Monday, October 03, 2011

What is a Fig?

One of the common perils of research on a particular food is that the same name is sometimes used for several different things. Take ‘fig’ for example. It is the edible fruit of the Ficus carica, a delicious and highly prized fruit in both its fresh and dried state, is it not?  It is indeed, but a ‘fig’ in historical works, can also refer to the banana or the cochineal cactus. If that isn’t confusing enough, it can also mean ‘raisin’ – as in the old-fashioned ‘figgy pudding.’ Figgy pudding of course is essentially the same as ‘Plum Pudding’, which also does not contain plums, but raisins.

The confusion does not stop there, unfortunately (but interestingly). Here are two nineteenth century descriptions of ‘fig-cake.’
Fig-cake, a preparation of figs and almonds worked up into a hard paste, and pressed into round cakes like small cheeses.
Fig-cake: a Greek ‘composition of rice, cheese, eggs, and honey. It was wrapped in fig leaves, whence it took its name.’

In a post some long time ago we had Mrs Beeton’s ‘figpudding’ (containing genuine figs’), and a ‘very nice compote’ of stewed figs, so for the recipe of the day I give you a nice fig cake. As is common in old cookery books, the instructions are minimal. It was assumed that the cook would know the ‘usual method’ of combining the ingredients and baking the batter. 

Fig Cake.
A large cup of butter, two and a half of sugar, one of sweet milk, three pints flour with three tea-spoons baking powder, whites of sixteen eggs, a pound and a quarter of figs well floured and cut in strips like citron; no flavouring.
Buckeye Cookery & Practical Housekeeping (1905), by Estelle Woods Wilcox

What I want to know is – what did the cook do with the remaining sixteen egg yolks? Make a lot of custard?

Quotation for the Day.
Here is a rural fellow that will not be denied your Highness' presence: he brings you figs.
William Shakespeare.


Kevin said...

Janet, I do so love your blog. It no doubt helps that I'm a serious food geek. I knew about the "plum" equal "raisen" connection, but had forgotten the "fig" equal "raisen" bit. Thanks for the reminder.

Lizzy (Good Things) said...

Hi, loving your posts, very interesting indeed! Can I subscribe?

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Kevin! I had forgotten it too, until zi re-read a couple of old recipes as i looked for one to include. Tomorrow will be on the cochineal cactus. I hope you keep visiting.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Lizzy! Thanks for your kind words. I will put you on the email list.

Mercy said...

Maybe they were to use them for things like glazing bread loaves?

Piet said...

Wow. All those egg yolks. That could lead to positive lakes of Hollandaise -- not that I'd object!

Les said...

Interesting to see the etymology of 'fig'.

This seems like a very lavish dish with 16 egg whites and figs maybe it's for the holidays so hollandaise or custard would be included on the table.

The Old Foodie said...

Lakes of Hollandaise or Lakes of Custard - either way I would be happy!