Thursday, December 22, 2005

Thursday's Food: Fig Cake for Christmas

Not one more Christmas cookie. No squares, no bars, no circles, no little balls dipped in confectioner’s sugar, no Viennese crescents or spitzbuben, no meringues, nor Florentines, or Noels. Not even gingerbread men for grandchildren…

Bah. Humbug. After forty five years of Christmas cookies I am done. Someone else can take up the apron and the marble rolling pin…someone else can cheerfully cover herself in batter and chopped nuts and red and green sprinkles and try to figure out if she can substitute cake flour when she runs out of the regular stuff.

Instead this year, for revenge on that damn fig tree, the one which ate my Autumn and is chipping away at Winter, I am making fig cakes. One for me, and one for Jamie. For him, particularly, since I bought the figs with him in mind.

Here is an interesting recipe. After you look at the ingredients, I’ll tell you why it interests me.

Fig Honey Cake

6 large eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely chopped dried figs (in grinder or food processor)
3 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
If you’ll notice the amount of honey and the amount of oil, you can tell this cake keeps well. In addition, you could substitute one half cup of very finely ground almonds for a half cup of the flour. It would be a bit heavier, but the nut flour would increase the flavor. I also like the density that nut flours give desserts — like tortes, for instance.

Here are the directions:
1.In a large bowl, mix eggs, sugar, honey and oil. Stir in flour, baking powder, baking soda and spices. Fold in figs and nuts.
2.Pour batter into 2 greased and floured loaf pans.
3.Bake in a preheated slow oven (300° F) for 1 hour or until firm to the touch in the center. Unmold and cool on racks. Cool thoroughly before cutting into slices.
So far, I agree with them on #3, but not much else. That nice slow baking is perfect for this kind of cake.

There are two ways you could go with those eggs. First, you could beat them thoroughly with a wire whip or an electric beater until they’re pale yellow. And then add the oil and honey and put aside.

Next, sift the flour, baking powder and soda, and the spices together. I’d add a bit of salt to this, too. Not much. Maybe a quarter teaspoon up to perhaps half. Salt deepens the taste of things and this sounds a little insipid without it. I'm also considering coriander or cardamom. Then I’d leave that bowl aside, too.

(The Romans used to make fig "cakes" by grinding dried figs into a paste, patting down the resulting mess onto a marble or wooden bowl and then press the outside with ground coriander. These cakes kept very well in a cool spot)

Okay, we have two bowls, wet and dry ingredients. Grind the figs (or you could have done that step first), chop the nuts, and then take a few tablespoons of the flour mixture and coat the nuts and figs. It will keep them distributed through the cakes while they're baking.

Finally, stir the flour mixture into the eggs and honey. Add the floured figs and nuts and fold in.

Divide the mixture evenly between two greased and floured loaf pans (or you could simply grease some parchment paper and fit it to the pans. I like the way it prevents the bottoms from browning too much). You get a more even texture if you take turns filling the pans -- a third in the first pan, a third of the batter in the second pan, another third in the first pan, and so on. It makes the fruit and nuts more evenly distributed, too.

That’s the way I’d do it. And I don't think I'd refrigerate this cake. It doesn't need it with the honey. Wrap in an old linen dish towel and store in a tin.

There’s another possible method, where you separate the eggs and beat the whites to soft peaks and then beat the yolks thoroughly before adding the oil and honey. But then that would involve folding things together properly so the first method is better. Also, if you were going to do that, you’d reduce the flour some while keeping the ground almonds…it just all depends on what you want the crumb to be.


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