Although commonly considered a fruit, the fig is actually a cluster of tiny flowers folded within a swollen piece of stem. Figs are a bit like inside-out strawberries. As if their botanical structure isn't unique enough, the manner in which some figs are pollinated is truly remarkable.
A tiny female wasp enters through an opening at the base of each unripe fig, pollinates the flowers within, lays her eggs, and then dies. The inside of the growing fig becomes a safe place for the wasp eggs to hatch -- the young wasps subsequently emerge from the very same hole through which their mother wasp entered -- while the tree benefits from the pollination necessary for production of mature fruits.
Smyrna figs are pollinated in this manner and when the trees were first introduced to California in 1881, growers were puzzled by the lack of edible fruits. It wasn't until 1900, when the accompanying wasp was introduced, that the ripe figs appeared. Typically, a single species of wasp partners with a single species of fig, but not all fig varieties require pollination by wasp. For instance, Mission, Adriatic, and Kadota figs will set fruit without viable seeds inside, though fig experts claim that pollination seems to bring about a superior nutty flavor.
Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco lead the world in fig production. The Ficus carica, or common fig tree, is a native of the Mediterranean region, a relative of the mulberry, and a lover of hot, dry climates. Ninety-eight percent of the U.S. fig crop is grown in California orchards, many of which are located in the areas surrounding Fresno.
Most figs, which are packed with fiber, potassium, and calcium, are dried and preserved as long-keeping sources of nourishment. Fresh figs, however, are a true culinary delight. They have an incredibly short shelf life and can only be savored during the first harvest in early summer and the second harvest in early fall. This second crop is juicier, with plump, dense, honeyed fruits that practically burst from their thin skins. Figs do not improve in flavor or texture once they are picked from the tree, so it's best to eat them as soon as you can. I love them for breakfast.
This recipe can easily be doubled or quadrupled for a large, leisurely weekend brunch. If you broil the figs ahead of time, these pancakes cook up quickly and can also be a satisfying start to any weekday. A small amount of whole wheat flour adds depth of flavor and helps keep the pancakes fluffy and tender, but feel free to try using other flours, in any combination you like.
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup whole-wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup ricotta
1 large egg
1/3 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon melted butter, cooled, plus more for the skillet
Maple syrup, for serving
Trim away the stem end of each fig, then slice the fruits into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and drizzle with honey. Broil for about 5 minutes, or until the honey caramelizes and smells like roasted marshmallow.
In a medium bowl, stir together lemon zest and sugar. Using your fingertips, rub the zest into the sugar until it is moist and fragrant. Add both flours, baking powder, and a pinch of salt.
In a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade, blend ricotta and egg until very smooth. Add milk and melted butter, then blend for a few seconds to incorporate. Pour ricotta mixture into the bowl with the dry ingredients, and stir until just combined. (A few small lumps of flour are OK. It's best not to over-mix the pancake batter.)
Heat a large, heavy, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Swirl a teaspoon or two of butter in the skillet. Working in batches, ladle the pancake batter into the skillet and place several broiled fig rounds on each pancake. Cook for about a minute or until pancake bottom is golden brown, flip, then cook the other side for another minute.
Serve immediately, if possible, with a drizzle of maple syrup. Pancakes can be transferred to a plate and tented with foil to keep warm.
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