It's possible that this recipe should be a winter holiday dessert or snack. I originally found it in a Washington Post story on fruitcakes that The World's Greatest Daughter-in-Law saved for me when I visited before Christmas. But instead, it reminds me of the sort of recipe that would have come out of the legendary Moosewood Cookbook, woods-y looking and hearty. The fact that it's vegan went unmentioned in the Post story, and in fact I didn't notice it either until I was nearly finished making it. The nuts provide the recipe's only fat. Not that it's a diet recipe. But it's full of fruit, mostly dried but some fresh.
It can be made in a tube pan, the kind angel food cakes use, or a couple of loaf pans. If you do that, bake it for less time. I lined my tube pan with a circle of parchment paper, just to be careful; use your own judgment on that. The cake begins with making some fig preserves, much thicker than the commercial kind, and the Post warns that commercial ones won't work. You can do that in advance. To me, part of the magic of this cake is the black walnuts with their distinctive notes. Originally, the recipe called for 2 cups of black walnuts or pecans. All I had available was about a cup and a half of the black walnuts and the balance was just right. I also added a heaping teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, a good addition to many spice cakes.
The batter is too thick to use a mixer. Begin with a sturdy wooden spoon and switch to one or both hands when you need to. That's also how you'll put the batter in the pan or pans.
ARKANSAS FIG CAKE
3 c. (about 14 oz.) dried figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
6 Tbs. sugar plus 2 c. sugar
2 c. water plus 1 /2 c. water
2 c. peeled and finely chopped apple
15 oz. box raisins
2 c. black walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped (see notes above)
4 c. flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking soda
Combine the figs, 6 tablespoons of sugar, and 2 cups water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the figs are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you are losing too much liquid, you can partially cover the pan, but this should be thick.
Remove from the heat and let stand at least 10 minutes. Using an immersion blender or food processor, chop the mixture further, to produce a chunky puree. You will need 2 cups of puree; if you need more liquid, you may stir it in. Set mixture aside.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Use oil-and-flour baking spray to coat a tube pan, preferably one with a removable center, or two standard loaf pans. (If you use paper to line the pans, spray that, too, once it's in the pan.)
Measure 2 cups of the fig puree into a very large mixing bowl. Add the apples, raisins, and nuts and stir to mix well. Extra puree can be refrigerated and used as jam.
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and salt, until they're well combined. You'll see bits of the spices evenly distributed through the mixture.
And in a small bowl, mix the baking soda into 1/2 cup water. Stir until dissolved and then stir this into the fruit mixture.
Add the flour and seasonings to the fruit mixture. This will be very dense and heavy, so it may be easier to use your hands. If necessary, you may add another tablespoon or two of water to make sure all the dry ingredients are moistened.
Transfer batter to the prepared pan, pressing it down to fit the pan. Moisten your hands and pat the top of the batter to smooth it out.
Bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, until a tester inserted near the center of the cake batter comes out clean. Cool for at least 30 minutes before removing from the pan, and if using the 2-piece tube pan, you may leave it on the base as it cools.
Wrap tightly; keeps for at least 2 weeks. Yields at least 12 slices.