As many of our readers know, I keep a large jar of fresh, not dried, black (blue) mission figs, either Spanish or Italian, in my refrigerator at all times soaking in brandy. (I did try but have not had good luck with the figs from Mexico, so I would not recommend using them.)
If you follow my style, you will have marinated juicy figs and macerated ones that have been longer in the jar. Long ago I discovered that marinating in Asbach Uralt cognac produces a wonderful congealed jus as the figs and cognac marry.
So here is a wonderful stuffing, baked in a separate dish and spooned into the hen cavity after the hens are roasted. I know. That sounds a little odd, but the result is wonderful.
You can prepare the stuffing ahead of time. (You can even freeze larger quantities, packaged in full cups so you can choose how much you need; thaw overnight in the fridge the day before using.)
In the oven on a sheet pan, toast a pulled apart loaf of stale bread, or chop into large chunks a loaf of black-olive bread or a couple of baguettes that you have left on the counter overnight to dry. Ideally you will fill six cups with bread or double the recipe if you are roasting many hens. If there is any leftover stuffing, refrigerate it covered and serve it the next day, perhaps just a breakfast plate (or served hot in an oval au gratin dish) of stuffing with a couple of poached eggs and hollandaise.
Finely chop a couple of split, long celery stalks and mince a few leaves. Add a cup of coarsely chopped Spanish onion and a half teaspoon of your refrigerated homemade oven-roasted golden garlic purée.
Sauté the mix in sizzling butter just briefly. You don’t want the celery and onions mushy, but to retain a little crunch. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and a little thyme, a tiny bit of nutmeg and just a pinch of sage.
Let cool. Fold in a generous cup of chopped cognac marinated black mission figs, coarse or fine (but not the macerated ones) and a half cup of the congealed cognac figgy jus. Add a cup of coarsely crushed shelled beautiful green pistachios. Mix the toasted bread into the sauté pan.
Lightly butter a glass loaf baking dish. Gently pack the stuffing into the dish. Bake in a 325 F (350 F if using a metal dish) preheated oven for about 45 minutes, covered in foil, shiny side in. Remove foil and continue to bake for about another 10 minutes. Let rest on the counter for a half hour. Then spoon the stuffing into the still very hot roasted hen cavities just before serving.
In the last 10 minutes of roasting the Rock Cornish hens, baste with my kumquat marmalade. Or use a high-quality bitter orange store-bought marmalade. Add a tablespoon of the cognac figgy jus to the marmalade to make it easier to paint on the hens.
I’ve noted previously that I prefer to roast the hens standing up, and yes they are touching one another, in a preheated oven 400 F; after 15 minutes reduce heat to 350 F. Paint the hot hens with butter at this point, and continue to roast for another half hour, or until juices run clear. Puncture the leg crease to check doneness. Timing will depend on the size of the hens. Make sure to choose ones of nearly equal size. I buy frozen hens and keep a stock in the freezer. Remove the packaging. Thaw in the refrigerator 24 to 48 hours before roasting.
It’s important to choose a right size roasting pan, dependent upon the number of hens you are serving. I’ve done as many as 26 standing medium-size hens, using a large turkey roasting pan or double tinfoil pan, nearly the size of the oven. The kind I would roast a 20 to 23-pound turkey in each Christmas. Allow one whole hen per serving. They are roasted uncovered but cover in foil shiny side in for the first 15 minutes on high heat.
As a special treat, prepare Yorkshire puddings (one or two for each serving) oven roasted in very hot sizzling butter, deflate and fill the hole first with a little well-drained, hot, fresh regular wilted spinach, buttered and topped with just a little extra pistachio stuffing. Deglaze the roasting pan with just a little brandy. You could light it to burn off the alcohol, or if you are experienced, you could just tilt the pan.
Drizzle a little pan dripping deglaze, perhaps a teaspoon (there won’t be much drippings) over top of each filled Yorkshire pudding, and just a spritz of extra figgy jus.
You could substitute prunes soaked in cognac overnight. Or just choose to use chopped Medjool dates. They are very naturally sweet.
A perfect side dish is buttered, sugared fresh carrots, oven-roasted halved acorn squash, with butter and maple syrup, and/or pan-roasted Brussels sprouts. A creamed Belgian endive is also a great side; any of the above with my special whipped mashed potatoes.
You could offer a serving dish of cranberry sauce, just to be festive. Want something a little different? Chop a macerated black mission fig and add it and a little figgy jus to the cranberry sauce and add a few homemade candied walnuts from your pantry jar.
I like to serve the hens in a place setting of their own in a just right size hot au gratin oval ovenproof dish, placed on an oversize plate with space where people can serve themselves however many sides they want to add, family style from covered vegetable bowls or hot water heated chafing dishes.
In the kitchen, heat the oversized dinner plates and position the stuffed hens. Deliver the plated hens to the table and place each hot plate onto a large charger on a tablecloth or placemat, to keep a distance between your table and the hot dinner plates.
It’s perhaps a little different Christmas Eve or Christmas Day special feast. It seems like a lot of work. It’s time-consuming but not difficult. And so worth it.
Just a note: If you feel a must-have need for a salad, my Caesar salad is a nice balance of flavours. And further, if a dessert is absolutely necessary, make it a light cranberry or fig panna cotta that could be made a day before and dressed at the table, or a figgy zabaglione in a martini glass topped with a brandy marinated fig and a drizzle of the cognac figgy jus, or just offer a slice of my Asbach Stolllen that you made months before. You could even go overboard and drizzle each slice with your favourite plum pudding sauce.
A centrepiece or multiples made of snipped single flowers from a poinsettia plant add a little festive colour to the table. Careful with having live rosemary trees in the house, although they are sold in the festive season. The fragrance can be wonderful or can be overpowering, as are hyacinths brought indoors. Consider that some people have allergies. It’s generally safe to use potted herb plants; maybe cover the pot in shiny foil gift wrap and add a candy cane or two.
© From Lady Ralston’s Kitchen: A Canadian Contessa Cooks | Turning everyday meal making into a Gourmet Experience