When I don’t write here for a long time, the entries begin to take on increasingly daunting proportions. I spend weeks mulling over a particular angle, or trying to find the right turn of phrase, when probably, all along, what I really need to do is to just sit down and try to write. There is never a correct angle, or a precise turn of phrase, that comes from time spent dwelling on the immensity of the task—tell that to my self of three weeks ago.
I have tried, even, in the past few weeks, to read about writing as a way to break through all this. I didn’t find this entirely helpful (although, here I am), but I did come across some really good writing—Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” for example, and the essay that follows “On Self-Respect” in the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is hard to describe what it feels like to read something in the precise moment that you need to read it, when some sort of inner adjustment is taking place—an adjustment that, barely perceptible, will be carrying you through to the next stage—but these essays had that mysterious and profound effect on me.
I identified with the early “presentiment of loss” that Didion describes as afflicting “keepers of private notebooks”; with the desire to—in contrast to recording factual events—“remember what it was to be me” at a particular time and place, during a particular stage. Didion writes about how this has the effect of creating “lies”—the writing often having little resemblance to the actual events that are described, dealing instead with how something “felt” to the author.
I wish I had written down, as a sort of “fact,” what I was feeling on July 12, 2006, when rockets were being exchanged across the Israel-Lebanon border, and I was hearing news of it only very peripherally. I do remember standing on the deck of my small house in upstate New York, wondering what it meant for our family vacation to Lebanon, scheduled to begin in just a couple short weeks. I remember the light being very bright and dappled on that particular day. I was pacing, I think, as I talked on the phone; I may have leaned against the banister occasionally, looking down to the grass below.
We had planned the trip to Lebanon for the month of August, for one simple reason: August is when the figs would be at their prime. We considered July, tossing around the various possibilities, but we always returned to August because of the figs. This was how we narrowly missed dramatic U.S.-military-led evacuations (to say the least) during a five-week war that killed thousands and paralyzed the country’s air and ground transportation. My father told me, when I visited Lebanon in 2009, that all of the bridges in the country had been bombed during this war. I don’t know how accurate this is, but the metaphoric weight of the idea—of all of the bridges in ruins—stuck with me.
Hence, any writing or thinking about figs, any fig consumption thereafter, conjures recollection of this moment—what turned out to be a harried several weeks wrought with fear and concern, but not physical danger—the “what it was to be me” in the form of smell, touch, and taste, but not words. How to get from there—from the fruit itself, to the baked good, to the memory of what it was to stand on the deck that day, in the harsh dappled light—to the here and now of writing about this fig galette is not, I would say, a straightforward endeavor.
This isn’t the only reason I am writing about it now though, either. I am writing about this fig galette because it is beautiful and because I love figs. I love them, perhaps, even more now than I did then. I sometimes joke that figs saved my life—dramatic, of course, but not entirely inaccurate.
The thing about this fig galette—from a strictly food-appreciation point-of-view—is that it marries the sweet earthiness of figs with the most tender pastry crust that, quite possibly, the world has ever known. When the figs bake, they ooze, creating a glistening jam that pools between fruit and crust with every bite—it’s like the freshly baked version of slathering fig jam on a flaky croissant (a really good idea, by the way). The other thing about this galette is that when you arrange those concentric circles of quartered figs, the whole thing feels incredibly satisfying to make. I’ve seen versions of this dotted with raspberries. Other than possibly making that small addition, I really wouldn’t alter it in any way.
The best way to eat figs though, still, is probably just as they are—as we did the first time I visited Lebanon—by the bushelful, rinsed under cold water from the sink, with a few drops still clinging to their dusty skins.
Adapted from Tartine
Makes one large, free-form galette (roughly 10 inches in diameter)
Notes: This galette recipe provides a very basic template from which countless variations can be made. I recently made a nectarine-raspberry version, and I have also fantasized about a chocolate-cherry galette encased in an almond-flecked pastry. The recipe for the pastry dough can easily be doubled to make two large galettes (from which two different fruit combinations could be achieved), or a number of smaller ones.
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons very cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup plus 2 1/2 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter
2 pints figs, stemmed and quartered
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon cream or milk
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling
To make the dough:
Stir together the salt and the water in a liquid measuring cup until the salt has dissolved. Place the mixture in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Measure the flour and put it into a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes, roughly 1 inch each in size, and scatter them over the surface of the flour. Using a pastry cutter, work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles course crumbs and some of the butter pieces are still visible (they should remain in pea-sized chunks, which will give the final pastry its flakiness).
Drizzle the water mixture over the flour and toss it together gently with a fork. Drizzle in more water as needed, until the dough begins to come together. As it gets close to forming a mass, work it gently and quickly with your hands to form a loose ball shape. Turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface, and shape the dough into a 1-inch thick disc. Wrap it tightly and refrigerate for 2 hours, or overnight.
To assemble the galette:
About 15 minutes before the dough is ready to use, wash, stem, and quarter the figs. Set them aside in a large bowl, or on a plate, being careful not to bruise them.
Roll out the dough on a lightly-floured surface to form a large disc, about 15 inches in diameter and slightly thicker than 1/8 of an inch. Fold the dough in half and then in half again, and transfer it to a baking sheet lined with parchment. Unfold the dough to return it to its circular shape.
Leaving an approximately 3-inch border all around, begin arranging the figs starting from the outside of the galette, working your way toward the center. Arrange the figs in slightly overlapping concentric circles.
In a small dish, mix together the brown and granulated sugars, and then sprinkle this over the top of the arranged figs. If your figs are very sweet and ripe, you may cut the sugar back by a little. Conversely, if they are not very sweet, you may up the sugar amount by a tablespoon.
Fold over the sides of the galette, overlapping the fruit with the crust. Transfer the galette to the refrigerator to chill for 15 minutes.
While the galette is chilling, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Right before the galette goes into the oven, whisk together the egg yolk and the cream (or milk), and then brush it over the crust. Sprinkle the crust generously with turbinado sugar. Bake the galette for 50–60 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the juices from the fruit are bubbling.
Let the galette rest for 15 minutes, and then serve it warm, as it is, or with a little loosely whipped cream. It is best consumed the same day.