I thought my little fig tree was done for. Three or four years ago it suffered severe die-back during a particularly cold winter. By mid-spring the branches still showed no signs of life, no leaves unfurling, no baby fruits. I thought about yanking it out and starting over.
A friend who knows a lot more about gardening than I do recommended I prune it way back, almost to the ground. It was the right thing to do. Though the tree grew back oddly ~ it’s more bush than tree now, with lots of arm-like branches reaching out from its protected corner spot near my garage, it has repaid my effort to save it by supplying me with prodigious amounts of figs for the last two years.
They are Brown Turkey figs, perhaps not the prettiest variety, but they are honey-sweet when ripe and they make excellent preserves. Over the last few weeks I’ve made four or five batches (I lost count), starting with this simple one, and adding/switching out spices and other ingredients with each variation. (The batch pictured above has Italian prune plums mixed in.)
Eventually, through a sort of stream-of-consciousness process (“What if I toss in a star anise and a few cloves? I’ll bet a splash of Cognac would be good with those warm spices. But wait, what about Cognac and bittersweet chocolate?”) I ended up with this recipe for Spiced Fig Preserves with C.
Have you ever stirred chocolate into preserves? This one little step adds luster to an everyday jam, deepening the flavor and imparting a smooth, buttery texture. A splash of Cognac makes it luxurious. This is the jam to make now for giving away at the holidays, the one to spread on a fat slice of toasted brioche, or roll up in a crêpe.
I’ve been enjoying it for breakfast spread over honey-roasted peanut butter on good whole grain bread. Mornings are cooler now, and the warm complementary flavors of fig, Cognac, chocolate, and spice are welcome as we move, once again, from summer into fall.
Fig preserves are easy to make. There's no need to peel the fruit, and no need to add commercial pectin, as the preserves set nicely on their own. Stirring chocolate into the preserves gives them a luxurious quality. These are great preserves to give away as holiday gifts.
- 3 pounds ripe figs (I use Brown Turkey)
- 2 1/2 cups vanilla sugar (see Notes)
- Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus 3 strips zest
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 whole star anise
- About 10 whole cloves
- 1 vanilla bean
- 160 ml (2/3 cup) Cognac
- 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (see Notes)
Cut the tops of the stems off the figs and quarter them lengthwise. Place them in a heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the sugar, lemon juice, and strips of zest. Tie the cinnamon stick, star anise, and cloves into a cheesecloth bundle and add it to the pot. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the pot; toss in the pod. Gently mix everything together with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon and let the figs macerate for 30 minutes.
Have ready 6 half-pint sterilized jars and their rings and lids. Place 2 or 3 small bowls or plates in the freezer (you will use these to test the jelling point of the preserves).
Set the pot over medium to medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cook at a lively simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and turned a couple of shades darker. Remove one of the small bowls or plates from the freezer and spoon a small amount of jam onto it. Return the plate to the freezer for 2 minutes. To test if the preserves are done, nudge the mound gently with your finger and tilt the plate. The preserves should move sluggishly; if the mixture seems runny, it is not quite ready and you should continue to cook it for another couple of minutes before testing once more. (If you're testing with a candy thermometer, it should read 220 degrees F.)
When the preserves are ready, remove and discard the spice bundle. Stir in the Cognac and let it bubble for a minute or so; don't let up on the stirring. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the chocolate, stirring until it is fully melted and thoroughly mixed into the preserves.
Ladle the hot preserves into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe the rims clean if necessary with a clean, damp cloth, and screw the lids on the jars. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove the jars and set them upright on a clean kitchen towel. Within a couple of minutes you should hear the jar lids "ping" signifying that they have sealed properly. Let the jars cool to room temperature before storing in a cool, dark place. They will keep for up to a year. Store any jars that have not sealed properly in the refrigerator and use those first.
To make vanilla sugar, simply submerge a vanilla bean pod in a canister of sugar and leave it there.
I use small bittersweet chocolate baking chips that I buy at La Cuisine, in Alexandria, VA. The brand is Michel Cluizel. The chips are smaller and flatter than supermarket chocolate chips, and better quality. They melt quickly and easily into the jam.