Gelato alle Foglie di Fichi

fig leaf gelato 2

My poor fig tree has been up against it. It suffered severe dieback two winters ago and has never been quite the same. On the advice of a couple of experienced gardeners, I pruned it nearly to the ground. And while it has grown back, it is now more bush than tree. There are plenty of little figs on its branches, but the fruit has been slow to develop and it is unlikely that more than a handful will ripen before the weather turns cold.

On the upside, the tree (or bush) has lots of healthy leaves. The other day, an Instagram friend named Carla posted a picture of fig leaves steeping in milk. She was infusing the milk to make fig leaf gelato. I asked her about it in a comment and she pointed me to this blog post.

fig leaves

I have only ever used fig leaves as a garnish for cheese platters, though I have seen recipes that call for grilling or roasting fish wrapped in fig leaves, or using the leaves to infuse rice. They are said to impart a delicate coconut flavor. With that in mind, I decided to add coconut milk to the base for my fig leaf gelato. I had previously added coconut milk to pineapple sorbetto with good results, so why not here? I scraped in the seeds from half a vanilla bean and, on the suggestion of my daughter, sprinkled in a little ground cinnamon. (She had walked past the stove, taken a whiff and said, “I’ll bet cinnamon would be good in here.” Who was I to argue?)

fig leaf steeping

Once the milk mixture was hot, I removed it from the heat, tucked in the fig leaves, and covered the pot. I wasn’t sure how many fig leaves to use, so I winged it and put in five large ones. I let them steep for a couple of hours while I ran errands.

I made one major change from my usual formula for gelato custard. Instead of thickening it with egg yolks, I opted for the Sicilian method and used cornstarch. While in general I prefer gelato made with yolks (it’s richer), I’ve been curious about the egg-free version and I figured that the neutrality of the cornstarch would allow the flavor of the fig leaves to shine through.

How did it taste? I definitely detected fig, but the flavor was muted, more like an echo (I may add one or two more leaves next time–I certainly have enough). I tasted the gelato right after churning and then again after it had hardened in the freezer for a day. It was noticeably better the second time; the “curing” time in the freezer really helped to bring all the elements together–the subtle taste of fig, the gentle coconut flavor and that whisper of cinnamon, which (to me) was the most brilliant touch.

I like this delicately flavored gelato as is, but I imagine it would also be good with a few drops of fig balsamic vinegar or a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate sauce, or snuggled up to a piece of apple pie.

Gelato alle Foglie di Fichi | Fig Leaf Gelato

Fig leaves have a delicate flavor reminiscent of coconut. Use them as a garnish for a cheese platter, as a bed for roasting fish, or in this simple, egg-free gelato recipe. Be sure to use leaves that are untreated and unblemished.

Ingredients

  • 1 can (13.5 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk (not 'light')
  • 2 1/3 cups whole milk, divided
  • 3/4 to 1 cup sugar
  • Seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 5 to 6 fresh, unblemished fig leaves, washed and patted dry
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch

Instructions

Combine the coconut milk, whole milk, sugar, and vanilla bean in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring to dissolve the sugar, until the mixture reaches the boiling point. Remove from the heat and add the fig leaves, pressing them down to submerge them. Cover and let steep for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

Remove the fig leaves, squeezing any excess liquid back into the saucepan. Discard the leaves. Return the mixture to the stove and set over medium heat.

Whisk together the cornstarch and remaining 2/3 cup milk. Pour this into the saucepan with the milk and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, until thickened to custard consistency. Pour the custard into a clean container and cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap right on top of the custard. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, preferably overnight.

Freeze the custard in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and freeze until ready to serve. Remove the custard from the freezer 5 to 10 minutes before serving to let it soften a bit.

Serve as an accompaniment to pie, or on its own with a garnish of fresh fruit and a few drops of fig balsamic vinegar.

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28 Responses to Gelato alle Foglie di Fichi

  1. katia4italia September 15, 2015 at 7:36 am #

    OMG, Domenica! Must try this. With only 6 days left in Italy and much to accomplish, it may have to wait until next year. My 10 year old fig tree has had a bumper crop of settembrini and I am always trying to share them with a friend/neighbor. Last year my July crop was meager and the settembrini were tutti spaccati before they were anywhere near ripe after late rain and cooler earlier summer. Enjoying my fresh figs with Greek yogurt and walnuts and about to bottle some fig sauce for pasta to freeze for our return after Christmas. Hope your beautiful “bush” produces figs next year. Thanks so much for this recipe!

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:36 am #

      Sounds like you could just toss a bunch of figs into your gelato custard! That’s what I plan to do next year if the tree/bush is more forthcoming. Enjoy the rest of your stay.

  2. Rosa Jeanne Mayland September 15, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    A very unusual ice cream! I’m really curious as to how it tastes…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  3. Maureen Potter September 15, 2015 at 9:43 am #

    I have two fig trees I am nurturing here in Canada, a gift from an elderly Italian client. Some small figs are growing but I suspect too late to mature. I never thought of using the leaves! I am going to try this. Thanks for the ideas!
    Mo

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:37 am #

      I hope you enjoy it Maureen. Try it with the coconut milk and cinnamon. I also thought about tossing in some orange or lemon peel but in the end decided to keep it simple.

  4. Cissy September 15, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    Where the heck do I get fig leaves in Baltimore???

    • Domenica Marchetti September 15, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

      LOL Cissy, this is a great question and I should have addressed it in the post. I do know fig trees can grow in Baltimore. You might find them at a farmers’ market. Or befriend some Italians ~ we are forever planting fig trees wherever we go. Maybe ask around in Baltimore’s Little Italy? Failing that, buy a small container of figs, mash them up, and churn those with the coconut custard base.

  5. cristina September 15, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    Your fig leaves or beautiful green and healthy looking. I know what you mean about caring for the fig trees and I’m terrified to prune back too much. I’ve been researching this week about it (this is a good site/video http://www.grow-figs.com/) because my harvest was meager and my trees are in want of something (they’re potted).

    Love what you’ve done here with the fig leaves…how interesting and novel! Love it – thanks for sharing. 😉

  6. Katy September 15, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    I just got back from Greece (we were on the island of Syros), where I could step outside and the perfume of the fig trees–sweet, ripe, heavy—would hit me. It was wonderfully intoxicating! I wish I were still there, so that I could make this, but alas I’m currently without a fig tree in sight. If I find one, though, this is at the top of my list…this and maybe a fig leaf rice pudding to do justice to one of Greece’s favorite desserts.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:39 am #

      Fig leaf rice pudding strikes me as an excellent idea. Yes! I may try that one myself. I visited Greece many years ago and loved it. Hope to get back one day soon. Cheers, D

  7. elisa September 15, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    This sounds delicious! I made before gelato di fichi (with the pulp), but i never tried the fig leaves, Grazie per la ricetta!

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:40 am #

      This was my first encounter with fig leaves in the kitchen as well, Elisa (other than as a garnish). Next I’m going to try roasting fish in fig leaves. I hope you are well, my friend. xo

  8. Marilena Leavitt September 15, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    Domenica, this sounds so unusual and intriguing! It sounds delicious!

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:42 am #

      Thanks Marilena, we enjoyed it. The flavor is not overt, but it is definitely there.

  9. Marisa Franca @ All Our Way September 15, 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    I’ve been trying for no churn and so far it has turned out excellent. I haven’t tried it with an egg custard although the strawberry compote was really good. I would presume that the finished product does not turn really hard — more like commercial ice cream. Am I correct? I’ve put some liqueur in my no churn to give it taste and to act as an anti-freeze. I’d really like to try the custard in a no churn method. Do you think it would work? We don’t have an ice cream machine.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:50 am #

      Ciao Marisa, I’m afraid I haven’t tried no-churn ice cream. I have seen lots of recipes for it on the internet. I’d do a search if I were you to see which ingredients are used. Good luck!

  10. ciaochowlinda September 15, 2015 at 10:19 pm #

    Domenica – Like you, my fig tree suffered a couple of years ago and hasn’t yet recovered. No figs this year, unless you count the one measly one clinging to a branch. I am intrigued by your ice cream and would love to try it, along with a Mark Bitman recipe that was in the NYTimes a few weeks ago for salmon and fennel fronds cooked in fig leaves. I also took a small sapling of my in-the-ground fig tree and planted that in a pot this year, hoping to bring it into the garage and maybe have more success with it next year.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:50 am #

      Linda, read Pat’s comment below. Sounds like a big pot may be the way to go!

  11. Pat September 16, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    We had a large fig tree growing in a large flower pot when we lived in Brooklyn, NY. My husband built a wheeled platform for the tree, and we would roll it into our detached garage every autumn and cover it with a old quilt. We would water it once a month. In spring we would roll it out and it would grow and give us about 200 wonderful, large figs! All our neighbors lost their in ground trees with the freeze, but ours always did well. We are doing the same here in Colorado, but it will take awhile till our new tree grows large. We got 6 figs this season from a two foot tree. I love the idea of using leaves–will try that when my tree matures.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 17, 2015 at 11:51 am #

      This sounds like a great solution Pat. I may give it a try next spring. Thanks!

  12. Chiara September 17, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

    un gelato particolare, molto originale !Adoro i fichi ma non ho idea che sapore possa avere fatto con le foglie !

  13. Frank Fariello September 19, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    Intriguing idea! This is a bit off the point, but I have been meaning to try the cornstarch method for making ice cream custard. (Didn’t know it was Sicilian!) Besides being less rich, any difference in taste or texture?

  14. Paola September 19, 2015 at 5:53 pm #

    Love the sound of this Domenica

  15. sippitysup September 30, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    I must try this. I’ve done it with eucalyptus leaves with great results. GREG

  16. Adri Barr Crocetti October 8, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    Ciao Domenica,

    I hope all is well with you and yours. It must be quite different at home now that your son is off to college. How is it going?

    This gelato is positively intriguing. I have never thought to steep fig leaves. What a terrific innovation. I have to try this. I have been on something of a gelato binge myself for the past few months. A serious and extended binge. I enjoy gelato made with cornstarch. It is so much lighter and because of the lower fat content, the flavors really come through. They are not masked by the fat. Plus, as the Sicilians say, cornstarch based gelati are “more digestible”, and in their searing summer heat, it matters.

    However, over the summer I began using tapioca starch with absolutely stellar results. First, for those who can detect the taste of cornstarch, even when thoroughly cooked, tapioca starch, being quite neutral in flavor, is a real plus. Second, since tapioca starch does not need to be brought to a boil to be activated, the “boiled milk” taste is not an issue. Further, but less important since gelato never stays very long in our freezers, sometimes cornstarch thickened mixtures can separate when frozen, something that does not happen with tapioca starch.

    It’s easy to use. Substitute tapioca starch 1:1 for cornstarch. Heat the mixture until it steams, stirring frequently as the mixture on the bottom of the pan will really start to thicken as it heats. Once the mixture has begun to steam, cook it about 15 seconds more. The mixture should not pass about 180 degrees F. It will take on the consistency of very heavy cream. Remove it from the heat and chill. I like to use an ice water bath stirred frequently to promote even and rapid cooling, Give this a try. Id’ be curious to hear what you think. King Arthur sells a very nice tapioca starch.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 14, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

      Ciao Adri, how lovely to see your avatar here after so many months! I’ve been thinking about you (as you know from FB) and I’m glad to see you are back to your blog surfing ways. Thanks for sharing your tip about tapioca starch. I will give it a try for sure. xx

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