Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fig Jam

Fig Jam

Thinking about the holidays in England tends to make me swoon with false nostalgia for things I either never experienced at all or only saw on TV: cheerful churchyards and stately homes, snow-dusted cobbles and fires in cast-iron grates, pub sing-alongs and Scrooge smothering the Crachits in a group hug. When my imaginings snowball into something so ridiculously perfect that I'm tempted to run for the airport and the first flight to Heathrow, all it takes to bring me back down to earth are two little words: Christmas pudding.

And just like that, a sodden Seattle Christmas starts looking pretty good.

As a picky eater and pretty-much-vegetarian, I've never gotten too excited by the main thrust of holiday meals--but at least on American holidays, dessert saves the day. July 4th means blackberry cobbler, Thanksgiving is classic pumpkin pie, and Christmas, my mom's Frangelico-topped custard. And since I haven't eaten much else, I get usually get more than my share of dessert!

My first Christmas in England, I discovered that the traditional holiday meal is a succession of foods that I have no interest in eating, capped off by a dessert that I don't even like to look at. "Christmas pudding" is a venerable concoction of dried fruits, spices, treacle, alcohol, and suet (that solidfied fat that keeps birds from starving over the winter), steamed or boiled, and served either on fire or dribbled with runny white sauce. I
want to like it--it's archaic and labor-intensive and oddly chewy--but I just don't.

Yet there's something about the short dark days of mid-winter that makes me hunger for the combination of booze, spices, and dried fruit, so I went on the hunt for Christmas pudding's more palatable cousin. On Heidi Swanson's blog,, I found a recipe for "fig butter" borrowed from Kim Boyce's cookbook, Good to the Grain. The original calls for cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and port, but I made the following substitutions, then stuck to the recipe:

scant 1/2 c sugar
12 black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods, bruised
1 c red wine
1/2 cup marsala wine
12 oz dried Black Mission figs, destemmed
4 oz unsalted butter, softened
pinch of salt

The result is like the Christmas pudding of my dreams: rich, earthy fruit given a festive warmth by spices and wine. Straight out of the fridge it's dense and stiff and best eaten by the spoonful; at room temperature it's a toast spread, crepe filling, or a partner for cheese and crackers.

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