Fig trees growing in New York? How is it possible? Read on to find out.
I developed this recipe with my grandfather in mind. When I was growing up, my paternal grandparents lived less than a mile from us. Every Sunday, we would walk to their house for lunch. (Of course in the winter, upstate New York is so brutally cold and snowy that I think we drove then.) But anyhow, my grandma always made pizza and a bread roll stuffed with deli meats and cheeses, and like any other Italian grandmother, she practically force-fed us while we were there.
In the summer months, my grandfather grew huge eggplants, zucchini, and tomatoes in his garden. He was originally from Naples, Italy and had emigrated to the U.S. as a ten-year-old through Ellis Island in New York City. He was always a man of few words but you didn’t have to speak to him to know what his true passions in life were; tending to his garden, watching old Westerns on TV, sitting with his Siamese cat, George on his lap (the cat changed over the years, but the name was always “George”), and eating fruit. I remember my dad telling me about a joke in the family that during my grandfather’s time serving in the South Pacific in World War II, the other men were chasing women while he was climbing trees to get to the fruit.
Fast forward a few decades and my grandparents were living in cold and snowy upstate New York, where he undoubtedly missed the glorious year-round fruit that he enjoyed throughout his childhood in Italy and while serving in the U.S. military as a young adult. It so happened that my uncle traveled to Sicily for work and knowing that my grandfather loved figs, brought him a fig tree back from Sicily. This fig tree was then planted in a huge steel “pot” with wheels on the bottom (this thing was so massive that a “pot” doesn’t seem like a fitting word for it, but for lack of a better word to describe it, I’ll stick to “pot”) that sat at the corner of their driveway year after year. In the winter months, it would be rolled into the garage to protect it from the cold. Once the warm whether hit, this baby was out in the spotlight producing huge green figs that my grandfather loved to snack on.
I still can’t believe that a fig tree survived so many cold winters in N.Y. but I guess it must’ve been a pretty resilient plant. Now that my grandparent’s house is being sold, the plant has found a new home with another family member.
So, in honor for my grandfather’s love of figs and the fig tree that endured all of the unpredictable seasons of New York, I have a recipe combining fig jam, tahini, cream cheese, and a soft cookie crust. These bars kind of evolved as I was making them. I saw their consistency emerge as I added ingredients to my KitchenAid and added a little of this or that as I went along. I love the combination of Mediterranean flavors in these bars like tahini, cardamom, fig jam, and carob molasses (in the brown sugar). I was pleasantly surprised at how well the flavors all complimented one another and came together.
I was initially nervous about how they were going to turn out, but my husband who reluctantly tried a tiny chunk after professing his hatred of fig jam, said that he loved them. We have been eating them for the past few days now and I can also say that they are really delicious. Soft and light with a hint of cardamom and creamy tahini, they are delectable for breakfast, a mid-day snack, or dessert. The best part is that they are absolutely guilt-free, made with fat-free cream cheese and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spread” in the crust. I garnished them with some fresh figs that my dad gave me last weekend, a symbolic continuation of the love for figs that has endured in my family.
Tahini Cream Cheese Bars with Swirled Fig Jam
Makes 12 bars
• 3/4 cup quick oats
• 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup brown sugar, divided (1/2 tbsp. carob molasses + ½ cup white sugar blended in food processor)
• 4-5 tbsp. oil or melted margarine (I like “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” spread)
• 3 tbsp. non-fat Greek yogurt (I used 0% fat Chobani)
• ¼ tsp. baking soda
• ½ tsp. cinnamon
• 1/16 tsp. salt
• seeds from 3-4 green cardamom pods
• 8 oz. room temperature fat-free cream cheese
• ½ cup tahini paste (re-mixed in jar before measuring)
• 2 eggs, room temperature
• 1 tbsp. milk of choice ( I used 1% fat dairy milk)
• 1/4-1/3 cup fig jam to swirl on top (or more if desired)
1. Take eggs and cream cheese out of refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 20-25 minutes. Make brown sugar by combining 1/2 cup white cane sugar with 1/2 tbsp. carob molasses (or another variety of molasses) in a food processor. Grind in food processor until well mixed and uniform, about 2-3 minutes. Separate 1/4 cup of packed brown sugar for crust and remaining (about ¼ cup) brown sugar for the filling. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.
2. Mix flour, quick oats, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, Greek yogurt, and margarine until it forms a firm dough ball. Spread dough and press down evenly into 8×8 inch greased pan. Bake the dough for 10 minutes at 350°F. It should not be browned, but should be puffed up (like the consistency of a cookie crust).
3. In an electric stand mixer, combine 2 eggs, remaining brown sugar, cream cheese, cardamom seeds, ½ cup tahini paste, and 1 tbsp. milk. Mix together until thoroughly combined.
4. Pour cream cheese mixture into 8×8 inch pan over crust. Drop small spoons of fig jam over cream cheese mixture (adjusting according to your taste for fig jam) and make swirls with a butter knife very gently so you don’t disturb crust underneath.
5. Bake at 350° F for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is puffed, set, and firm to the touch. Allow to cool to room temperature, slice, and garnish with fresh figs if desired. Store in refrigerator in well-sealed container.
Note: You can use regular store-bought brown sugar if you don’t want to make your own or don’t have any molasses handy. The crust portion of the bars is not as sweet as a cookie would be. If you want the crust to be sweeter, double the amount of brown sugar to ½ cup for the crust (1/2 tbsp. molasses + ½ cup sugar) and keep the brown sugar to ¼ cup in the filling, but be aware that you might need to increase the oil or margarine by 1-2 tbsp. until the crust mixture forms a firm, spreadable dough.