Fig and Walnut Biscotti
by Gina Depalma
It is no secret that Mediterranean products are hot these days. Blood oranges, almonds, capers, olives and olive oil, grapes, honey – the list goes on and on. It seems like the foods that are staples in Italian households are in high demand in American specialty markets. While fresh figs remain an elusive and expensive treat in the U.S., I am here to make the case for the next best thing: delicious dried figs. They are quite simply sublime.
I happen to love the rich, honey-sweet flavor of dried figs. In researching the foods of Pantelleria for this month’s article, I was excited to find out that dried figs are one of the main exports of this tiny, volcanic island located off the coast of Sicily. In most regions of Southern Italy, fig trees run rampant. It is not uncommon to pull your car along the side of a road to pick a juicy fig from an offering branch. Figs that are not consumed fresh are dried naturally in the intense heat of the sun, concentrating the natural sugars and intensifying the flavor. If you are lucky enough to track down some dried figs from Sicily you will surely be struck by their size–I have seen them as big as the palm of my hand. Plump and succulent, they are every bit the treat that fresh figs are.
Sicilians have a mammoth sweet tooth, so it is no surprise that their indigenous dried figs pop up in a myriad of recipes. They can be stuffed with fennel seeds, orange zest or nuts and baked with honey, cooked in sweet wine and used in cookie fillings, or cut up and put into cakes and sweet breads. My grandmother used to send us her special baked figs every year like clockwork, a beloved treat to be enjoyed after Sunday dinners. I think most Italian-Americans have a close relationship with dried figs, since fresh figs were undoubtedly one of the things our parents and grandparents longed for when they found themselves so far from sunny their native, sunny Italy.
Figs are a fruit of historical, religious and mythological significance as well. It is said that the Forbidden Fruit offered to Adam by Eve was not an apple, but a fig. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were suckled by the she-wolf under a fig tree, and Siddhartha is said to have experienced the revelations that were to become the foundations of Buddhism while resting beneath a fig tree. The Greek King Mithridates believed figs to be an antidote for all ailments, ordering his physicians to use figs medicinally. Pliny of Rome heralded figs as restorative, urging that they be fed to the weak and sick in order to forge a path to recovery, even touting them as a food to reverse the effects of aging. The original Olympians were crowned with wreaths of fig leaves as well as olives, and feasted on figs in celebration of their victories.
This month, why not celebrate sunny Pantelleria by making my Fig and Walnut Biscotti from The Babbo Cookbook? They are a perfect way to introduce your family to the deeply delicious flavor of dried figs, and making them is a great way to spend a snowy afternoon. I love the touch of cinnamon and the crunch of the walnuts paired with the chewy texture of the dried figs. They are perfect with a steaming cup of tea.
Preheat the oven to 325 F degrees.
Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast for 5 to 7 minutes, or until golden brown and fragrant. Allow the walnuts to cool completely
Place the walnuts and dried figs in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula occasionally. Beat in the vanilla and the orange zest.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. Beat the dry ingredients into the butter mixture to form a somewhat firm dough. Add the walnuts and figs and beat until thoroughly combined. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and chill 35 to 40 minutes or until completely firm.
When the dough has chilled, divide it into XX equal portions. Lightly grease two baking sheets. On a floured board, use your palms to roll each piece of dough into a long the length of the baking sheet. Place the logs on the baking sheets 1 ½ inches apart. Brush each log with the egg white to glaze, then sprinkle with the granulated sugar.