Figs trees are part of the landscape here. They aren’t native but have become so ubiquitous that I barely notice them on the edges of the forest. They crop up in the horse corral, wild and windblown, without water or care. Figs sprout in the garden, like vigorous weeds, peaking out through the lemongrass and the mint beds. I suppose there is something metaphorical about a fig in the garden, but I leave those thoughts to the more serious folk. Figs crowd the riverbank and their thick, scratchy leaves provide shade for the backs of fisherman’s necks while their fruit provides an occasional snack. It’s no wonder that figs are a symbol of fertility. Give them a long, hot summer and they give birth to thousands.
And the grandmother of them all lives in my backyard. I have to assume that she was planted here when the house was built, somewhere around 1906. Her trunk is thick and her gnarled branches resemble my fingers. She is my daughter’s favorite tree. She is filled with birds year round who take shelter in her arms from the storms. I know that if I want to hear the mockingbird sing, all I need do is sit under her branches for a few moments.
She started to come down four years ago, bowing to gravity, with the heaviest crop I have ever seen her bear, and a slow lean to the south. I know fruit trees don’t live forever, but I’d suffered through the loss of my father’s heritage peach trees, who had grown old and those hearts had rotted out missing his loving care. I wasn’t willing to say good by to this particular fig tree yet. Neither was my daughter who said ‘You must save it. No other fig tree gives fruit this moist and wonderful.’ And so we jacked the tree up, poured cement around her feet and placed her branches in notched braces. It was rather indecent for the old girl, much like my own Doctors visits these days. But she rallied and thrived under the care and love we gave her and rewarded us with 2 more crops last year, a small one in June and a second larger one in August.
And now, with another crop burgeoning in her branches, I searched for ways to use the fruit that I had dried last year. I needed to use them before starting to dry another season’s worth.
My father-in-law used to talk about a cookie that his mother made in Sicily, with an anise crust and a fig filling. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is abundant here and I thought it would make a nice substitute for the anise. And I ended up with a very adult sort of Fig Newton, flavored with local spices. This is a recipe where you’re going to get your hands dirty because figs are sticky.
You’ll need to infuse the sugar with fennel several days prior to making the cookie. Simply lay two cups of snipped up fennel fronds on a baking sheet, cover with sugar and let the fronds dry. You can remove the fronds if you like, but I just whirl everything in the blender and add the leaves to the recipe as it is. Also, I added a splash of fennel liquor that my friend Darrell made for me. I didn’t include it in the recipe ingredient list, feel free to make your own, or even add a shot of Ouzo to the dough when you add the eggs, if you have some hanging around.
Fennel Cookies Stuffed with Fig
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F
2 cups shortening (I like room temperature butter)
3 cups white sugar, infused with fennel
8 cups all purpose flour
7 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs. fennel seed
Cream the sugar and shortening. Add eggs, fennel seed and salt. Blend in flour and baking powder. Add the flour, a cup at a time. At some point, you’ll have to ditch the spatula (or spoon) and start working the dough with your hands because it’s very thick. Knead until the dough has the consistency of a sugar cookie dough and place in the refrigerator overnight or while you make the filling.
2.5 pounds of dried figs
1 pound seeded dates (or raisins)
2 tsp ground spice bush berries (if you don’t have spicebush you can substitute cinnamon or ginger)
1/4 cup sugar
1 whole orange or lemon1 apple, cored but not peeled
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I used toasted black walnuts, but pecans or walnuts would be good too)
Either grind the fruit using a an old fashioned meat grinder, or use a food processor. Either way, once the fruit is ground up, you’re going to have to get your hands in the filling to really get the spices mixed in well. You want it to hold it’s shape when you press it in your fist.
Pinch off 2 lumps of dough about the size of a baseball and roll each into a rectangle (or oval if you’re as inept as I am at rolling).
Place on un-greased cookie sheet. Repeat, and when the sheet is full (these cookies don’t rise much, so you can place them fairly close together), bake for 11-14 minutes. Cool on a rack.
If you have leftover dough, these make great ‘thumb print cookies’, just fill the centers with a candied loquat, or your favorite jam.