Last month I met Stephanie McClenny, founder and creator of Confituras, at a class she taught on preserving peaches. Stephanie is the creative force behind the stunning array of jams, preserves, chutneys, and pickled fruits on offer at Austin’s farmers’ markets and specialty food stores. She uses only the freshest local fruits in her confitures, and the flavors are both traditional and unique.
As excited as I was to attend the peach class, I mentioned how sorry I was to have missed her earlier class on figs since I’ve always wanted to learn how to make fig jam or preserves similar to the ones my grandmother made from the figs that grew in her yard in Galveston. A few days later Stephanie turned me onto her upcoming class in concert with Jackie Letelier of Pâté Letelier, focusing on fig preserves and chicken liver pâté. I was sold in a minute. The results of our class were delectable–Paul and I ate them up in just a few days–and I reminisced about the homestyle versions of those foods made by my grandmother.
My Jewish grandmother, Gertrude Plantowsky, was a great cook, and her fridge was always stocked with schmaltz. Despite her kitchen aplomb, she wasn’t a patient teacher, so assisting her was a rare opportunity and I never really had a chance to learn some of her most special recipes. Despite being raised in a kosher home, one of her best dishes was crab and shrimp gumbo. At some point the Gulf seafood trumped her traditional upbringing.
Two others that were special and delicious were her chopped liver and her preserved figs. I did help out with the chopped liver once: my job was to grind the cooked livers and onion through her table-mounted meat grinder and it seemed like it took ages. But I never did get an insight into how she made her figs. I have trouble remembering exactly how they tasted, but my vague recollection is of figs preserved in syrup with lemon. I think they were sliced, or maybe halved. They were sort of jelly-like so you could spread them on toasted challah, but they weren’t chunky and seedy like preserves. One day I hope to figure them out.
Last weekend I tried, using the preserving experience from Stephanie’s peach class and the details I learned about figs from the pâté and preserves class, and set to work in the kitchen to preserve about two-and-a-half pounds of figs in syrup scented with lemon, cinnamon, and cardamom. The result was six half-pints of beautiful figs, and even though they aren’t quite like Gert’s, they are delicious.