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 post from the blog Saffron Strands.
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?)
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.
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.
- 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
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.