Asking me about my favorite cookbook is like asking me what date of the month it is. There are at least 30 different possibilities. Like many of us, I am a creature of moods, fits and starts; what floats my boat one day, may sink it another, but not because yesterday’s dish was a disaster. More than likely, it was delectable, and I am still licking my chops over it. What by outside appearances seems like caprice is nothing more than an extreme case of curiosity, or a reminder of a recipe that I’d not made in ages and must return to.
This sort of studied randomness serves me in pretty good stead. Faced with infinite choices, honing in on the next taste treat can be easier if lured by someone else’s whim. Food blogs and events are ideal idea farms to guide me to the next great dish.
And that last dish was a dazzler. The last time I had baklava, I think most of the world was still on the Julian calendar. Shockingly sweet, roiling in buttery, syrupy decadence, this classic Middle Eastern pastry was as dull a memory as the toothache I would get from indulging in one too many of them. Destiny, however, was about to take my hand and tug me into the kitchen. I’d not been able to shake the tantalizing, jewel-like images of an adaptation of the traditional recipe, one where the filling is fitted into phyllo dumplings and baked in muffin tins. I was a goner.
I was also without phyllo dough and in the midst of too many other distractions to trot myself to the store. So I brooded for five minutes before I got cracking in my cupboards, desperate, but convinced that somewhere in the dark corners I could find a passable pitch hitter for my pastry. I did.
Dried figs are one of nature’s marvels. They never go bad, but can be reconstituted to a tender and plump facsimile of their former fresh selves. Someday I will bake baklava in muffin tins, and someday I’ll make it as prescribed in my favorite current cookbook, A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. I don’t know if it will be tomorrow, or next week or next season. I just counted my cookbooks. The calendar month really should have 47 days.
Phyllo-Free Baklava Figs (my own recipe) adapted from the traditional Claudia Roden recipe with inspiration from The Budding Cook.
8 dried, large well-shaped figs, such as Turkish or Calimyrna (I used Calimyrna)
2 cups water
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup walnuts
2 tablespoons honey (replace with brown sugar for vegan requirements)
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter (leave out butter for vegan requirements)
2 tablespoons rosewater
2 tablespoons crushed pistachio nuts
In a medium sauce pan, bring the water and cinnamon sticks to a boil. Add figs to pan and simmer until the figs are plump, but not so tender that they fall apart. Remove from heat and allow figs to further soften and cool.
Meantime, grind or crush the walnuts in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Add honey, stirring until a paste forms. Either finely ground or chopped nuts work equally well.
When figs are cool, remove from cinnamon water and set on cutting board. Strain cinnamon water, then return it to saucepan, adding ½ cup sugar and the butter. Bring sugar water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer until the water thickens into syrup.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut only the very stem ends from the figs, discarding the stems. Carefully open and push down on the fig with a fingertip to create a little hollow. Do not press your finger through the fig, breaking the bottom. Fill each fig with the walnut/honey paste and arrange in an oven-proof dish. Pour syrup over figs and around them until they are sitting in syrup 1/3 of their height. Bake for approximately 35 minutes or until figs brown and syrup further thickens.
Remove from oven and allow to cool before carefully lifting each fig from the bottom with a fork onto serving plates. Strain syrup to clear of any nuts or fig seeds, stir in rosewater, then pour over and around the figs. Top each fig with a generous sprinkling of crushed pistachios.
Serves 8. --