John Harland (The Guardian’s head of reporting staff in the mid 1800s when it was a local Manchester paper) wrote a number of histories of Lancashire. According to the 1867 Lancashire Folklore that he co-wrote with T T Wilkinson, pies of dried figs, sugar, treacle and spices “…are, or were at least till recently, eaten in Lancashire on a Sunday in Lent”.
In my hometown of Blackburn the Sunday of fig pie – known there as fag pie – tradition was Mothering Sunday halfway through Lent. Down the road in Burnley they would have their fig pies the Sunday after. Interestingly the rest of the country saved their figgy indulgences until Palm Sunday the week after that.
The figs in those Lancashire fag pies would have been chopped up but I prefer to just cut them in half. Otherwise the end result can be a little bit too much like mincemeat. In this modernised version I give the figs a subtle anise flavour and tie it all together with orange for a zesty kick to cut through the sweetness.
Fig & Orange Tart – serves 6
For the pastry:
220g plain flour
25g ground almonds
50g icing sugar
pinch of salt
grated zest of an orange
150g butter – cold and cut into 2cm squares
1 egg yolk
1tbsp essence of rosewater
For the fig filling:
10 dried figs (or 8 fresh ones)
2 star anise
4 egg yolks
juice of 1 orange
2tbsp essence of rosewater
100g soft unsalted butter
100g caster sugar
25g plain flour
75g ground almonds
2 egg whites
1tbsp icing sugar
The pastry case can be made a day or so ahead of time:
1. Sift into a large bowl the flour, icing sugar, ground almonds and salt. Add in the orange zest (and then keep the orange as you will want its juice for the tart’s filling). Now use your fingertips to rub the butter cubes in until it all becomes like breadcrumbs.
2. Make a little well and into that goes the egg yolk and the rosewater. Bring it together and knead just long enough to form a smooth dough. Shape into a flat round, cover in clingfilm and chill for an hour.
3. Roll the pastry out onto a floured-surface. You need it about 3-4mm thick and big enough to cover the tart tin. By easing one end of it over your rolling pin you should be able to lift the whole piece up and lay it over the tin. Press into the sides but don’t get rid of all the pastry that’s overhanging – pastry tends to shrink as it bakes. Prick the base all over with a fork. Chill again for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180C and put a baking sheet into the oven to get hot.
4. Cover the pastry case with a large piece of baking paper and fill with baking beans or rice. Sit the tart tin on the hot baking sheet and bake for 15 mins; then carefully remove the beans/paper and continue to bake the case for another 5 minutes. Leave to cool down while preparing the filling. Some trimming of the pastry edges can be done now, but you’ll really sort this out properly at the very end.
Making the tart:
Preheat the oven to 180C.
1. Bring some life back to your dried figs by sitting them in warm water for 30 mins with the star anise. If using fresh figs skip this stage.
2. Whisk the egg yolks with the orange juice, zest and the rosewater. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until it becomes smooth and light. This goes into the eggs etc and needs to be whisked until smooth. Sift the flour and ground almonds and mix those in too.
3. In a clean bowl whisk the egg whites until they’re light and stiff. Gently fold the whites into everything else whilst trying to retain as much of their lightness as you can.
4. Pour all of this into the pastry case and level off the top. Dry the figs, de-stalk them and cut in half lengthways. Arrange the figs seed-side-up on top of the tart. Bake for about 35 minutes until set and a lovely golden colour across the top. (If the pastry looks to be getting a bit too done just cover the edges with some foil.)
5. Allow the tart cool in its tin. Now you can trim the pastry to an even, smooth edge. Finish with a dusting of icing sugar raining down from a small sieve.
Serve with cream that has been whipped with a little ground cinnamon; vanilla ice-cream; or – my personal favourite – cinnamon ice-cream. A glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry would go marvellously if stickily well alongside.