The deep, nutty flavor of browned butter makes a perfect companion for the fresh figs that are still in season
Growing up, the only time I ate figs was when my father brought home a package of Fig Newtons, his favorite grocery store cookies. Occasionally, he would come home, look at me wordlessly and crinkle the plastic wrap that encased our beloved treat, and I would follow him to the kitchen counter where we would sit, eating row after row of the fig-filled cookies. We were the only ones in the family who enjoyed them.
When I got older, I ate fresh figs on charcuterie boards drizzled with honey and, as a culinary school student, learned to use fig jam to baste crunchy fat bits of pork loin. It wasn’t until I moved to Atlanta, however, that I truly fell in love with figs.
I was working as the general manager of a French-inspired restaurant whose owners also owned a bakery. In the fall, the pastry chef would deliver a decadent fig cake that I couldn’t help but eat by the slice throughout my shift. It was a two-tiered white cake whose layers were separated by a thick spread of fig jam, frosted with off-white buttercream spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.
Sadly, the bakery closed last year and try as I might, I couldn’t find their fig cake recipe. My craving was so intense that I got busy in my kitchen, trying to get as close as possible to the flavors I enjoyed in that cake.
I baked a version with thick glugs of honey and chunky bits of walnuts in it. It was delicious, but not what I was going for. I tried another version with a condensed milk icing that was too sweet and not spiced enough. Then I tried a simple version that had a ridiculous amount of molasses in it; it, too, was a bust.
The version that I’m sharing here was a happy mistake. I’d given up on trying to recreate the fig cake I loved so much when a friend stopped by with a brown paper bag filled to the brim with overly ripe black figs that she’d picked up from her local farmers market but had no idea what to do with. I decided to take half of the figs for jam and the other half to make a skillet cake.
To start with, I decided to use browned butter; I knew its deep, nutty flavor would give the cake some oomph. For the batter, I creamed brown and white sugars and vanilla extract, and added cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, and ground ginger to recreate the flavors I tasted in the original cake. I cut the chubby figs in half and placed them haphazardly in the batter, then put the cake in the oven. When the air in my home started to smell like what I was baking, I knew my experiment was going to be delicious.
I took the cake out of the oven when it was nice and brown, then dusted it lightly with powdered sugar since I didn’t have time to make icing. I cut a nice-sized slice, placed it on a plate, and carried it over to the couch to enjoy. The first taste made me smile. The cake’s crumb was tender and bouncy, while the figs had turned jammy. The browned butter I’d decided to pour into the batter before baking paired perfectly with the spices I included; together, they created flavor notes similar to the ones I loved so much in the fig cake I couldn’t find a recipe for online. Even though what I ended up with wasn’t the exact cake I was looking for, I was happily surprised that experimenting led me to a recipe that I could be proud of.
This cake is best enjoyed warm, although I ate it the next day with a hot cup of coffee and did a happy dance with every bite.
Fresh, almost too-ripe figs are best here; the dried ones have a different flavor and texture that won’t work as well. Additionally, while other fig cakes call for almond or cake flour, I used all-purpose because it’s what I had on hand. I can’t promise that using those flours with this recipe will yield the same result, so I would stick with what’s here.
Browned Butter Skillet Fig Cake
Makes one 10-inch cake
½ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
¾ cup light brown sugar (150 grams), plus additional for sprinkling before baking
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
1 ½ cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground clove
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 cup heavy whipping cream
12 to 15 ripe figs, sliced in half lengthwise
Powdered sugar for dusting, optional
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Step 2: Grab a 10-inch cast-iron skillet and place it over medium heat. Add the butter and cook until it begins to brown and smell nutty, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring to scrape the bottom with a rubber spatula (you’ll want to stir constantly once the solids begin to brown). Once the butter is browned, transfer it to a small heatproof bowl (so that it doesn’t continue to cook) and place to the side to cool.
Step 3: Using a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the sugars, vanilla extract, and eggs. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, spices, and salt.
Step 4: Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix everything together until the batter resembles a thick cookie dough.
Step 5: Pour in heavy whipping cream and continue to mix until the batter is smooth.
Step 6: Add the browned butter to the batter in tiny pours, stirring after each addition. This will help to ensure that the hot butter doesn’t cook the eggs in the cake batter.
Step 7: Once everything is well-combined, pour the batter into the skillet and top with figs. The batter will rise around them, so there’s no need to press them down. Sprinkle the top with a little bit of brown sugar and place in the oven.
Step 8: Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool for at least 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Top with a dusting of powdered sugar if using.
Ryan Shepard is an Atlanta-based food and spirits writer. She loves Mexican food, bourbon, and New Orleans.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep