Roasted Fig Preserves with Lemon and Thyme

This is what a lush, ripe Brown Turkey fig looks like. Notice the stretch marks. That means it is bursting with flavor.

During fig season, I can see these dark, plump jewels sunning themselves on the tree from every vantage point in my backyard. First, they tempt and then they taunt me until I finally find myself risking life and limb to get to them. Often, I  have to climb a ladder and use a long garden tool like a bow rake to grab and pull down a limb, and then reach even further to pluck one from a branch. This all happens first thing in the morning while the outside temperatures are still tolerable. My friend Linda calls it #pajamagardening.

There are others who desire the same figs. I am in constant competition with small birds, the squirrels in the neighborhood, and my chickens. They know they can eat figs to their heart’s content without fear of being seen by predatory hawks when under the canopy of the broad, palmate-shaped fig leaves.

Here’s a video of one of my chickens reaching for a fig. It is best watched in full screen mode. My friend Carrington calls it #rubberchicken.

 

Ina would use the big leaves to line a cheese platter. Just sayin’.

Growing Figs

Fig trees are native to tropical climates, but a few varieties, such as Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy, have been cultivated to grow in cooler climes (zones 6-11). We planted our tree in front of a southern-facing brick wall so the heat stored in the bricks could warm the tree during winter. Additionally, and this was purely happenstance, our air-conditioner’s condensate pipe drips over the roots all summer long keeping the tree well-hydrated.

Our fig production and access capabilities quadrupled after I pruned the tallest limbs by almost half last March. Later, in April, my husband fertilized the roots with chicken manure. Now the tree is shaped like a sprawling ball and is loaded with figs.

Everything you wanted to know about fig reproduction, but were afraid to ask.

One of my hobbies is studying plant reproduction. All fruits and vegetables start with a flower that once pollinated starts to grow a pod with either one seed in it, like a peach, or many seeds, such as apples and tomatoes. Botanically, the seed pod is known as an ovary. Aggravating as it may feel when a squirrel or chipmunk runs off with a peach or a tomato you have patiently watched ripen, they are doing what nature intended — they are dispersing seeds. Mother Nature doesn’t care if we like our fruits and vegetables. She cares about plant reproduction and species survival.

With that in mind, the first thing I noticed when my tree started producing fruit was the absence of flowers. This photo was taken on April 7th as fig pods and leaves appeared. The pods emerged from the branches but were never preceded by a flower.

This begged the question, How does the fig reproduce without flowers? It turns out the flowers are inside the fig. Hundreds of them! The color inside a fig comes from its flowers.

Last summer, the producer and host of Nashville Public Television’s The Volunteer Gardener came to my garden to film a segment featuring Jeremy Lekich, an expert on edible landscapes and owner of Nashville Foodscapes.   In the show, Jeremy takes viewers around my yard and introduces them to many unusual edibles and explains fig pollination. You can watch the segment here.

By virtue of where the flowers are located, pollination needs to take place inside the fig. To move pollen from a male fig to a female requires the presence of specialized fig wasps who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with figs. The wasps get a place to reproduce and the figs get access to highly specific pollinators. I found this awesome video that shows how microscopic wasps crawl into figs. This other video from PBS’s Gross Science takes it from there describing what happens next in reproduction.

New varieties of common figs, like my Brown Turkey, have been cultivated to not need a wasp for pollination. The female trees are asexual, and the seeds produced are not viable — they are empty seeds. You will see lots of them when we finally get around to cooking the figs!

Every Christmas I make my grandmother’s Sicilian fig cookies. The recipe calls for dried Calimyrna figs. Calimyrnas are a Californian cultivar of the Turkish Smyrna fig (Calimyrna = California + Smyrna) that does require a wasp for pollination. They produce “true seeds” — seeds that are viable for reproduction. Fertile seeds are thick and crunchy, and have a nutty flavor preferred by bakers. They are the figs used to make Fig Newtons.

How to Make Fig Preserves

I cooked many not-so-delicious batches of fig preserves  on the stove before it occurred to me to try roasting them with herbs as I do my strawberry jam. The results were amazing. Roasting intensified the depth of flavor exponentially. They were so good, I took all my reject batches, mixed them together, and roasted two trays for about an hour. Suddenly, they were all tastier, too.

Ingredients:

4-5 pounds fresh figs (12 cups, once stemmed and quartered)*
5 cups granulated sugar
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
one bunch of thyme sprigs (⅓ ounce) or 3-4 long stems of fresh rosemary

*Today, I saw four varieties of figs for sale at Trader Joe’s!

Instructions:

Remove stems and quarter figs.

Place in a lightly-greased heavy-bottomed pot.

Add sugar and acids and stir. The amount of sugar sounds like a lot, but you need sugar to preserve fruit. Acids help fruit release its naturally occurring pectin. Once mixed, place in refrigerator and allow to macerate for a minimum of two hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 175º. Add thyme or rosemary and simmer on low heat for about twenty minutes. If using thyme, strip leaves before stirring in. If using rosemary, do not strip leaves; leave stems intact and remove before bottling.

Pour hot figs into two rimmed sheet pans and roast for about 4-5 hours.

One way to tell if they have cooked long enough to gel once cooled is to draw a path through the figs and see if the two sides stay separated. If they do, they are ready. You should be able to smell them if they are sufficiently roasted. If you overcook them, they will become thick and gummy when cool. Better to undercook than to overcook.

Pour hot preserves into clean jars, wipe the rims, cover with screw top lids, and turn upside down while they cool. I store them in the fridge, where they should be good for two months.,

I’ll end this story with one last video of my chickens eating figs in the early morning hours.

 

What are my favorite ways to enjoy fig preserves?

By the spoonful — just out of the oven.

My cousin, Marion, served the fig preserves over a delicious blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses called Rochetta. It was delish. As soon as I got home, I bought a similar cheese called La Tur at Whole Foods.

I often have fig preserves spread over Homemade Ricotta on toast for breakfast, or I’ll make an almond butter and fig sandwich for lunch.

I love brie and fig paninis. Hard to get a photo of the finished product with these crazy-good sandwiches, though.

Please let me know if you make the preserves!

Related Posts:
How to Make Homemade Whole Milk Ricotta
Oven-Roasted Strawberry and Rosemary Jam
Homemade Grape Jelly
Crab Apple Jelly

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Homemade Whole Milk Ricotta

Dear Reader,

I’m back!

I made ricotta. It was so much easier than I ever imagined.

Here’s the crazy part — it takes only three ingredients, milk, salt, and vinegar, and twenty minutes.

I might never have tried this had I not been cooking in the kitchen of the non-profit, The Nashville Food Project the morning fellow volunteer cook, Ann Fundis realized there was no ricotta in the walk-in for the vegetable lasagna she was about to make. Never flummoxed about anything, Ann pulled out a gallon of milk, vinegar, and salt and made her own. While she was at it, she pulled out butter, flour, thyme, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and more milk to make a béchamel sauce. She is a rockstar.

I started taking notes as I often do when I cook with Ann. She brought milk and salt to a boil and then added vinegar “until the milk starts to break up.” She let it rest a few minutes and then used a spider (a wide and shallow, wire-mesh spoon) to scoop out the spongy curds that had floated to the surface of the milky-yellow whey.

I tried a spoonful while it was warm. Oh my goodness, the ricotta was moist, fluffy, and delicious. For me, ricotta is at its best when it is freshly made and still warm like this. As it drains and cools, the texture firms up. It has a different mouth feel — still excellent, just different.

Making ricotta was in my future. I stopped at the grocery store on my way home to get a gallon of milk.

Ingredients for one quart of ricotta:

1 gallon whole milk (do not use old milk)
1½ teaspoons fine salt
⅓ cup white distilled vinegar or other acidifier (like lemon juice or white balsamic)
olive oil or cooking spray to coat bottom of the pot

Instructions:

Read the Cooking Notes below before starting.

Lightly grease a heavy-bottomed 8-quart saucepan. Pour in milk. Add salt.

Heat milk slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking, until the milk foams and starts to boil. This should take about 15 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat.

Add white vinegar, or whichever acid you have chosen to use, and stir. Once the vinegar has been distributed, stop stirring and let the milk curdle for 5-10 minutes without disturbing. It will separate almost immediately into curds and whey, and the curds will float to the top.

There are two ways to extract the curds. One is to use a slotted spoon or a spider.

The other way is to pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined colander or sieve and let the whey drain out. The longer ricotta drains, the drier and firmer it becomes.

I usually spoon it directly into a storage bowl and leave a little whey in the bowl to keep the ricotta moist until I use it.

Cooking Notes:

The pot needs to be large enough to contain the milk as it foams, rises, and comes to a boil.

A common problem that occurs when heating milk is it often burns the bottom of the pan. A scorched pan is a pain to clean and lends a burnt flavor to the end product, often resulting in having to throw the milk out and start over again. I found a solution on Cook’s Illustrated’s website. They suggest lightly spraying the bottom of the saucepan with oil to keep the milk from sticking. Their explanation follows: “When you add milk to a dry pan, it flows into the microscopic imperfections in the pan bottom. As the milk heats, its proteins coagulate and stick to the pan and each other. Misting the pan with vegetable oil spray prior to adding the milk creates a thin film on the pan’s surface, which acts as a barrier and makes milk proteins less likely to adhere.”

I found that when I cooked old milk, milk that was close to its “sell by” date, the ricotta had an unpleasant aftertaste bad enough that I had to throw it away.

Thinking more flavorful acidifiers like lemon juice or white balsamic vinegar would improve the flavor of the ricotta, I gave them each a try. I did not detect an appreciable difference in flavor and went back to using plain vinegar.

I experimented with varying amounts of salt and settled on 1½ teaspoons per gallon of milk, which is very neutral. Since I don’t always know how I am going to use the ricotta during the week, I prefer to be able to control the  saltiness by adding more as needed.

I used whole milk. You can add a cup or two of heavy cream to make the ricotta more deluxe, if desired. I was surprised to see, in some ricotta recipes, that buttermilk was used as the acidifier. I tried it and it worked.

By the way …

The word ricotta comes from the Italian verb to recook. Traditionally, Italian cheesemakers saved and recooked the cauldrons full of whey left over from making other cheeses. The reheated whey would produce clumped proteins, or curds, that were skimmed off and called ricotta. Some cheesemakers still make it this way.

Ways we use homemade ricotta at our house:

Tomato Cobbler and Ricotta Biscuits, a fantastic recipe from The New York Times. It has changed the method I use to make biscuits.

Spinach tortellini, a dollop of ricotta, and @JudysChickens Marinara Sauce

Toast spread with ricotta and a drizzle of local honey. This is what I often eat for breakfast.

Tomato and peach salad with a dollop of ricotta

Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies

Ann’s TNFP Vegetable Lasagna with Roasted Butternut Squash and Sautéed Greens

How do we use the whey?

This recipe makes one quart of ricotta and three quarts of whey. We save the whey and pour it over the dog’s food. She adores it.

Related Posts:
How to Make Yogurt at Home
Homemade Grape Jelly
How to Peel an Orange or Grapefruit Quickly
How to Tell If an Egg Is Fresh or Hard-Boiled
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)
How to Make a Thaw Detector for the Freezer

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Banana and Granola Multigrain Pancakes

This is my new go-to pancake recipe. You almost feel virtuous eating these carbs with their nutritious complement of grains (oats and cornmeal) and flax and sesame seeds.

The recipe is based on the banana multigrain pancakes I had at First Watch restaurant, my favorite of the breakfast food restaurant chains.  After ordering the pancakes two Saturday mornings in a row, I was taking notes on how to make them when I spied the First Watch, Yeah It’s Fresh cookbook on a countertop. I bought the book and made the pancakes the next morning with a few modifications.

These pancakes are delicious — light, crunchy and healthy. I love them!

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ cup rolled oats
1½ teaspoons cornmeal
1½ teaspoons ground or whole flax seeds
1½ teaspoon sesame seeds
3 eggs, beaten
1¼ cups whole or 2% milk
½ cup butter, melted
Banana, blueberries, or strawberries
@judyschickens Granola

Instructions

In a medium bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together. Set aside.
In a larger mixing bowl, beat eggs and add milk. Set aside.
Melt butter. Set aside

Now you have three containers of ingredients.

Slowly add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and gently mix on slow speed until blended, maybe 20 seconds. Add the butter and blend briefly until ingredients are thoroughly combined.

Pour ¼ or ½ cup of batter into a preheated, ungreased, pan. Add thick slices of banana (or any fruit) and two tablespoons of granola to each pancake.  Smush the add-ins down into the batter a little. Cook on medium heat for about 2 minutes on each side.

If you don’t plan to eat them right away, cook all the batter, cool the pancakes on a wire rack, and store in the refrigerator.

I recommend buying the cookbook and trying the Lemon RicottaPancakes too. They are scrumptious! You can buy the cookbook online here.

By the way, if you are looking for a few recipes for Easter dinner, check out this link where you can learn to make this bunny cake and my favorite ways to prepare lamb.

Oldest trick in the book …

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

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Always check this website for the most up to date version of a recipe.

© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Chocolate Birthday or Valentine’s Day Cake

Valentine’s Day is coming and I have just the cake for the occasion.

For years this rich and intensely chocolate cake was known in our house as my niece Elizabeth’s birthday cake.

That’s back when I made it tall and skinny using three stacked 8-inch cake pans.

But this week, in the early hours of the morning, I had an idea to make a heart-shaped cake that looked and tasted like the best piece of candy you ever pulled out of a box of chocolates. I used a cake construction technique I learned when I was ten years old and happily occupied with making cookies and cakes for my brothers and their friends.

Back then, I used an 8-inch square and an 8-inch round pan to make the cake. This time, I needed a cake that would feed twenty for a dinner party, so I added a second layer on top. I used two round and two square pans.

As I look at this picture now, I think this cake would make a sweet Groom’s Cake.

The recipe comes from Barrington Brewery and Restaurant in Rhode Island and has appeared on numerous websites and in many cookbooks. The recipe makes a large, dense cake, but if you reduce the ingredients by a third, you could bring it down to a regular-sized, single-layered, heart-shaped cake.

The frosting is very special, too. It is a ganache frosting. Ganache is a rich chocolatey filling made of melted chocolate and heavy cream. Depending on the ratio of chocolate to cream used, the consistency of the end product will be either a dipping sauce, like for strawberries (1 part chocolate : 1½ parts cream), a creamy frosting (1 chocolate : 1 cream), or a solid confection, like for truffles (2 chocolate : 1 cream). You can read about ganache here.

To make my heart-shaped cake, I needed to increase the basic ganache recipe by half bringing the total weight of the cake to a whopping 8.5 pounds (after subtracting two pounds for the pizza paddle I used to transfer the cake).

Since the ganache is heated and needs to chill for an hour before spreading, we’ll make the frosting first.

Let’s Get Started!

Ingredients

Frosting (reduce by a third if making a standard three-layer cake)
3 cups heavy cream
1½ pound semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Cake:
2 cups stout (such as Guinness)
2 cups (4 sticks) butter
1½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder
4 cups all-purpose flour (spoon into the measuring cup and level the top with a knife)
4 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1⅓ cups sour cream

Frosting Instructions 

Bring cream to a simmer (not a full boil) in a large heavy saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and let melt, uncovered, for three minutes without stirring.

Using a whisk, stir the ingredients together. Do not let any water (for example, thru covering the pot which could create drips of condensate) get in the ganache. It is an emulsion, as such, it could “seize” and turn the chocolate into a grainy liquid. Allow frosting to cool and firm up for an hour inside the refrigerator.

Cake Instructions

Preheat oven to 350º.

Prepare the four lined cake pans: You will need two 8-inch squares, two 8-inch rounds, and two large wire cooling racks.

Grease all four pans with butter. Line the bottoms with parchment paper. To do this, stack two sheets of parchment paper. Using a marker, trace the cake pan outlines onto paper. Cut out the images and place in the bottom of the corresponding cake pans. Butter the tops of the liners. Set aside.

Bring stout and butter to a simmer in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat. Add cocoa powder through a fine-mesh sieve and whisk until smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In another large mixing bowl, add eggs and sour cream and beat until well-blended, about a minute.

You should now have three bowls of ingredients. It’s time to mix them together.

Add the chocolate mixture to the sour cream mixture in the mixing bowl. Beat briefly on slow speed for one minute. Scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula.  Slowly add the flour mixture and beat briefly until just mixed. Remove beater and stir batter up from the bottom with a spatula and fold until completely combined. Divide equally between the four prepared pans.

Notice how thick and deluxe the batter is. The cake will be equally deluxe!

Bake for 35 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. You’ll notice the edges of the cake start to pull away from the sides of the pans when they are done. Be sure to do the knife check on each cake as the cakes in the back (where the oven is the hottest) tend to cook a little faster. Let cool for 10 minutes on wire racks and then invert the pans, remove paper liners, and allow cakes to finish cooling. They must be completely cooled before frosting.

Frosting the Cake

Place the square cake on a large sheet of parchment paper. Cut the round cake in half and place the halves on two sides of the square, as shown.

To make the heart-shaped cake have a fluffier frosting, pour the cooled frosting into a mixing bowl and beat for a few minutes. This is optional but does give the cake height.

Frosting such a large cake is easier if you have a cake turntable to place it on, but a rimless sheet pan will work. You can use the sides of the parchment paper to move the cake around.

I moved the cake to a turntable, trimmed the visible parchment paper off, and made the finishing touches to the frosting.

I used a pizza paddle to transfer the cake to my friend, Kate’s silver tray. Her husband picked rosemary for me and we added chocolate covered ginger pieces for final adornments.

My friend, Renée, made the same recipe and adorned hers in an equally beautiful way. She used a fine-mesh sieve to dust cocoa powder over the cake and added flowers to the top.

How about an Easter bunny cake? Old-Timey Vanilla Bunny Cake

Or a red velvet cake? Lily’s Red Velvet Cake

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.