serves: makes 2 dozen
Throughout southern Italy, almond-stuffed figs are a traditional holiday treat, made in every household to offer visiting family and friends. Makes sense for a region that historically had little wealth, and where figs and almonds were abundant and always stored for winter use. Figs and almonds are also a naturally delicious pairing, in my opinion. Though it is not fancy, a dried fig with a single toasted almond tucked into it is transformed into a delicious sweet.
In Calabria, though, the preparation of stuffed figs, fichi ripieni, is not always so simple. The region's figs are prized for their excellence, both fresh and dried. And especially in the northern province of Calabria-in the area of Sibari, where figs grow best-they're stuffed in all sorts of ways, with different nuts, spices, sweetenings, cocoa, or candied fruits. All of these flavorful ingredients are mixed together to make the stuffing for fichi ripieni alla Sibarita, figs stuffed Sibari-style, considered one of Calabria's signature dishes. There are many versions of this classic. In most, the figs are baked after stuffing, usually with saba (cooked grape must) or other syrup. Sometimes the figs are then packed in some preserving medium for long storage and more flavor, such as saba, spiced sugar, or sweetened liquor. My version is really a dessert, best served right away. The stuffed figs are baked in a pool of pomegranate and lemon juice, which concentrates in the oven into a luscious thick syrup that I drizzle over the warm figs. It's a great dessert anytime of year, but particularly during the holidays it has the spirit of an old Italian custom.
1 cup pomegranate juice
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
1 cup almonds, chopped and toasted
1 cup toasted walnut halves, chopped
¼ cup honey
⅓ cup cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 pound whole dried figs
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees. Pour the pomegranate juice, lemon juice, and 1/2 cup sugar into the baking dish, and whisk together until the sugar dissolves. For the stuffing, put the chopped nuts in a bowl, pour in the honey, and stir well so all the nuts are coated. Sprinkle on the cocoa powder, cinnamon, cloves and the last tablespoon sugar; stir and toss until thoroughly distributed.
With a sharp knife, slice into each fig from top to bottom-following the line of the stem-splitting it, but leaving the split halves still attached. Fold open each fig like a book, exposing the cut surfaces, and top each half with a spoonful of the nut stuffing. Press the stuffing into the fruit interior, so it sticks and stays, then place the open fig in the baking dish, with the stuffing on top, resting in the juice on the bottom. Stuff all the figs this way, and arrange them in the dish.
Tent the baking dish with a sheet of aluminum foil, arching it so it doesn't touch the stuffing, and pressing it against the sides. Bake the figs for 20 minutes, until the juice is bubbling and the figs are softened, then remove the foil, and bake another 35 to 40 minutes, basting the figs two or three times with the juice until the figd are caramelized and tender and the juice has reduced to a syrup. Let the figs cool in a baking dish for at least 5 minutes before serving warm, or leave them to serve later at room temperature. Put three or four figs for each serving on a plate or in a bowl, and drizzle over them some of the pan syrup. They are delicious served warm over vanilla ice cream.