the butter lab's fig muffins with hazelnut streusel
One of my earliest food memories is my first fig. I was eight and visiting my family in Chile when my great-grandmother—a woman I never saw without a cigarette or a kitchen apron—handed me a fig from the tree in our backyard. It was magenta inside, a seedy jammy honey-like mess.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to find figs as transcendent as the ones from my childhood. But the thing that people don’t talk about when they talk about figs is how truly disgusting a bad fig can be. Figs have broken my heart again and again. Even fancy ones in peak season on the West Coast are often vegetal and mealy and wormy and taste like nothing, or worse than nothing.
For years I have suppressed the suspicion that you should never bake with figs, no matter how pretty they look on an Ottolenghi dessert. Because whether the fig is good or bad, you lose. A great fig has no business being on a pavlova or anything else; it should be eaten out of hand, with your eyes closed. And a bad fig will taste like garbage no matter what.
For a while, I wanted to believe that fig cakes—simple cakes crowned with figs that caramelize in the oven—would be different. I wanted to believe they could elevate mediocre figs, make them better versions of themselves. After all, why else would recipes for fig cakes be so ubiquitous? So I tried the heavy hitters: Dorie Greenspan’s cornmeal cake with port-poached figs; Vivian Howard’s cornbread coffee cake with figs; and Yotam Ottolenghi’s fig yogurt and almond cake. I really wanted to love each one, especially because they looked so rustically inviting, but I always ended up disappointed. It wasn’t their fault; the cakes just weren’t able to save half-decent figs, and I resented their bases because there was nothing figgy about them.
That’s when I realized that, as lovely as they looked, I needed to abandon the whole fig-suspended-in-cake premise—instead, I needed to make a figgy cake. I needed to toss figs with brown sugar and cinnamon and booze, roast them until tender and fragrant, mash them up, and use them the way I would ripe bananas in banana cake. The first time I tried this, I used a recipe I’d never made before—Alison Roman’s Cocoa Banana Bread—but the chocolate overpowered the fig and made it taste like a Lärabar. It was better in Nigel Slater’s Chocolate Muscovado Banana Cake, my go-to recipe, but the chocolate still bothered me and the cake was still too dense. So I pivoted. To muffins.
When I bake muffins—the classic elegant kind, not the spelt-buckwheat hipster varietal—I rely on the recipes and techniques of Thomas Keller. The person who brought us The French Laundry also happens to make the most hauntingly tender muffins. They’re silky soft and melt in your mouth; refined, but still accessible. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, he uses cake flour in place of all-purpose flour. Cake flour is more finely milled, has a lower protein content, and produces less gluten, which results in a less gummy, lighter, more delicate bake. Second, he gives the batter an overnight rest. This allows the flour to hydrate, i.e., to absorb the liquid in the batter, which produces a phenomenally moist crumb. He also has a trick to get a good muffin dome: he preheats the oven to 425°F and drops it to 325°F after he places the muffins inside. This creates a high dome from the rapid rise during the first few minutes of baking.
His banana muffin recipe is particularly light and fluffy compared to typical banana quick breads and cakes which tend to be heavy and dense. He uses less bananas than most recipes and a pat of crème fraîche to keep things delicate. After my Lärabar trials, I knew this was the path for my boozy, cinnamon-roasted figs. I tweaked a few more things in the original recipe—I substituted almond extract for vanilla extract and hazelnut streusel for walnut streusel—to bring out the flavor of the figs. And it’s a subtle flavor, but somehow that makes it better. I’ve made these twice now, the second time with less roasting liquid which created a better dome (although the pictures here are of the first attempt). No matter, because both were sublime and eerily addictive; each time I ate half a dozen in one sitting. And guess what? I didn’t even use good figs. In fact, they originally tasted a little bit like garbage. So I’ll go ahead and eat my words. As long as I can eat my figgy muffins with them.
the butter lab’s fig muffins with hazelnut streusel
Inspired by the recipe for Banana Muffins in Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel.
Besides the major changes noted above (roasted figs, almond extract, hazelnut streusel), the one thing you should know about the recipe is that it’s originally a bakery recipe. That means that measuring out ingredients works best with a kitchen scale, and if you don’t have one, it’s a big pain. The book kindly provides measurements in cups, but I’m not that kind, mostly because I find measuring out “1 1/4 cup flour, minus 1 tablespoon, plus 1/2 teaspoon” etc. completely infuriating. But if you don’t have a kitchen scale and want those measurements, I’m happy to provide them. Instead, here I’ve used the metric system where it makes sense, and teaspoons/tablespoons where it makes sense (since I’m equally infuriated if I have to weigh out 1/2 gram of baking soda). Either way, the eggs are still a little fussy because depending on your eggs, you’ll need a little less than two. But hey, these muffins are worth it. A note on time: Just a reminder that the batter requires an overnight rest and the streusel needs to be refrigerated for at least two hours. It’s easiest to make everything the day before; this also makes it convenient to bake off muffins the next morning.
Makes 12 standard muffins or 6 jumbo muffins.
1 pint of figs (preferably black mission)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons whiskey or rum
A pinch of kosher salt
168 grams cake flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
120 grams (1 stick, plus a pat) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract
120 grams light brown sugar
80 grams eggs (from 2 eggs, lightly whisked)
24 grams crème fraîche
256 grams roasted figs
50 grams all-purpose flour
50 grams granulated sugar
50 grams (about 1/4 cup) toasted hazelnuts, very finely chopped
A pinch of kosher salt
50 grams cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
Preheat oven to 350°F. Halve or quarter the figs and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle them with the brown sugar, almond extract, cinnamon, and booze. Wrap up the foil into a loose, but secure package, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until soft and very fragrant. When cool, puree in a food processor or blender.
Sift the cake flour into a medium bowl. Add the baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Whisk to combine.
Use a stand mixer (or an electric mixer + large bowl) to cream the butter until it has the consistency of mayonnaise. Add the almond extract and sugar and mix for 1 to 2 minutes, until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl, add the eggs, and mix until just combined.
Add the dry ingredients in 2 additions, mixing on low speed until just combined. Scrape down the bowl, add the crème fraîche and pureed figs, and mix on low speed until just combined. Transfer the batter to a covered container and refrigerate overnight, or for up to 36 hours.
Combine all of the ingredients except the butter. Add the butter and mix with your fingers or a pastry blender until the butter is incorporated, with no large chunks remaining. Transfer the streusel to a covered container or a resealable plastic bag. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 1 month. Use the streusel while it is cold.
ASSEMBLE AND BAKE MUFFINS:
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a muffin pan with muffin liners.
Spoon the batter evenly into the liners, stopping 1/2-inch from the top (64 grams for standard, or 128 grams each for jumbo). Sprinkle the streusel on top of each muffin (2 tablespoons for standard, or 3 tablespoons each for jumbo).
Place the pan in the oven, lower the oven temperature to 325°F, and bake for 24 to 27 minutes for standard size or 35 to 38 minutes for jumbo, until the muffins are golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool completely. The muffins are best the day they are baked, but they can be stored in a covered container at room temperature for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 week.