Anyone familiar with traditional South American desserts knows that we prefer to keep them simple, especially since the main meal tends to be very filling. Desserts were not necessarily an expected component at the end of each meal and when we did have dessert it always felt like a special event; a typical dessert in Ecuador might be a perfectly ripe fruit, such as a slice of papaya with a drizzle of lime juice or a piece of babaco with a little bit of honey, or maybe a refreshing helado de paila, a fluffy bizcochuelo, a crunchy cocada or a sweet fig preserve served with a piece a quesillo or queso. It is also frequent to eat sweets in larger quantity with afternoon coffee rather than for dessert, after a large meal sometimes you want just a little something sweet that adds that finishing touch and doesn’t leave you feeling like you had too much. Dulce de higos, also known as higos pasados, are fig preserves cooked in a syrup made with panela or hard brown cane sugar; they are a very typical dessert in Ecuadorian households, and are one of those desserts that you might be served both in the home of humble farmer who lives in a house with no electricity, or at a fancy dinner of a wealthy businessperson in one of main cities, personally I would choose the figs made by the farmer, from my experience those are usually the best.
The fig preserves are made through a 3 day process: first they soaked in water for a day, next they are boiled in water, then left to soak another day, then drain and finally boiled in the syrup made with the panela and spices. It is very important to let the figs soak enough, this helps keep them tender, I’ve tried to take shortcuts before and ended up with very dry and rubbery figs. The spices are optional and the figs taste just as good without them, so it’s just a matter of preference, I personally love adding the spices, but since my husband had this annoying dislike for cinnamon I sometimes make them without any spices. These figs are very sweet, you can reduce the amount of panela if you would like them to be a little bit less sweet; also because they are so sweet they are much better eaten with cheese or even with bread than alone. Dulce de higos are usually served with generous slice of fresh cheese called quesillo, you can use fresh mozzarella instead of quesillo, some other good options include queso fresco, farmer’s cheese or curds; you can choose your favorite cheese or also try these fig preserves with a few different types of cheese.
20 fresh ripe but firm figs, washed
Pinch of baking soda
1 ¾ lb panela or hard brown cane sugar
Cinnamon sticks, cloves and other spices – optional
Sides – Slices of cheese
- Make a crosswise cut on the thin side of each fig.
- Place the figs in a bowl, cover them with water and let them soak for 24 hours.
- Rinse the figs, place them in a saucepan, and cover them with water, about 8 cups.
- Add the baking soda and bring the water to a boil over medium heat, cook for about 15-20 minutes or until soft.
- Remove from the heat and let the figs soak in the water they cooked in for another 24 hours.
- Drain all the water from figs and gently squeeze each fig to remove as much water as possible.
- Place the panela or hard brown cane sugar and the spices in a large saucepan, cover with about 6 cups of water and cook on low heat until the panela is completely dissolved.
- Add the figs and simmer until the panela syrup begins to thicken, at least a couple of hours, stir occasionally.
- Serve either warm or cold with a slice of quesillo, fresh mozzarella, queso fresco, farmer’s cheese or the cheese of your preference.