A few summers ago when I was visiting Mexico City, my suegra and I went to the Mercado Coyoacán to pick up some handmade tortillas and oranges for making fresh-squeezed juice. As always, we strolled through the market at a leisurely pace, taking in all the sights and smells of all of our favorite stalls.
One of her favorite stalls, run by a wrinkled old lady, had an abundance of just-picked figs. The viejita stood in the middle of the aisle with her hands cupped, filled with figs as she cried, “Higos! Higos!”
We stopped to say hello to the woman and she cut open a fig to show me the inside. It was perfectly pink. She must’ve seen the look of excitement on my face because she stuffed two figs in my hand and said they were a gift to enjoy. She gave my suegra a few as well and after thanking her profusely and buying a few oranges, we were on our way.
I don’t recall seeing fresh figs in the grocery store while I was growing up – and I’m not sure if that’s the reason why they fascinate me so much now, as if I have a lot of catching up to do or if, like many things, I’ve just gained a new appreciation for them while in Mexico. Figs have been growing in Mexico for centuries; the Spaniards are credited for bringing them to the New World in the 1500s.
If you pay attention to the produce in the grocery store or at your local farmer’s market, you may have noticed figs are in season right now. Recently, my friend Gina who lives in Los Angeles mentioned that she had an over-producing fig tree. Jokingly, I told her if she wanted to get rid of some of her extra figs, she could send them to me and I’d put them to good use. After a few emails, the figs were on their way to Chicago. They arrived perfectly bubble wrapped in a box and as Gina had picked the figs before they were ripe so they’d survive being shipped cross-country, they were just starting to ripen.
The sweet, earthy scent that perfumed my kitchen when I gently unraveled the bubble wrap was simply intoxicating. I washed the figs in cool water and as I dried them I started thinking about what I’d do with nearly five pounds of fruit. After eating a number of them just sliced and sprinkled with a little brown sugar or with plain yogurt, I finally decided to make my own mermelada, or jam.
Gina used some of her figs to make jam with her nietos a few weeks ago and her recipe reminded me of one that I recently saw in a Mexican cookbook with a section on pastry-making, pan dulce and other delectable sweets. I knew I had seen the book at my favorite bookstore in Mexico City, but I couldn’t remember the name of it. I did, however, remember some of the technique to infuse chiles in jams and jellies. This recipe is my version of mermelada de higo using the infusion technique that I remember from the book.
I chose to infuse the jam with chile ancho (dried poblano chile) for its mild heat and earthy flavor to complement the fig’s earthiness, and chile pulla (which is like a smaller, more potent guajillo chile) for its sharp fruit tones and moderate heat.
This mermelada is multi-purpose: it’s great for spreading on a hearty piece of toast or on crackers with cheese, in yogurt for breakfast or a snack, heated and spooned over vanilla ice cream or inside pastry crust for a buttery, flaky and spicy but sweet treat.
Mermelada de higo con chile
- 1.5 pounds fresh black mission figs, finely chopped
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups granulated cane sugar
- 2 sticks of Mexican cinnamon
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
For spice bag:
- 1 chile ancho, rehydrated and slit lengthwise on one side
- 2 chile pulla (sometimes also spelled “chile puya”)
If desired for additional spice:
- 1 chile ancho
- 1 chile pulla
- fine mesh strainer
In a small saucepan, add cinnamon sticks to water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and whisk or stir in sugar until dissolved. Add apple cider vinegar and allow the mixture to simmer for 5-8 minutes to steep the cinnamon.
In a glass dish, rehydrate the chiles in warm (but not hot) water for 5 minutes. Let them soak while you finely chop the figs.
Once the figs are chopped, place them in a deep saucepan. Using a fine mesh strainer to prevent any broken shards from the cinnamon sticks from getting into the jam, pour the syrup mixture through the strainer, over the figs. Reserve the cinnamon sticks in the strainer. Bring figs and syrup to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
Lay the cheesecloth over a bowl and add the reserved cinnamon sticks and the rehydrated chiles. Cut one lengthwise slit in the chile ancho. Tie the cheesecloth shut (you can use kitchen twine if necessary) and submerge in the saucepan with the figs and syrup. Allow to simmer for about two hours, stirring periodically, or until the figs and syrup reach a jam-like consistency.
If you’d like the jam to be a bit spicier, add one more chile ancho (do not cut a slit in this one) and one more chile pulla with their stems trimmed, directly into the jam. Remove the extra chiles after one hour.
When the jam has reached the desired consistency, remove the cheesecloth and place it in the mesh strainer above the jam. Press the cheesecloth gently with a wooden spoon to remove any juice inside the bag. The chiles will have not only added spice and heat to the jam, but also a deep reddish-brown color.
Spoon into small glass jelly jars using proper canning technique. I prefer Italian Bormioli Rocco “Quattro Stagioni” 0.15 liter jars for canning jams and salsas because they’re rounded and pleasing to the eye, as well as the perfect size to give as a gift.
Yields three jars of jam.
- What’s your favorite way to eat figs?