Wednesday, October 14, 2009


A Cookbook for Fig Lovers

“The food from the cookbook was absolutely amazing, creative, unexpected and completely unique.” –Kathleen Finch, General Manager, DIY Network, Knoxville, TN

Writing anything is serious work, but when it comes to a cookbook, the only way that anyone could appreciate the work involved is to have written one or be near someone that has. Sherri Parker Lee has learned the truth of this statement with the publication of her brand new cookbook UNDER THE FIG LEAF. Sherri has made Knoxville, Tennessee her home for many years, taught at Webb School for 10 years and is chair of the board for SSC Service Solutions.

Why Figs?
She is a native of the state of Texas, where she has great memories associated with the abundance of figs. To answer the question “Why Figs,” she states, “Simple: Figs trigger sweet memories of conversations around a fig tree on warm summer evenings with my family in Texas, of sitting on the front porch or even on the viaduct as we watched the trains pass by. Ever since those childhood times, I’ve felt fig trees should be the symbol of summer – with leaves so broad and green, and their lush sweet fruit so tasty. My family ate most of what we picked each day, but Grandmother would save some to make great preserves we could enjoy all winter. It’s that simple: figs represent a return to family, home and cherished memories of events and people who have had a profound influence on my life.”

What would I do with so many figs?
At first Ms. Lee had great difficulty in producing a crop of figs in her adopted home in the Southeast, but “Later, when I moved to a new home in Tennessee, I built a tall wall with a southern exposure. The new environment brought success, but also another problem. What would I do with so many figs? I shared them with other fig devotees, but when you have a crop of figs, you have them immediately and abundantly. My challenge was to discover new and delicious ways to enjoy them- a wonderful project.”

Sherri needed help…
Sherri Lee had been collecting fig recipes for years with the notion of someday publishing her own cookbook. Along the way she realized that assembling a collection of recipes was the easy part of a cookbook. Sherri needed help testing, editing and food styling for the photographs. She turned to her friend, noted food stylist and culinary expert, Linda Ullian Schmid. Linda not only has the talent to create beautifully styled food, but also possess an impressive resume that includes marketing, recipe development and head of the cooking school division for Southern Living Magazine. She was also Director of Marketing for the famed Blackberry Farms Inn and has coordinated and developed programs for many other big league corporate clients.

…a figgy fun time it was!
Linda and I met a number of years ago working as food stylists on projects for HGTV and The Food Network. We formed a very complimentary team that continues to this day and this is how Avanti Savoia and I came into the fig picture. Linda invited me to join her in the project and what a figgy fun time it was!

Some of the results were instant hits, others complete losers…
For weeks, Linda and I rendezvoused in Sherri’s well appointed kitchen to test and test and test more fig recipes than any of us can probably remember. Some of the recipes were Sherri’s; some shared by her friends and others were liberal adaptations of classic favorites. Sherri was also extremely receptive to us developing our own specialties, all including figs, of course. Some of the results were instant hits, others complete losers, but onward we marched. We were off to a good start thanks to Sherri’s fresh figs and the good products provided by Avanti Savoia.

...sampling for quality control was de rigueur, of course.
We started at the height of fig season last summer, so as to be able to take advantage of the fresh harvest. We often noted how romantic and picturesque it was to start our work day by wandering through the Lee gardens picking baskets of fresh figs. Immediate sampling for quality control was de rigueur, of course. Sherri’s homemade “fig picker” (created from a worn broom handle, two hose clamps and an eye hook), made reaching the higher branches much easier, as well. Picking fresh figs also involves dodging scores of wasps, which fortunately we were able to do without any stings. Sherri notes that “Most U.S. fig trees have a genetic alteration that allows them to produce figs without pollination. However, the California Calimyrna fig tree requires the fig wasp, a symbiotic egg-laying insect, for pollination.”

Sherri names the Brown Turkey as her choice…
Introduced to America about four hundred years ago, fig cultivation is now widespread in California and the Southern US. There are literally thousands of cultivars and fig aficionados all have their favorites. Sherri names the Brown Turkey as her choice, but she also appreciates several other varieties including Celeste, Negronne, Hardy Chicago, Kadota, LSU Purple, Italian Honey Fig, Black Marseille and Petite Negri.

The Greeks knew what they were talking about.
Figs (Ficus carica) were highly valued by the ancients of the Mediterranean world and in fact one of the earliest plants cultivated by humans. The book notes, “The Greeks… believed figs were a perfect food that ensured good health and they ordered the citizens to eat figs daily. The Greeks knew what they were talking about. Figs are fat-free, sodium-free, cholesterol-free, and high in dietary fiber. Figs are a high-energy, nutritious fruit, rich in vitamins, calcium, phosphorous, and iron. Each fig has twenty to fifty calories, depending on size and type, (they) are easily digested, and contain disease-fighters like antioxidants, polyphenols, and phytosterols.”

…useful information about everything “figgy.”
Sherri Lee’s new cookbook is filled with over 130 recipes, from appetizers to desserts, all based on figs. The gorgeous food photography is by Charles Brooks Photography. In addition to delicious fig recipes (which I can personally recommend), the book also contains useful information about everything “figgy.” Included are facts about fig history, preparation, selection, freezing, drying options, packaging, and storage tips. Of interest to gardeners is a horticultural guide for the cultivation of fig trees.

If you love figs…
Additionally, the book also provides product resources information that includes Avanti Savoia Imports. We feel certain that the excellent quality condiments, extra virgin olive oils, Grissini breadsticks, balsamic vinegars, sea salts, chocolates, honeys, Panettone and other products provided by Avanti Savoia only helped to enhance Sherri Lee’s delicious recipes. We are also most pleased to offer autographed copies of UNDER THE FIG LEAF for sale on the Avanti Savoia website. If you love figs as we do, this is a perfect addition to your culinary library! (LINK) Included here are a couple of fig specialties to prime your appetite for more.


Makes 2 loaves

1 package active dry yeast
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup sugar
1 cup warm water
3 cups bread flour (unbleached white flour)
¼ cup wheat bran
1 ½ sea salt
½ cup figs, coarsely chopped, stems removed
½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)

(1) In a very large bowl combine the yeast, oil, sugar and water. Whisk together and put in a warm place to allow the yeast to activate, about 10 minutes.
(2) When the yeast has become foamy, stir in 1 ½ cups of the flour, the wheat bran and salt. This will form a “sponge.” Set the “sponge” in a warm place, cover with plastic wrap and a damp towel and allow to rise (proof) for 30 minutes.
(3) Stir in the figs, walnuts, orange zest and rosemary. Add the remaining 1 ½ cups flour, plus a little extra if needed to make a smooth dough. The dough should not be too sticky or too dry. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until elastic and smooth, about 3 to 5 minutes.
(4) Return the dough to bowl and lightly oil all surfaces. Cover with plastic wrap and a damp towel, put in a warm place and allow to rise (proof) for 1 hour.
(5) Punch the dough down using flat side of your palm and allow to rise for an additional 30 minutes.
(6) Knead the dough for 1 to 2 minutes and form into 2 loaves (either round or rectangular). Place the on lightly oiled cookie sheet. Using a sharp paring knife, make a few shallow slashes across the tops of the dough, being careful not to cut through the dough.
(7) Put dough in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 30 to 45 minutes.
(8) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
(9) Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Before the loaves get too brown, and when they make a thumping sound when tapped, remove from the oven and brush with the egg wash. Return to the oven and bake until golden, about 5 more minutes.

Serve with:

Classic Fig Honey Butter

1 cup butter, room temperature
!/2 cup dried figs, finely chopped, stems removed
2 teaspoons brandy
2 Tablespoons honey
Pinch of salt

(1) Cream together all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl until creamy and smooth.
(2) Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
(3) If using Fig Honey Butter on bread, pancakes or muffins, it is best to let it sit out on the counter and soften for easier spreadability and better flavor.

Special thanks to Pat, Erin, Ian, Robin and Seth. Bon Appetit fig lovers!