There’s nothing like a big box of presents coming from a foreign land to catapult two little girl’s excitement for Christmas to a much higher level. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite a foreign land but 55 years ago Puerto Rico was far away and exotic. Mama’s family was old-world and traditional. That meant sweet treats, heavy books and gifts from Spain. And although the presents could not and would not be opened until Christmas morning, Mama always zeroed in on one particular box. Cutting through the tape and ribbon, she would carefully smooth the festive paper, setting it aside to be reused some other time. And as older sister, Cynthia, and I watched with huge eyes, Mama would unwrap the thin, rectangular box deliberately but with enjoyment. We all knew what was waiting within. I ran to get Daddy’s one tool, a wooden handled hammer. Slowly Mama pulled out a buff colored block of Spanish “Turron” or nougat, studded with savory roasted almonds sweeping in shades from fawn to cafe au lait and swathed between two thin sheets of rice paper. As if she’d been doing it all her life, Mama took that hammer and wailed on the confection until a fat, chunky corner came off. Away Cynthia went with her little piece of paradise. Bang, bang, bang and it was my turn to savor the Turron. A few more whacks and Mama had her piece. We had albums of Spanish Christmas carols playing on the record player, a magnificent, artisan made manger and massive family bible, all presents from her father and all from Spain. Other than that our lives were understated and straightforward. These were simple times when extravagance was frowned upon. These were times when hours were spent in front of the Christmas tree practicing handwriting for our letters to Santa. We always had a real tree but some years it was the size of a shrub as that was all my parents could afford. Times when money was so tight Mama put our presents on layaway at Woolworth’s, the local five-and-dime store and we received one present apiece. That was a wonderful Christmas, its essence captured below in that old black and white photo. We felt an abundance of riches with our gift Mama had scrimped and saved to give her girls.
These were times when a holiday outing was savoring the manger scene at our church after Mass. A complete farm was displayed with donkeys, sheep and cows frozen in an Italianate style behind baby Jesus’ cradle. Straw stuck out from every corner as the magnificently beautiful Virgin Mary gazed down with such immense love at her chubby, new-born toddler, golden curls shining in the candlelight; the angel of the Lord above the crèche announcing to all His birth. It was heavenly to us, full of wonder and captivating our complete attention until Mama said it was time to leave. Mama didn’t know how to cook so there was no such thing as baking Christmas cookies or cakes. No. We used our imaginations that Mama had so carefully cultivated to wile away the hours. Our dollies danced ballet to the Spanish carols. We unwrapped and wrapped the presents we had made in school for our parents…really they were for Mama. I still have the hand print I made for her in first grade hanging in my kitchen. I remember fretting and being worried sick that it would break after some classmate spread the vicious rumor that many pieces of pottery explode when fired in a kiln and I would be left with nothing to offer. And we had the big box that came every year from her family in Puerto Rico making certain we knew our Spanish customs. Making certain Mama didn’t feel alone in this town of Yankees. And making certain that until Daddy’s business had taken off we would all have a generous, plentiful Christmas.
This is one of those great recipes that takes two minutes and you walk away. I initially purchased dried figs from the bulk section of my Whole Food store. Before I began snipping off the stems, I ate one of the figs and, boy, am I glad I did. Hard and tough was what I spat out. I purchased another pound from my neighborhood Publix. They were packed in 9-ounce, air-tight plastic boxes and worked out great. These figs had been dried yet were still soft and moist. Most recipes call for the ever pricey Marcona almonds from Spain. Once again, glad I tasted the batch I bought. I paid way too much to bring home this stale and salty mess. Again Publix came to the rescue with a 7-ounce plastic box. They had their skins on but here’s how to get those skins off lickety-split. Place the amount of almonds you will be using in a small bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover completely. 20 minutes to 30 minutes later, squeeze one almond at a time and the skin will slip right off. Takes two seconds. Here’s the most important part of this recipe. This cake is good as is but served with cheese, preferably Manchego cheese, it will transform your taste buds. Somehow the Manchego brings out a deep floral flavor from the figs. The cloves and cinnamon disappear yet their earthy tones let you know they’re doing their part. Served with hard salami, thick, crisp Cuban crackers, some nuts and a bit of fruit your guests will be amazed. The cake does taste richer if allowed to sit 2-3 days before serving but it’s still pretty terrific served the same day it’s prepared. I hope you enjoy this Christmas treat!
Spanish Fig and Almond Cake or Pan de Higo
- 1 pound dried black Mission figs
- 1/2 cup skinless, whole almonds
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 4 tablespoons brandy
- Snip the tough stem off the figs and place the figs in a food processor, processing until almost smooth. You want a little texture.
- Transfer the fig paste to a medium bowl and add the almonds, mixing well.
- Add the sesame seeds, cinnamon and cloves evenly over the fig mixture and mix well.
- Add the brandy and mix until all ingredients have been thoroughly combined.
- Line a small pan with plastic wrap. I used a small, fluted cake pan that holds about 2 1/3 cups. Transfer fig mixture to the lined pan and pat firmly and evenly in place.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. The cake may be served right away but tastes better, more mellow, after resting up to a few days.
- This cake will keep well-covered and not refrigerated for weeks.