My favorite time of year is officially in full-swing. Halloween! I’m not kidding when I say that this is by far my favorite time of year and my favorite holiday. I love all holidays, yes, and Christmas is great. But Halloween is the absolute best. Winter weather is too cold for me, whereas autumn is beautiful. If I can quote myself (from a few years ago):
Ah, Halloween. Best night of the year in my humble opinion. Then again, anytime you can leave your house in New York, see 5 zombies, 4 vampires, 7 witches and a bunch of ghosts, tell your friends about it (while you’re dressed as, say, a prostitute) and not be committed to a mental hospital or drug treatment facility is a good night. But I’m just one of those macabre people who loves classic horror movies, witches, and all things black, so why wouldn’t I love Halloween? And hello? Free candy? Does it get any better? I think the way the weather is and the way the stores and houses are decorated for Halloween should stay that way for always. Its just the best. I mean, Christmas rocks too in its own way, but I hate the cold and the snow, and as a non-religious person I celebrate it as “Santa and reindeer and pretty lights” time, which isn’t anywhere near as fun and wacky as “zombie, witch and vampire” time, but does indeed have its own merit and is admittedly my second favorite holiday. Maybe that’s why I like the movie ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ so much? At any rate, I can rhapsodize about how much I love Halloween all day long but that won’t get the frosting on the cupcake so lets move on.
I can’t help it. I love seeing the monsters & the ghosts, I love the black cats everywhere, I love the colors. I’m kind of a creepy person, too, so the creep factor ups the ante for me. Christmas isn’t creepy, it’s cheery. In the spirit of all things creepy, I made brains in a jar.
Okay, okay. They’re not brains. They’re figs in brandy. But they look like brains, sorta, don’t they?
COME ON. It’s HALLOWEEN. They totally look like shriveled little brains. That makes them perfect for serving at a Halloween party or for bringing to a Halloween party. A grown-up Halloween party, I mean *cough* You know, one of those really adult ones where you all get blindfolded & pass around a bowl of warm cooked spaghetti & say it’s someone’s intestines or something… that kind of really grown-up event. Cocktails & entrails. That’s my kind of event.
The nice thing about this recipe is that it uses dried figs, which here in NY are far easier to find than fresh figs. I understand that the fresh fruit doesn’t ship well, so us here on the East Coast (especially north) have a harder time getting them. But still, I don’t really know why they’re so rare, I see them once, fleetingly, and then they’re gone. Or I see them for a crazy price and I’m all like, “WHAT?” Last year I got lucky & got those fresh figs for an excellent price. This year I’ve only seen small containers of them at Fairway for like $6.00. I don’t want five figs for 6 bucks, dude. Five figs would barely make 2 8-oz. jars of fig jam, if that.
But this recipe was a godsend. I can scoop up all those dried fig packages and use them! The recipe calls for Calimyrna figs.
To fig connoisseurs, Calimyrnas are the ne plus ultra (nee-plus-UL-tra) of figs. Comparing them with other cultivated varieties is like comparing red snapper with swordfish or hamburger with filet mignon. If you don’t particularly like figs, you probably have never tasted a fresh Calimyrna. Since they are extremely perishable, most of the Calimyrna crop is used for dried figs, confectioneries and pastries.
Up until the late 1800s, Calimyrna growers in California were puzzled as to why their trees would not set fruit. It was finally discovered that they needed a tiny female wasp pollinator from Asia Minor (Blastophaga psenes) that lives inside the fruits of pollen-bearing wild figs (called caprifigs). Capri refers to goat and the inedible wild figs were apparently fed to livestock. The tiny wasps are only two millimeters long, small enough to pass through the “eye” of a sewing needle. Wasp-bearing caprifigs are now grown in California, and each summer they are placed in the little brown bags in Calimyrna orchards. This process, called caprification, is vital to the Calimyrna growers.
Calimyrna figs are a high-energy, nutritious fruit, high in vitamins, calcium, phosphorus and iron. They are easily digested and are an excellent source of natural fiber. One large dried fig contains about 65 dietary calories (kilocalories). The California Fig Institute located in Fresno has prepared an extensive list of delectable fig recipes, from fig muffins and cookies to fig puddings and pies.
Calimyrna figs are golden yellow and slightly larger than black mission figs.
While I’m sure Mission figs probably would work the same, they definitely wouldn’t look the same. It would be very dark. I think you could probably substitute Kalimata figs and get a decent brainy-looking jar, though. if the brain angle doesn’t matter, then you can use whatever dried figs you want! And speaking of that… you can call ‘em whatever you want. Drunken Figs, Figs with a Drinking Problem, whatever. But to me they’ll always be ‘Brains in a jar.’
BRAINS IN A JAR (also known as Figs in Brandy, from Saveur)
Makes about 4 pints
- 2 lbs. dried figs (preferably calimyrna), soaked in water and refrigerated overnight
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 1 1/4 cups brandy
- 1 tsp. citric acid
- Drain the figs, then transfer to a 4-quart saucepan and cover with 6 cups water. Bring water to a boil over a high heat and cook for 15 minutes. Add the sugar, stirring with a wooden spoon to combine, and return to a boil; boil for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup brandy. Bring mixture back to a boil, then remove it from the heat and set aside.
- Place four 1-pint canning jars along with their bands and lids in a 6-quart pot of boiling water and leave for 30 seconds. With tongs, transfer the jars, bands, and lids to a kitchen towel on the counter. Let air-dry. When the jars are dry, add 1/4 tsp. citric acid to each. Using a slotted spoon, remove the figs from the saucepan and pack them into the jars. Then pour the brandy syrup over the figs, leaving 1″ of space below the rims of the jars. (Pour in more brandy if the syrup does not reach the top of the figs.) Wipe the rims of the jars with a hot damp towel. Cover and seal each jar with a lid and screw the bands on.
- Place the jars in a large pot fitted with a rack; pour in enough water to cover the jars by at least 3″. Bring to a boil over high heat; boil for 20 minutes. (When using this recipe at altitudes of 1,001 to 6,000 feet, add 20 more minutes of processing time; above 6,000 feet, add another 5 minutes.) Turn off the heat; let sit for 5 minutes. Transfer jars to a kitchen towel and let cool for 6 hours. Check the seals and store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year. Refrigerate after opening.
I used Paul Masson brandy because it’s affordable and not top of the line, yet it has a nice light taste and a good flavor. It’s silly to use top shelf stuff in this- the brandy just ends up absorbing the fig flavor. However by the same token, you don’t want to use a really cheap nasty-tasting brandy either. Remember that while the brandy is sweetened and will take on the figgyness, the figs will also end up taking on the brandy flavor. So don’t completely skimp out but don’t break the bank buying something you can’t afford. Mid-range is always a good bet. Same principle as when choosing the olive oil with the melanzane sott’olio/peppers in oil. Also, you should be able to find citric acid at Walmart (just make sure it’s food grade), but if not you can use lemon juice.
I had leftover brandy-syrup, so I strained it and poured it into an 8-ounce jar and when it cooled, the jar sealed. That would be excellent on ice cream or pound cake. Not sure why I had that much syrup left, I halved the entire recipe. Not that I’m complaining mind you.
And of course, you have to put a label on them, right?
For all my fellow geeks: the fonts used are ‘Monsterfreak‘ and ‘Bat Font‘
The memories of my high school science lab are flooding back. The giant old tables with the black tops. The big cabinets with the glass doors that held microscopes, old books and jars filled with animals & animal parts in formaldehyde. But just like those cabinets, the ideas for Halloween-y canned goods are never ending. Canned whole tomatoes can be labeled as hearts (so can whole strawberries). Pickled wax beans can be fingers or earthworms, pickled grapes can be eyeballs. Blood orange marmalade doesn’t really need a new name, but strawberry jam or cherry preserves can be passed off as “guts.” Sick, right? I bet you’ll never look at those things the same way again!
Use your imagination. That’s exactly what this time of year is all about.