Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pure Abundance: Fig Preserves

Things you can never have too much of:

Sunny Days
Fresh Figs

You may have noticed that one of these is not like the others. Who doesn’t yearn for an extra week (or four) of vacation, or more time to work on their everyday to-do lists? And surely we can agree that even when filled to overflowing, our hearts can make room for all the love that comes our way.

You may not put fresh figs in the same league as Love, Hope and precious Time. Figs don’t stay fresh for long, and how many can a person eat before the intensely sweet, ruby flesh just ceases to thrill? I admit that I encountered this problem last week when figs, some literally bursting with ripeness, were two pounds for the price of one at my supermarket. Usually set off to the side, often unnoticed by the casual shopper, the figs now composed one of the central displays in the produce section. Every kind I’ve ever seen was represented including my favorite, Black Mission Figs from California. Despite the fact that I would be out of town over the holiday weekend instead of at home where I could laze about popping figs into my mouth all day like bonbons, I bought them. Then I went back the next day and bought more. Honestly, it pained me that I could justify the purchase of only four pounds of figs. What if the other shoppers let this bounty go to waste?

I tried to let go of my sadness for the unclaimed figs and focus on what to do with the ones I had. There was no time to eat them one by one with little chunks of salty feta as I like best. I had no one else to cook for and enough fruit to produce multiple fig pizzas plus a few tarts. I started to feel over-burdened, and then I caught myself. When it comes to figs, you can never have too much. That is how I decided to make my very first batch of preserves. I cannot describe how immensely satisfying it was to put up my three finished jars of homemade fig preserves, knowing that I would be able to experience the abundance of my favorite summer fruit when the days of 2-for-1 are over and figs have been replaced by fresh cranberries, pears and clementines.

Although it requires your full attention, the preserving process is easy. Having no dedicated canning equipment, I used the simplest method possible. I figured out my ratio of sugar to fruit based on Maki’s recipe for apricot preserves in this post from her blog, Just Hungry. I also adopted her relaxed attitude about home preserving and did not bother with pectin. The amount of sugar I used is far less than I have seen in many other preserve recipes, but I just could not imagine adding more than two cups of sugar to this already lusciously sweet fruit. Of course, sugar acts as the actual preserving agent, and the National Center for Home Food Preservation might disagree with what I’ve done here. That is my official disclaimer. The amount of sugar I used was sufficient to cook the figs and achieve a honey-like thickness. I sterilized and filled my jars using the method described here which does not require a water bath. From reading all I could about making simple preserves at I home, I have realized that there are various ways to achieve the same end result, and instructions will differ based on the quirks and experience of the writer. In other words, the right way to make preserves is the way your mother or grandmother made them. I also added one little twist. After I filled the first jar with the figs that had only been flavored with lemon juice, I added the zest of a Valencia orange to the remaining fruit. I then tipped in a shot of orange liqueur and continued to simmer for a minute or two before filling the remaining jars.

If you would rather not worry about the finer points of the canning process, you can do everything I did here with any kind of jars, and your preserves will keep in the refrigerator for 3 weeks. This works very well if you are making a small batch, so I would recommend doing half of this recipe. Here are the ingredients and steps I used:

Fig Preserves, Two Ways
Makes 2-1 pint canning jars plus extra for immediate consumption.

2-1 pint canning jars (I used Ball brand jars that come with rims and lids with a built in seal)
4 lbs fresh figs, washed, trimmed and cut into quarters or eigths (if figs are very large)
2 cups granulated sugar
½ cup water
4 tblsp. lemon juice

To make Orange-Fig Preserves:
Zest of one orange
1 tsp. orange liqueur (triple sec or Cointreau)

For the jars: Clean the jars and lids in the dishwasher or submerge them in a large pot of boiling water. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees and place a baking sheet on the middle rack. Place the jars and lids on the baking sheet and "cook" them for about 20 minutes while the figs are simmering. Remove the jars and lids with clean tongs right before you are ready to fill them.

Begin cutting the figs into small chunks while you bring the sugar and water to a simmer in a heavy stainless steel or other non-reactive pot. Cook on low until the sugar dissolves completely and the liquid appears clear. Watch carefully and stir often so the sugar does not burn.

Add half the chopped figs to the sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook for 30 minutes or until figs are very soft and falling apart. Then add the remaining chopped figs and continue to cook for 30-40 minutes more or until the mixture reaches your desired thickness. Add the lemon juice in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Do not leave the pot unattended for more than a few minutes. Stir often to prevent the figs from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Remove a jar from the oven with a pair of tongs and fill it with figs to the very top. Carefully remove a lid from the oven and cover the jar opening. Set the rim over the lid and twist tightly, using towels to protect your hands. Turn the jar upside down for 5 minutes. Turn right side up and let the jar cool completely. When filling the jar, do not touch the inside of the jar, the threads of the jar or the inside of the lid. Do not wipe any spills around the edge of the rim; just leave it. You do not want to introduce any bacteria from your hands or a towel. I used a large spoon to fill the jars and had minimal mess.

Tips for Making Preserves:
1) When simmering the fruit, keep a close eye on things and stir often to prevent sticking.
2) Use tongs to grip hot jars and lids. When you have to handle them, only touch the outsides and protect your hands with towels or heat-proof mitts.
3) Use a spoon to fill the jars. This is slower, but causes fewer spills than pouring the fruit straight from the pot.
4) After an hour, you can check the seals on the jars. The lids should be curved slightly inwards and will not pop back and forth when you press down on them.
5) If a jar does not seal, you can put the fruit back in the pot, boil for a few minutes and start again with a clean, sterilized jar. Alternatively, you can refrigerate the preserves. They will keep for 3 weeks.
6) To make the orange flavored fig preserves, fill one jar, then add the zest and liqueur to the remaining fruit. Simmer for 2 minutes and fill the other jar.
7) Do not try to seal a jar that is partially filled. Refrigerate any leftovers in an airtight container or sample your handiwork right away!

To show off my fig preserves, I made a batch of simple scones. Slightly sweet with a hint of vanilla, they turn these preserves into a special breakfast or snack. I used this recipe from the very tempting website, Joy of Baking, which has a good selection of scones. I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for one cup of the AP flour and mixed the dough in my food processor instead of by hand.

Your sweet reward...it's never too much.


Julie said...

I rarely see figs and never buy them because the ones I see always seem to be expensive. But after all the talking up of figs you've done, I am definitely buying the next figs I see, even if they are expensive.

Don't know if you read Food and Paper but in case you don't, Sarah also seems to share your love of figs.

christine said...

Lovely, luscious photos and recipe. I'm hooked!

anni said...

Nice job!
I'm winning the battle with bluejays. Our fig tree is ladened with fruit and I get the pleasure of picking a handful each morning before the bluejays get to them.

Anni :-)

Ivonne said...

Pure joy ... that's what I call these preserves!

Anonymous said...

Try adding sesame seeds to your fig preserves - the nutty crunch they add is wonderful.

Kimberly said...

I get to pick my figs from my back garden. I love preserving the things I grow, and I know they don't contain all the artificial preservatives commercial products contain.

Stella said...

a co-worker of mine gave me a bag of freshly picked figs from the tree in her yard! Your recipe looked so fabulous I made the preserves tonight! Thanks! :)

Julie said...

Stella--you are so lucky! I'm thrilled you found this recipe and that it worked well for you. I've been dying to make it, but am in the process of moving, so all cooking is on hold:(

Anonymous said...

This is by far and away the best teaching site on making any kind of preserve I've seen... And I am 62. My daughter could make these! I did make them and they are great! My non-cooking son has a giant fig tree and shared them with us. Now he gets some back for dreary winter days.

Julie said...

Anonymous: Wow, thanks for your kind comment! I'm so glad this helped you! It is easy. All you people with fig trees are the object of my envy!

Anonymous said...

These are great! Thank you for sharing :) Now I know what to do with all of the figs that grow in my backyard.

Anonymous said...

Figs are so easy to grow! I got a starter limb off my stepmother's tree and rooted it. Within 2 years I had wonderful large figs. Also, we are winning the battle of having figs to ourself instead of the Mockingbirds by placing an "umbrella" of netting over the bush. We used the skeleton of an outdoor umbrella for a patio set and attached the netting on that. The netting is available at hardware stores like Ace. Our tree is large enough now that we are using plastic ties to hold several nets together. The mockingbirds are good at finding gaps! Dianne in Texas

Julie said...

Diane: Your tree sounds wonderful! MY problem is that I live in Chicago now, and there isn't much I can do about the climate. Thanks for leaving a comment.