Walnut and Fig Cigars
When we were challenged by California Walnuts to make a recipe using at least one cup of walnuts, we jumped at the opportunity. After all, walnuts are my absolute favorite nut for their earthy and dark flavor. I love using walnut oil in my salad dressing, ground walnuts in a rich, tender pastry shell, and toasted walnuts sprinkled on everything in throwing distance.
For years I have been hearing people quote studies about how walnuts are valuable for heart health, they’re an essential source of those fabulous omega-3 fatty acids (good news, guys! You can finally put down the tin of sardines!), and there is even evidence to suggest that they lower cholesterol, which is important to a cheese-a-holic like me. I’ll take the help where I can get it, and when that help comes shaped like a tiny cerebral cortex and happens to be delicious, well, all the better.
My favorite ways to eat walnuts – which, by the way, I generally toast to enhance their flavor – are actually some of the simplest.
- sprinkled on top of oatmeal with a handful of frozen blueberries
- a few walnuts and a few dried apricots, dates or prunes for a blood-sugar balancing mid afternoon snack
- sprinkled in a salad with tender, dark greens
- chopped and tossed with buttery green beans and a squeeze of lemon
- tossed into whole grain muffins and quick breads
Then again, walnuts lend their rich nuttiness to so many different tastes, textures and flavors, that it would be remiss not to rise to the California Walnuts challenge and offer you up a recipe of my own. These “cigars” are a creamy and rich spiced walnut and fig filling, redolent with Middle Eastern flavors, wrapped up in a crispy, buttery phyllo shell. They don’t take much fuss or bother to make and they keep very well in the freezer for those moments when company happens to pop by and you need something to put on the table other than a half eaten box of crackers and a handful of cookie crumbs. And hey, when fresh baked goods are at your finger tips, why not make a batch to keep in the freezer and bake a few at a time, as whimsy hits?
Walnut and Fig Cigars
Makes 20 cigars
- 8 oz cream cheese
- 1 tsp orange zest
- 3 tbsp fresh orange juice
- 2 tbsp brown sugar, packed
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1 cup dried figs, packed (about 9)
- 1 cup California Walnuts
- salt and pepper, pinch each
- 10 sheet phyllo pastry
- 7 tbsp melted butter *
- 3 tbsp brown sugar, packed
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
* I use salted butter between the layers, not unsalted or ghee/clarified butter.
Bring the cream cheese to room temperature. In the mean time, heat your oven to 400ºF. Spread the California Walnuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet (don’t want any of those love nuggets to escape!) and toast them in the oven until they are fragrant and just starting to gently brown, about 5 minutes. Don’t forget to shake the baking sheet occasionally so that they don’t burn. When the walnuts are toasted, set them aside to cool. The oven can stay on in preparation for the phyllo cigars.
Break the cream cheese into chunks and place them inside your food processor along with the orange zest, juice, brown sugar and ground spices. Sprinkle with just a pinch of salt and ground pepper. Yes, you read that correctly. Just a pinch will actually set off the filling and warm the spices enormously.
Puree the mixture in your food processor until it is uniform.
Chop the dried figs into large chunks and add them to the mix.
Process the creamy fig mixture until the fruit is largely broken down but still a bit chunky. When the walnuts are cooled, add them to the blender.
Pulse about 10 times in short 1 second bursts until the walnuts are incorporated and blended down, but still in a little bit textured and chunky.
Combine 3 tablespoons of brown sugar with 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon in a small bowl.
Lay a sheet of phyllo down flat and brush it lightly with some of the melted butter. Sprinkle some of the cinnamon sugar mixture over top, just enough to dust it.
Lay another sheet of phyllo neatly down on top and again brush it with butter as well.
Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the phyllo in half lengthwise and then widthwise so that you have 4 equally sized rectangles.
Start with the small side towards you and dollop on a tablespoon of filling close to the bottom of the pastry. Roll the pastry over the filling tightly, squeezing gently to press the filling into a cigar shaped tube. Tuck the sides in towards the filling and roll up tightly like a taco. Brush the top lightly with a little bit of melted butter.
Place the completed phyllo cigar on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper with the seam side down. As you work, keep the phyllo that you have not yet used under a damp tea towel to prevent it from drying out and cracking. Also, as the cigars are made and place on parchment, lay a clean and damp tea towel over them as well because the extra little swipe of butter won’t do much if the pastry crumbles before you bake it.
Bake the walnut and fig cigars in the center of a hot oven for 18 minutes or until they are a deep golden brown on all sides. If you wish, when the cigars cool you can sprinkle them with a bit of confectioners sugar.
Pretty little finger foods and packed full of vitamins and nutrients, I think it is clearly time to start saying YES to dessert, please and thank you.
These gently spiced cigars are full of Middle Eastern flair without being as sweet as many other walnut and phyllo desserts, like baklava. Perhaps it is the creaminess of the cheese or the nuttiness of those delicious toasted walnuts, but this is the kind of treat that would be perfectly happy beside a nice cup of coffee or strong black tea in the middle of the afternoon or the very late evening.
If you’re looking for more inspiration and ways to use walnuts, those nutrient powerhouses, here are a few of my favorites. Some are savory, some are sweet, but all are tried, tested, true and utterly tantalizing.
For an exotic appetizer, try roasted red pepper dip with walnuts and feta. This dip is so popular that it has been made for people’s potlucks and Superbowl parties, cozy nights in and cocktail parties alike. In fact, Mike and I like it so much that we even served it at our wedding last year.
I have a soft spot for fusion food, likely because most of what my Dad cooked when I was a child had a distinctively Lebanese stamp on it. Walnuts feature in many savoury Middle Eastern dishes, often substituted for the more expensive pine nut, and the earthy flavor of walnut is a perfect pairing with lamb. A spin on the “spaghetti” sauce that I grew up with, you will not believe how rich and delicious you’ll find this lamb and walnut ragu.
Or, if you wanted something vegetarian and on the lighter side, why not abandon boring old basil and give a bold parsley and walnut pesto your own spin?
There are days when all you want is a double bacon cheeseburger with a side of poutine, and an extra helping of paralyzing guilt. For the next day, when you need to cleanse and remind yourself that your body is precious and needs to be nurtured, might I suggest this super healthy quinoa superfoods salad. Packed full of omegas, anti-oxidants, complete proteins and magic, this salad is delicious penance for your Saturday night sins.
And finally, the sweet treat that makes life worthwhile, my brother’s favorite chocolate walnut squares. Because really, you knew that I would get here eventually.
Eat and be healthy!!