Working With What You Have: Freshest Walnuts and Figs

OTHER MOROCCAN MEALS: Merguez and Green Chard Tagine; Fish Tagine with Chourmula, Preserved Lemons, and Mint; Moroccan Bouillabaisse

It’s a pleasure, when traveling, to be able to stay in someone’s home. You see a neighborhood where locals live, which is nice, but most important is that you get to buy food in the market. When I’m staying at hotels, I make a point of visiting local markets, but they are barren excursions. I wander, aimless, wishing I could buy beautiful and exotic ingredients. But there is nothing to do with them in a hotel room. I settle for some street food–crispy flatbreads, little sweets, or juice–take a picture, and move on.

Alex and I made our way through Morocco on a trip that was bookended by time spent with people who lived there–Melodee and Hind. The night we arrived in Rabat, the second-to-last evening of our trip, we were shepherded from the train station to a good, cheap restaurant by these very locals. There, as we ate tagine and pastilla, we learned what was in store for the next night. We were going to be taught to make trid, a chicken dish we’d fallen in love with earlier on the trip. Hind would come to Melodee’s apartment and we’d all cook and eat. Awesome, I thought.
The next afternoon found us buying spices, vegetables, and chicken at the market and wine at the subtle storefront nearby. The fruit at the fruit vendor looked so wonderful, it occurred to me I ought to be a good guest, which for me means making dessert. With the help of Melodee’s Arabic, we bought green figs and fresh walnuts and a couple eggs.

Later, I got to work. The oven, which resembled a toaster, sat on the counter, like the four-burner hotplate. It was hard to figure out how to open the door. It was also hard to find the right pan for the cake in a cupboard stuffed full of couscousieres and clay pots. And it was hard to realize that the only sugar was in cubes. But I did all these things. With the oven turned on, the pan greased, and the sugar ground up with the walnuts in Melodee’s new blender, I was on the right track. I wasn’t sure of proportions and I had no measuring cups, but I was going to make a walnut fig cake.
The next obstacle was the lack of a handheld mixer to beat the egg whites. I actually owned an electric mixer before I owned a whisk, so it took me a moment to realize all was not lost. Especially when I realized that Alex made a great substitute mixer. While I attended to the figs and the rest of the tasks, Alex whipped five egg whites into soft peaks.

I have to admit I was a little tense as I finished the batter and put the cake in to bake. My blogging reputation had preceded me to Morocco, and I knew the cake had better be good. But I’d made it without reference to a recipe, and I had no idea how this weird little oven even worked. When one of Melodee’s roommates came home and said the apartment smelled good, I gave all the credit to the trid that Hind was simultaneously making. (More on the trid soon.)
But call it what you will–some kind of traveler’s luck, perhaps–I beat those obstacles and came out with an excellent cake. The figs perfumed it, the fresh walnuts gave it body, and the little countertop oven-that-could gave it a lovely, crispy top. We ate it for dinner and again the next morning for breakfast before we got ready to make the trip home.
From my kitchen, working with what I find in someone else’s, to yours,


Fig and Walnut Cake
Makes 1 cake, serves 10

1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
pinch salt
1/2 cup flour
6 large fresh figs
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9″ springform cake pan.
Grind the walnuts with the 1 cup sugar. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add the egg yolks and stir to combine. The batter will appear a lot like a paste.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until they hold soft peaks.
Pour about 1/4 of the egg white mixture into the egg yolk-sugar-walnut past. Stir well to combine, loosening up the batter. Now fold in the remaining egg whites in thirds, being careful not to deflate them. Sprinkle the flour across the top and gently fold it in.
Pour the batter into the pan and spread it so it’s even. Arrange the figs, flesh side up, in concentric circles (or in another pretty pattern). Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool slightly before removing the sides of the pan. Cut into wedges and serve.
  • kate

    I am in pecan country now, and I am going to my [insanely nice and awesome] landlord’s for dinner tomorrow night, and my friends have a fig tree! So, would this work with pecans instead of walnuts? And, even though I do have a whisk for the eggs, I don’t have a grinder of any sorts, what should I do to get the pecans down to the right consistency? Can’t wait to try it!

    • BGSK

      Just chop and chop and chop! Get the pecans as fine as possible. Your
      cake may be a bit more rustic, but it’ll still taste delicious. Let us
      know how it turns out!

      • kate

        Even with my pecan substitution and just chopping things up as finely as possible, this cake was such a hit! I brought it to my landlords for dinner, and it was gobbled right up. People even asked me for the recipe! Thanks!!

        • BGSK

          thrilled it worked out and can’t wait to try it with pecans!

  • Joanna

    Can’t wait till summer here in Oz, figs are a little while away yet:)
    Looks scrumptious!

  • Fresh Greens

    I fixed this wonderful cake as dessert for our Thanksgiving Feast. I used dried Calmyrna figs, which I reconstituted, for the fruit. They were very tasty if not a little chewy. One guest is lactose-intolerant, and another doesn’t eat sugar normally. Everyone enjoyed the light, sweet texture and excellent flavor. I will make this cake again, perhaps using a different nut and different fruit.

Need more desserts? A Baker's Dairy-Free Dozen.

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