Golden Vanilla-Fig Cake

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Vanilla-Fig Cornmeal Poundcake

The first time I had a fresh fig was in Damascus on mine and Mike’s honeymoon.

Mike and I were served a platter of fruit (it’s the standard fare served after a big meal there…not really dessert, since that comes later. More like an after-dinner treat). A few ripe, very tempting figs rested on an ornately designed silver platter. One fig was cut in half, its deep red, juicy interior exposed; it looked soft and sweet and was practically calling out to be eaten. One bite and I was sold; that was all it took to ensure I turn into a fig-crazed maniac until I get my fix of figs every fig season.

Vanilla-Fig Cornmeal Poundcake 2

Sadly, fresh fig season is a short-lived time of bliss. This year I got my fill by ordering 4 pints of figs online from The Fig Lady (I looked high and low and sadly, the figs in my area were very much sub-standard this year). But I’m happy to say they arrived perfectly ripe and, well, perfect in general.

Vanilla-Fig Cornmeal Poundcake 3

We enjoyed most of the figs raw, but since there are only so many figs two people can eat raw before they spoil, I wanted to bake with them. I wanted a cake with a rustic, coarse texture (the kind of cake you get when baking with cornmeal or semolina) and moistened with sticky, sweet-scented syrup. Since figs inevitably remind me of all things Middle Eastern, my mind immediately went to a classic Middle Eastern cake called Harissa, a semolina-based cake, which is also called Basbousa or Namoura, depending on where you are or who you’re talking to.

Fresh Blueberries and Dried Juniper Berries

Fresh Blueberries and Dried Juniper Berries

I have a lovely recipe for Harissa that I included in my cookbook (which is being released on November 6; please check out The Book page for more details!), but this time I wanted something just a little different. Cornmeal was the perfect choice, lending wonderful texture and density to this cake. I served this cake with fresh blueberries because I thought they were a nice play on the juniper berries I used to scent the Spiced Vanilla Syrup; any fresh berries (or even quartered figs) would make a beautiful garnish though.

If you still have access to fresh figs I recommend making this cake; if not, definitely bookmark it for next year.

Vanilla-Fig Cornmeal Poundcake 4

Golden Vanilla-Fig Cake
Prep time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 12 to 16 servings
Spiced Vanilla Syrup:
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 8 dried juniper berries (or 1 sprig fresh rosemary)
  • 8 whole black peppercorns
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup yellow cornmeal
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • 1¼ cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
  • ½ cup milk (any kind you like)
  • 6-8 oz fresh figs, washed, patted dry, stems removed, and halved
  • Butter, to grease the pan
  • Flour, to grease the pan
  • Whipped cream, for serving (optional)
  • Fresh blueberries, for serving (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 350F; butter and flour a cake pan (I used a pan 10½ inches long by 6½ inches wide by 2½ inches deep).
  2. Make the Spiced Vanilla syrup first because the syrup should be cold and the cake hot when the syrup is poured on the cake (so the cake absorbs the syrup). To make the syrup, add the sugar, water, lemon juice, juniper berries, and peppercorns to a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, giving the pan an occasional swirl to help the sugar dissolve; turn heat down slightly and boil 2 minutes. Turn heat off and stir in vanilla extract. Cool before pouring over cake (the syrup will thicken slightly as it cools).
  3. For the cake, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs one at a time until the mixture is fluffy and pale yellow. Beat in the vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture alternatively with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Be careful not to over-mix; the batter should be fairly thick.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and let it rest for 3 minutes (it will thicken even more). Arrange the fig halves in a single layer on top (don’t worry too much about perfection; the figs will sink), and bake until golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour.
  5. Right before using, remove the juniper berries and peppercorns from the Spiced Vanilla Syrup. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, slowly pour half of the cooled syrup onto the hot cake, reserving the rest of the syrup to pass around for people to drizzle on top when serving. (Alternatively, you can pour the whole amount of syrup on top if you like; the cake will absorb it if it’s hot and the syrup is cold.)
  6. Let the cake sit at room temperature 2 hours (or overnight) to absorb the syrup before serving. Serve topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a small handful of fresh blueberries, if desired.
Recipe inspired by Cooking Light’s recipe for Lemon-Cornmeal Pound Cake.

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  1. says

    Beautiful! I love the combination of figs and vanilla.

    And I bet adding cornmeal to this cake gives it a much more interesting flavor and texture than most standard yellow/white/vanilla cakes (which I’m usually only willing to eat if they have fresh fruit baked into them…).

    • says

      Ev, It was a lovely cake. Definitely not crunchy, the texture was more grainy/dense because of the cornmeal, and the sugar syrup made it so moist. Delicious! I think you’d really enjoy it. :)

  2. says

    We used to have a miniature fig tree outside the house I grew up in – miss those fresh figs. Love the cornmeal texture you chose to compliment the figs in your cake.

  3. says

    Just yesterday I saw figs at the store but couldn’t think of what to make with them. So I opted not to get them since they go bad so quickly. Now today I’ve seen 2 posts using th.em. This cake looks so good I will definitely have to try this along with the other recipe.

    Looking forward to seeing your new book.

  4. says

    I love figs and we used to eat so many of them when living in Brazil…it seems that it is not so popular here…in spite of having lots os figs in Brazil, I do not remember having figs in cake…yours look delicious, light and fluffy with huge pieces of figs…yum!
    Great pictures Faith…have a wonderful week ahead my dear :)

  5. says

    LOL, must. find. figs! Your recipe looks so great that I’m all hot to trot to try it out but I can’t seem to find figs annnnnywhere! It’s a total disappointment, but I’ll just keep looking until I find some. We have a farmer’s market this saturday, so I’ll search high and low there. Your recipe looks magnificent! I love the cornmeal and vanilla paste and am imagining what this treat tastes like. Can’t wait to try it!

  6. says

    I do lots of polenta cakes, usually without flour though (although I am not g-f), but I know the flour will lighten an already delectable cake. And luckily the figs are still coming thick and fast into the shops here – deep dusty purples with seductive, seeded crimson centres…But, geez, why oh why did I open this post on a fast day?? *slaps hand* This is going to be a long day…

  7. says

    Somehow I majorly missed out on fig season this year…except for one delicious box from trader joe’s that I devoured in record time. But this is bookmarked for next year for sure! It looks amazing in it’s simplicity.

  8. says

    Yes Yes Yes! I adore fresh figs with a passion! The first time I had a sun-warmed, fresh from the tree fig was about a year ago, the first time Peter’s fig tree bore fruit. Since then, we’ve had a bumper crop of the best figs ever! A whole bunch are about to ripen at once, so I’m definitely pinning this recipe for later :)

  9. Aby says

    Made this cake last night. I didn’t have vanilla bean paste, so I just doubled the vanilla extract. Super moist, not crunchy.The texture reminds me a little of bread pudding meets pound cake. Absolutely superb!! Even the husband approves!

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