There is something about figs even in this day and age that causes people to titter. With their curvaceous exterior and fleshy pink inside which conceals thousands of seeds, figs have long been associated with fertility and femininity. Adam and Eve’s appropriation of the fig leaf as modesty protection (or at the least artist’s decision to include fig leaf ‘clothing’ in the depiction of the fall from Eden) has done little to disavow their slightly louche associations. And best gloss over the laxative connotations syrup of figs has. Either way figs have somehow acquired a reputation for being slightly comical and a teensy bit rude.
Alluringly plump in the natural state once dried figs become richly sweet and sticky. It’s no wonder they were a popular sweetmeat to fill the void (a medieval term used to describe a sweetmeat course served after the main food had been cleared) at the end of a meal. Sugary foods such as dried fruits were considered hot and moist and therefore an ideal digestive. By the Tudor era luxurious food such as dried fruits and spices were considered aphrodisiacs and an essential part of the banquet as the void was then known.
Smuttiness aside figs, fresh or dried, are a gorgeous fruit to eat. They are not much used in British cookery. Perhaps this is due to their cost (figs are among the more pricey dried fruits); availability (they are reasonably tricky to grow here; or maybe some people are not partial to the seeds contained within. In the past figs would sometimes be included in the Simnel cake traditionally baked for Mother’s Day by servant girls returning home to visit their families on the fourth Sunday of Lent. The rich fruit cake would be made with the finest ingredients their mistresses could spare and would often be kept until Easter. In counties like Buckinghamshire, Palm Sunday (the sixth Sunday during Lent) was called Fig Sunday on which people would enjoy a fig pudding or fig pie (Florence White provides a good recipe for the latter in Good Things in England, 1932).
Rather than a pudding or pie I have used figs in a cake following the the tradition of the Simnel cake of old. Lighter than a traditional fruit cake it keeps well enough (although not up to Easter) and I feel it is a fitting cake to make for Mother’s Day or indeed International Women’s Day.
- 200g self raising flour
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cardamom 50g softened unsalted butter
- 175g light brown sugar
- 3 tbsp golden syrup
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Juice and zest 1 large orange
- 200g dried figs, stalks removed & roughly chopped
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 2 tbsp apricot jam mixed with 1 tsp dark rum or water
- Grease and line a 23cm round springform tin. Preheat the oven to 180℃.
- Sieve the flour and spices into a bowl. In the bowl of a food mixer with a paddle attached, cream the butter, sugar and golden syrup together. Add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition then add the vanilla extract. With the mixer on slow, gradually add the spiced flour.
- Measure the orange juice and make up to 300ml with cold water. Place this and the zest in a saucepan with the chopped figs. Bring to the boil. Using a stick blender, puree the figs and cooking liquid whilst hot. Immediately add the bicarbonate of soda then pour the figgy puree into the bowl of the food mixer containing the cake batter and mix to combine. Transfer the mixture to the prepared tin and bake for around 25-30 minutes or until well risen and firm to the touch.
- Allow to cool in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack. To glaze, heat the apricot jam and rum or water in the microwave for 20 seconds. Brush all over the cake before serving.