For the Love of Figs

Decadent lavender-infused panna cotta with candied figlets.
A tale of fanciful affection and the imagined pleasures of a yet-to-be realized summer spent in Piedmont, Italy.

Opening our back door, we are struck yet again by how perfectly the sun-kissed aroma of ripening figs embodies the essence of late summer.

There is a small fig tree tucked in a corner of our tiny backyard. Surrounded by clumps French lavender, wild-sown lemon balm and anise hyssop, every August this little treasure graces us with juicy, gem-like figs. With this image in mind, we simmered together Italian sweet vermouth, light brown sugar, and dried lavender until syrupy. The syrup was then strained, poured over quartered Mission figlets, and cooled. A luscious panna cotta infused with dried lavender, lemon balm, and anise hyssop from last summer's harvest provides a silky pillow for the glistening candied figlets and toasted almonds.

The occasion? A sumptuous celebration of our summer garden, just for one.

Lavender Panna Cotta with Candied Figlets.
Passage and photo originally submitted March 9, 2012 to the Valley Fig Growers “Fabulous Fig Photo Contest”.

Surrounded on three side by the Alps, Piedmont, Italy is a picture book full of glittering lakes, lush plains, and verdant hillsides dotted with ancient villas and medieval castles. Glorious vistas await eager photographers at every bend, yet these naturalistic sites are but one attraction, for farmsteads, vineyards, and herds of magnificent dairy cows serve as reminders that Piedmont is also a land of culinary excellence.

Panna cotta — translated literally as “cooked cream” — is a Piedmontese specialty. A marvelously simple chilled cream dessert, panna cotta is the perfect dairy backdrop to showcase the region’s local produce.

In the summer months, cooks in Piedmont serve panna cotta topped with the season’s freshest fruit. In winter, panna cotta is dressed with dried fruit, nuts, and either saba (a rustic sweetener made from boiled juice of fresh-pressed wine grapes), or vincotto (a thick, sweet syrup made from slow-simmered unfermented grape must).

Piedmont is also the birthplace of vermouth. Carpano Antica Formula, a sweet vermouth which hails from Turin (the Piedmont capital), is reminiscent in complexity of both saba and vincotto. Rich, herbal, and pleasingly bitter, this lovely vermouth has notes of fig, cherry, orange peel, and warm spices. (If you haven’t tried Carpano Antica yet, please do.)

Reduce Carpano Antica with sugar and dried lavender, and the flavor becomes less herbal and more fruit forward. Steeping dried mission figs in that warm vermouth syrup elevates the fig’s characteristic musky vanilla honey flavor to one of fruity sweet butterscotch. When paired with toasted almonds and a soft, floral-infused panna cotta, the effect is as seductive as a summer evening in Italy. Che fico!

Lavender Panna Cotta with Candied Figlets

Serves 4
Lavender Panna Cotta with Candied Figlets
Panna cotta (sometimes “pannacotta”) is a very easy dessert with lots of flexibility. Our recipe unmolds with a very soft finish: for a dramatic tower of creamy goodness, increase the gelatin to 2 1/2 teaspoons (one powdered gelatin packet).
  • 8 ounces (one bag) Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice Mission Figs
  • 1/2 cup Carpano Antica Formula (Italian sweet vermouth)
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried lavender
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried lemon balm leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried anise hyssop blossoms
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 1/4 cup toasted almond slivers, for serving
Quarter mission figlets and place in a small nonreactive bowl; set aside.

In a small saucepan over low heat, simmer vermouth, brown sugar, and lavender for 20 minutes, or until reduced by half. Pour reduction through a fine-mesh sieve over the figlets. Cover with plastic wrap, and let cool to room temperature. (Candied figlets can be held at room temperature while panna cotta chills.)

In a medium saucepan, stir together the heavy cream, sugar, and dried herbs. Bring the mixture just to a simmer over moderate heat. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, sprinkle powdered gelatin over the water; let stand for 5 minutes to soften.

Uncover the cream mixture and bring just to a simmer over moderately high heat. Remove from heat, add the gelatin mixture and stir until dissolved. Stir in the crème fraîche.

Using a fine-mesh sieve, pour the mixture into four 6 ounce ramekins or custard cups, dividing it evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, run a small knife blade around the inside of each ramekin to loosen the panna cotta, then invert each ramekin onto a dessert plate. Spoon the candied figlets and syrup around the panna cotta, and sprinkle with toasted almonds. Serve immediately.

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