It is almost treachery to cook a perfectly ripe fig. It asks simply to be plated instead with salty cheese and crispy cracker companions, preferably washed down by pét nat in some warm sunshine somewhere near the sea. Blessed with an abundance given to me by a friend, I ate as many as I could muster this way. As they softened, some even made it onto a hot charcoal grill before mounded onto fresh arugula and dressed with a dash of aged balsamic and good olive oil. But once they began to slump and shrivel with ripening, it was time to pull out the preserving pot!
The property where I am lucky to live is overrun with brambles that don't even flinch at the extreme drought of California. There are gallons bubbling away on my counter in a co-ferment with wild plums, a tasty combination of fruit wine that I anticipate drinking fresh and also aging. It is a Sisyphean feat trying to keep up with their ripening cycle, so I hunt only for the plumpest ones hiding in the shade of the old apple orchard.
Although these berries are a little too seedy in jam for my taste, they have an incredibly complex flavor that combines well with other fruits like plums, elderberries, apples, and pears. Once cooked with a bit of sugar and sieved, their syrup makes an excellent base for preserving overripe figs with an extra punch of welcomed acidity. With some lemon juice to ensure proper long-term storage and an earthy note from aged balsamic vinegar, this has become one of my favorite preserves to serve with a light chocolate mousse, on buttered toast, with roast duck, alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or with extra-thick coconut yogurt.
I used a ripe green fig variety but a black, brown, or other common cultivar of fig would work just as well if not better in this recipe. Just make sure to taste the jam as you go, as all fruit will differ in flavor and sweetness depending upon type and growing location. If you do not have access to sour oranges, substitute with a common orange and an extra few tablespoons of lemon juice to achieve the proper acidity for canning. For a more thorough explanation of safety and equipment, instructions can be found in my second book Toast and Jam.
Makes 5 pints:
1400 g fresh or frozen and thawed blackberries
400 g granulated organic cane sugar
1800 g diced ripe figs, stems removed
85 g fresh lemon juice
40 g fresh sour orange juice
3 large fresh or dried bay leaves
3/4 to 1 teaspoon ground green cardamom, to taste
3/4 to 1 teaspoon ground toasted fennel seed, to taste
30 g true 15 year aged balsamic vinegar
1. Place a small plate in the freezer to use as a set test and sterilize your jars, keeping them in a warm oven or hot water bath until ready to use. Position a food mill over a large bowl and set aside.
2. In a large and wide preserving pot, stir together the berries and the sugar. Slowly bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a rolling boil. As the berries soften and cook, use a spoon to skim the surface of foam until the mixture is clarified, about 8 to 10 minutes. (Save and use this foam for smoothies if desired!) Turn off the heat and transfer the cooked berries to the food mill. Sieve the berries until you have about 1100 g of syrup. Compost the seeds.
3. Transfer the syrup back into the pot and add the figs, lemon juice, orange juice, bay leaves, cardamom, and fennel. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Cook for about 25 minutes, skimming away foam as necessary. Be mindful of stirring the pot from the bottom as the preserves thicken to avoid scorching.
4. When the bubbles have slowed and the mixture appears thick, dab about a teaspoon onto the cold plate and return to the freezer for 2 minutes. Remove the plate from the freezer and check for a set by running a finger through the preserves. If the streak remains, the jam is ready to transfer to the sterilized jars. If it pools together, return the plate to the freezer and continue cooking while stirring often, until it tests as set. Add the vinegar and taste, adjusting with more if desired.
5. Remove the bay leaves from the hot preserves and compost. Using a sterilized ladle, transfer the hot preserves to the warm sterilized jars. Position the lids and rings. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Remove from the bath and cool at room temperature. After 24 hours, check the lids for a proper seal and transfer any that did not create a vacuum to the refrigerator. Keep sealed jars for up to 1 year in a cool room temperature location. For a more in-depth explanation of hot water canning, please refer to pages 19 through 23 of Toast and Jam.