits and nuts. When it’s fig season, they look lovely on a fresh cheese tray or used as garnish on a fruit platter. I enjoy them chopped up in green salads, both fresh and dried. Consider substituting chopped dried figs in place of baked goods that call for raisins or dates. Mix things up a bit!
One of my favorite menu items in a restaurant is a flatbread or pizza with fresh figs. They are usually paired with goat cheese and sometimes prosciutto. I decided to create my own take on fig pizza. For today’s recipe, I’m making a crostata (Italian), galette (French), or free-form tart. These are interchangeable. I most often use a flaky pie or tart dough for my galettes. However today, I’m going all in on an enriched yeast dough to more resemble pizza. Many people fear working with yeast and rolling out yeast dough. I feel certain that you will not struggle with this. You will be so proud of the results!
As with pizza, there are many possible combinations and substitutions. You could easily swap the prosciutto for crisp crumbled bacon. Or you can eliminate the meat altogether. If figs aren’t in season, consider roasting 1-inch cubes of butternut squash in their place. You may even substitute pears or peaches for the figs.
Let us know here at The Insider what lovely crostata you come up with. And remember: that crunch is seeds, not wasps!
Fig & Goat Cheese Crostata
Yield: 6-8 appetizer servings
2 tsp. active dry yeast
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 c. lukewarm water (not to exceed 115°)
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lg. egg, beaten
1 tsp. coarse salt
1 3/4 c. flour + @ 1/4c. for kneading and rolling
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 lg. red onions, sliced thin
2 oz. prosciutto, roughly chopped
3 oz. goat cheese, cut into 1/4” cubes
12 fresh figs, cut in half from top to bottom
2 handfuls arugula
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
cornmeal for dusting
1 egg, beaten, for brushing (optional)
Make dough: In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in the lukewarm water. Allow to “sponge” for 10-15 minutes (bubbles will form). Mix in the oil, egg, and salt.
Put the flour in the bowl of a stationary mixer. Pour in the liquids. Using a dough hook, knead the dough for a few minutes, adding additional flour to keep from sticking. Flour your work surface and turn the dough out. Knead by hand for a minute, until smooth and elastic. Or you can mix the dough with a wooden spoon until it comes together, adding flour if needed. If you choose this method, knead the dough an additional 3-4 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl. Turn once to coat. Cover with a clean towel; allow to rise until double in size, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Meanwhile, prep the toppings. In a large skillet over low heat, cook the onions in the oil. Stir occasionally. Cook for 35-45 minutes, until they are golden brown and caramelized. Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Reserve.
Preheat oven to 425°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Sprinkle with cornmeal. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface. Roll into a 15-16” circle. Lift into the pan. Spread the onions on the dough, leaving a 2” border. Scatter the prosciutto on top. Distribute the goat cheese evenly. Arrange the figs on top, cut side up, in concentric circles beginning with the outside edge.
Bring the outer dough on top of the crostata, leaving the topping exposed. Brush the dough with beaten egg if you want a shiny finish. Otherwise, leave it off. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden.
Put the arugula in a bowl. Moisten with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Mound the greens in the center of the crostata. Serve hot or at room temperature. Cut into wedges.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.