Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Savannah Fig Cake

Spending time at my parents' house in the Bay Area means lots of things: fabulous weather, beautiful surroundings, and great company on the one hand; on the other, a big garage for Sami to tinker in (he's spent the week under his VW bus) and a big kitchen for me to cook and bake in. Fortunately, Dad and Sharmyn don't seem to mind my messes too much, especially when they turn out to be delicious. Like this cake, surprisingly enough.

This cake had some serious strikes against it. For one, the recipe calls for a can of figs in syrup. I suppose I could have driven all around town looking for those Oregon cans, but instead, when Safeway didn't have them, I dropped a wad on a 12-ounce package of fresh figs and decided I would poach them (about 3 cups of water, 1/2 cup sugar, a used vanilla bean, simmer for about 15 minutes). Since the figs weren't uniformly ripe, this meant a bit more texture than the original recipe had.

Once I had the figs done, the cake was a breeze: it's a pretty standard quick cake recipe involving oil (like a carrot or applesauce cake). I used half melted butter because I don't really like the texture of cakes with oil, but the oil keeps the cake moist longer.

You have nuts on the outside of the cake...

...and plenty on the inside as well. Another great thing about being in California: lots of nuts available. At least there are in the freezer here.

So the cake was a breeze, even with the little fig hiccup. The frosting, however, was a bit of a challenge. It requires a candy thermometer because the mixture needs to be taken to exactly 238, and Maida takes pains to note that there's no other way to gauge the proper temperature. Unfortunately, this thermometer, new as it was, does not show fine enough gradations for me to be able to see 238. This was a problem. Bottom line: don't buy this thermometer. Shell out for a good one.

The frosting is a bit odd in several ways: it involves buttermilk and baking soda, so it's very frothy.

Sorry about the overexposed night shots of the frosting. I wanted to get this cake frosted so we could have dessert. So these are the ingredients awaiting their stove time.

About 5 minutes in, the mixture is bubbling quite steadily. But it's not nearly close to temperature.
I should have taken the frosting off the heat BEFORE I took this picture: the frosting overcooked. We called it "hard-ball frosting", and you'll see in the first picture that it's lumpy and hard and funny-looking. So if you attempt this frosting, I highly recommend an accurate, easy-to-read thermometer, and I recommend taking it off the heat just before it actually reaches 238.
After you read all this, you may be wondering, "Should I bother making this cake?" I would say yes, if you like a spicy, moist fruit cake and a yummy caramel icing. It keeps forever even just sitting out on the counter, which it is right now. You just need to hunt down a can of figs and a candy thermometer.
Here's the recipe. Please report in if you have better luck than I did!

Savannah Fig Cake

1 17-oz. can kadota figs in syrup
2 c. (7 oz.) walnuts
2 c. (8 oz.) sifted flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. allspice
3 large eggs
1 t. vanilla
1 c. (8 oz.) buttermilk
1 c. (8 oz.) neutral oil
1 c. (7 oz.) sugar
1/2 c. (3.5 oz.) brown sugar

Put the figs in a strainer to drain--you won't need the syrup.
Heat the oven to 350. Butter a bundt pan that holds 11 cups. Grind very fine 3/4 c. (2.6 oz.) of the walnuts; use those to coat the buttered pan. Leave any extra nuts in the bottom of the pan. Chop the remaining walnuts coarsely and set aside.
Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and allspice. In the large bowl of an electric mixer (or in a bowl with a whisk), beat the eggs to mix, and then beat in the vanilla, buttermilk, oil, and sugars until well mixed. On low speed add the dry ingredients just until mixed.
Use a knife or scissors to cut the figs into quarters; add them and the remaining walnuts to the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then unmold and cool completely. That was the easy part. Now you'll need to make the icing.

1/2 c. (4 oz.) buttermilk
1 c. (7 oz.) sugar
3/4 c. (6 oz.) butter
1/2 t. baking soda
1 T. light corn syrup
1 t. vanilla

Get out a heavy 2-quart saucepan and butter the sides. Now put the buttermilk, sugar, butter, baking soda, and corn syrup in that pan. Set it over medium-low heat and stir it occasionally with a wooden spoon (brushing off any crystals that form with a wet brush). When it comes to a boil, turn down the heat to low, put in your candy thermometer, and be prepared to be very patient, stirring the mixture occasionally. The mixture will first foam up a lot but will then settle down. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally until the thermometer reaches 238 (after 220, it will turn brown; just keep stirring and be patient). While you're waiting, get out a small to medium-sized bowl, a larger bowl filled with ice and water, and a hand mixer.
As soon as the mixture reaches 238, pour it into the smaller bowl and add the vanilla. Put the bowl inside the larger bowl filled with ice and water and use the hand mixer to beat the mixture at high speed for several minutes until it gets thicker and lighter in color. For me this just took a minute, but my frosting was also overcooked.
Very slowly and evenly pour the icing over the cake--don't let it run off the sides of the cake and onto the plate. Enjoy with perhaps a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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