For a long time, the closest I had ever come to what I thought was a real fig was the dried kind or Fig Newtons. It wasn't until a family friend gave us a fig tree that I learned figs are actually fresh before they are dried. Not only that, but I discovered that fresh figs were worlds apart from the dried ones. We weren't the only family with a fig tree in the neighborhood. Italian and Portuguese neighbors had them too. That's because figs are native to the Mediterranean region, where they have been revered since ancient and biblical times. You can't not find mention of it in ancient Greek and Roman texts and of course the Bible's creation story. What would we have done without fig leaves?
For a number of years we were lucky to have our own Garden of Eden with a flourishing fig tree in the backyard. With much ingenuity we were able to keep it protected through many winters until one year it finally didn't survive the cold. But I can never forget how anxious I was all summer long as I waited for the figs to ripen. It seemed to me they always took so long. But fig season is late September, so I had to learn to be patient because there was nothing I could do to speed up mother nature.
Figs really are the fruit of the gods. They're unusual yet very succulent, tender, and sweet as honey when perfectly ripe. The interesting thing about them is that they are actually flowers not fruit. The little hole that exists on the underside is actually the opening that wasps enter to pollinate. Because these flowers or figs are so perishable, most are sold dried. Fresh figs can be very expensive, but when in season they can be found more affordably at farmers' markets. Now without a tree I buy my fresh figs at the market just like everyone else. And this year I found the loveliest black Mission figs to create this Greek-inspired tart.
When shopping for figs, look for ones that are plump but not mushy. Blemishes are not much of a concern unless the fruit looks damaged. Once home, the figs will ripen very quickly on the counter. But to slow the ripening process, stow them safely in the refrigerator until ready to eat or use. When they are ripe, figs should be soft to the touch, smell sweet, and a bit of sap-like liquid can ooze from the bottom. These are the kinds that are sure to taste like honey. For this recipe, ripe figs are the best.
Fresh Fig Tart with Honey-Orange Custard
Filling inspired by recipe from Fine Cooking.
2 pounds ripe black Mission figs
1 8-ounce container Greek yogurt
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon light-brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon orange zest
Cut off stems from figs. Slice into halves if small or quarters if large. In a small bowl, combine yogurt, egg yolk, sugar, honey, and orange zest. Spread mixture in bottom of cooled tart shell. Arrange figs on top. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown, custard is set, and figs have released their juices. Serve warm. Yield: 10 to 12 slices.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
In a large bowl, combine flours, sugar, and salt. Mix together with a whisk to aerate. Add butter and work with a pastry blender until mixture resembles course meal.
In a small bowl, beat together egg yolk and 3 tablespoons ice water. Drizzle liquid mixture into dry ingredients. Mix until dough comes together. If too dry, 1 tablespoon ice water can be added.
Form the dough into a flat disc and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least 1 hour before rolling.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out tart dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Carefully lay dough into a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press dough into the sides. Remove excess dough with a knife. Fill any holes or gaps with excess dough. Chill shell for 15 minutes.
Using a fork, prick the bottom of the pan all over. Line the inside of the pan with foil and fill with pie weights. Bake for 10 minutes. Then carefully remove pie weights with foil. Continue to bake until light brown, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely.