GUARDSMAN: Here is a rural fellow
That will not be denied your highness' presence.
He brings you figs.
CLEOPATRA: Let him come in.
(William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra)
Usually the book comes first, and then the recipes - that was the founding idea behind this blog. In my attempt to trace the way food has been written about in English literature over time, I have been picking up and rereading (or skimming through) key texts in a chronological order (more or less), finding interesting references to food and then devising recipes inspired by them.
But sometimes the food comes first, usually as a result of seasonal pressures. When the trees in the garden are bowing down with quinces or damsons, then something needs to be done with them. And if that means skipping around a bit in literature and losing my chronological path, so be it.
And so it was the other week when my organic delivery provided me with a box of fresh figs. I'm ashamed to admit that I had never bought or cooked fresh figs before, but now there was no excuse. And as I've just finished teaching Antony and Cleopatra to my A Level students - where the poisonous asp that will deprive Cleopatra of her life is smuggled into her chambers concealed in a basket of figs - I knew that there was at least one literary reference I could investigate.
But with a short shelf-life, the recipe had to come first... and the literature will come later.
This recipe really showcases the figs, both aesthetically and in taste terms - cooked with honey, vanilla and lemon they become meltingly soft and deliciously sweet, and the walnuts add a variation in texture.
FIG AND WALNUT TARTE TATIN
Ingredients (serves 4):
250g all-butter puff pastry
8-10 fresh figs, halved lengthways
75g unsalted butter
75g clear honey
juice of half a lemon
1 vanilla pod - or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
a handful of walnuts
Preheat the oven to 200C / 190C fan / Gas mark 6.
Melt the butter and honey in a small (20cm) frying pan. Add the seeds from the vanilla pod - or the vanilla bean paste - to the honey and butter mixture. Cook for about 5 minutes until the mixture begins to caramelise.
Add the lemon juice, then place the halved figs in the pan carefully, cut side down. Cook gently until they are just beginning to soften, then remove from the heat.
If your frying pan is ovenproof then you can continue using it; if, like mine, it isn't, then you will need to carefully transfer the contents of the frying pan to a shallow ovenproof dish; make sure the figs remain cut side down.
Add the walnuts to the mixture in the pan, placing them wherever you have spaces between the figs.
Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface to a circle slightly larger than the diameter of the frying pan or ovenproof dish. Carefully slide the pastry circle over the fig mixture, tucking the edges down inside the pan or dish.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden brown. Allow to stand for 5 minutes before turning out onto a plate, fruit-side up. Serve warm with creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.