(April McGreger photos)I’m embarrassed to admit just how powerful an influence the two enormous fig trees on the property were on the purchase of my new home. Later, when choosing paint colors for the house, my husband, an artist, suggested pulling from other color combinations that capture my imagination. Again, the first thought I had was figs. With color variations in their skins from apple-green to bronze to violet, and their delicate strawberry middles, is there anything more beautiful than a fig?
I am certainly not the first person to derive inspiration from a fig tree. The ancients wrote poetry and sang songs about figs; Buddha attained enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree; and fig trees are one of the first plants mentioned in the Bible, as well as the subject of more than one Biblical parable.
While we have established that figs are my muse as well as the ancients’, I haven’t yet mentioned their exquisite taste. Eating fresh figs is so sensual that it practically makes me blush. It is an experience that I missed out on for most of my life, since I almost always ate them cooked. The juicy, fleshy texture and musky sweetness with hints of grass, vanilla, and honey have been truly a revelation to me in recent years. Likewise, our Southeastern figs are so perishable, and their season so brief, that savoring them at that perfect moment of ripeness feels incredibly fortuitous.
As remarkable as a fresh fig may be, in the South it is the preserved fig that reigns supreme. We do not make fig jam, but instead preserve our small Brown Turkey and Celeste varieties whole in a syrup flavored with paper-thin slices of lemon and ginger. There is no pleasure greater than eating a hot buttermilk biscuit halved, buttered and topped with a perfect syrupy fig, alongside a fresh cup of coffee sitting at the table at your mama’s house.
Now, in my rural Mississippi experience, that is as far as we got with our fig repertoire. We never had more figs than we could use for our single, favorite purpose.
Living here in North Carolina, however, I find myself neighboring the center of the East Coast fig universe. In coastal North and South Carolina, figs are so plentiful that people make fig cobblers and fig ice cream, and have adapted the widespread Southern tradition of jam cake (which my grandmother always made with blackberry preserves) to their prized fig preserves. I am not sure where the fig cake originated, but it is certainly nowhere more popular than on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. There it is made into bundt cakes and more elaborate layer cakes with cream-cheese frosting. If you’re lucky you might even find it sold by the slice on the counter of the local fish market.
On the North Carolina coast, fig trees dot the landscape. Countless beach rentals on Ocracoke Island have a fig tree planted next to the cottage, but the tourists are mostly gone before the figs begin to ripen. (You can add fig season to your list of reasons to wait until August or September to take your Carolina beach vacation.)
Come August, locals round them all up for making enormous quantities of whole fig preserves. Some families make a quart of fig preserves for every week of the year and put them on the table at each meal. Most of the preserves are baked into cakes, eaten on hot biscuits, given away as gifts, and sold to locals and expatriates. By Christmastime, the best ones are gone until the next fig harvest.
I first stumbled onto to the legendary Ocracoke Island Fig Cake in Nancie McDermott’s charming book, Southern Cakes. I highly recommend it to all the bakers out there, particularly if you’re interested in regional cakes with a compelling history in this world of baking anonymity. Below, I have adapted McDermott’s wonderful, decadent cake to something a bit more healthful but just as delicious. I use whole-grain flour, cut back slightly on the amount of oil, double the amount of preserves, and cut out the additional sugar altogether. I also halve the amount of spices called for because I appreciate their subtlety and prefer that the spiciness of the cake doesn’t mask the fig flavor.
In addition, I couldn’t resist following the wisdom of folks on Hatteras Island who, according to Elizabeth Weigand in The Outer Banks Cookbook, put their own twist on the fig cake by adding a shot of whiskey to the batter.
My wholesome version of this storied cake makes a perfect brunch or snack cake. If you’re looking for more decadence, slather it with your favorite cream-cheese frosting like the folks on Ocracoke Island do for special occasions.