As far as fruit is concerned, the Outer Banks is a punishing place: sandy, salty, stormy, and sizzling hot in summer.

For some reason, fig trees accept that challenge. A dozen or more different varieties of figs, many of them native, grow along the Outer Banks. Figs are so popular on Ocracoke Island that they practically star in the island’s annual Ocrafolk Festival.

When fig trees are happy, they surge into seasonal ripeness, and their limbs can bow under the weight of the fruit as though they were handing the fruit to us. A ripe, sun-warmed fig is alluring. Golden beads of nectar seep through the cracks in the skins, letting us glimpse the silky, sultry, sweet pulp that lies within. However, ripe figs are extremely fragile. It is nearly impossible to ship and store ripe figs, so their perfection remains a truly local treat, mostly in backyards, where the distance between picking and eating is a game of inches.

What to do with a wonderful fruit that refuses to be kept? Preserve them. No homemade jam is easier to perfect than fig preserves. Many cooks put up scads of jars each summer, perhaps in self-defense, when the trees are at their fullest. It’s also easy to buy jars of excellent fig jam all over North Carolina, at roadside stands, in farmers markets, and in grocery stores.

Jam cakes are popular all over the South. A jar of preserves adds fruity sweetness to classic spice-cake batter. Bakers in each community use the type of jam or preserve that is most plentiful in that place. So it stands to reason that along the Outer Banks, that is going to be fig preserves.

Ocracoke Fig Preserves Cake with Buttermilk Glaze

Makes 12 servings

Cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon hot tap water
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup fig preserves
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Glaze

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour a 10-inch, light-colored metal tube (angel food) pan, tapping out any excess flour. (A dark metal or heavy Bundt pan will make the crust too dark and thick and will interfere with the baking time.)

2. Sift together the flour, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and salt into a large bowl.

3. Beat the eggs until foamy in a large bowl with an electric mixer. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar, beating until the mixture is thick and pale, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the oil, beating until well mixed. Beat in half of the flour mixture, then the buttermilk, and then the remaining flour mixture, beating each time only until the batter is smooth.

4. In a small bowl, stir together the baking soda and water until the soda dissolves. With the mixer set to low speed, beat the soda mixture, vanilla, preserves, and walnuts into the batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and stir well with a rubber spatula.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour. Set the cake on a wire rack to cool to room temperature before glazing.

6. For the glaze: Stir together the sugar, cornstarch, baking soda, buttermilk, butter, and corn syrup in a large saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes, until the glaze is thick and opaque. Remove the glaze from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and let cool to room temperature; it will thicken as it cools. Drizzle the cooled glaze over the cooled cake.

This story and recipe originally appeared in “A Carolina Cake Tour” from the February 2014 issue with four other regional cakes. See them all below.

Blue Ridge Mountains

dried apple stackDried Apple Stack Cake
The hallmark of cooking in the Mountain South is resourcefulness, making utterly delicious dishes from modest ingredients. Consider the stack cake: many thin layers of sorghum-sweetened cake married together by thick, fragrant filling made from dried apples. There is no cake — perhaps no recipe — more rooted in Appalachian mountain culture.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Mountains and Foothills

black walnut pound cakeBlack Walnut Pound Cake with Old-Fashioned Penuche Frosting
The meek might never taste a black walnut. The outer husks of these tree nuts are a mighty fortress, resembling a petrified tennis ball. Black walnuts must be pounded into submission, by mallets or more. Once open, not everyone appreciates the bitter flavor of black walnuts. Those who do, however, do so passionately.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Piedmont

cheerwine full illustrationCheerwine Pound Cake
There is no historical marker for the first time and place that some creative home cook poured soda pop into cake batter, but the idea took hold fast, especially as these products flourished after World War II. Almost all community cookbooks include a recipe or two for a cola cake.

Cheerwine pound cake has a delicate golden crust and a moist, dense crumb. It needs no frosting, only a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar, like fairy dust. It keeps well for days, if it lasts that long.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Central N.C., Sandhills, Coastal Plain, and Outer Banks

muscadine cakeMuscadine Cake
We North Carolinians love our native grapes. Compared to the imported, thin-skinned, seedless grapes found in the grocery stores, muscadines might seem like a lot of trouble, but they are worth it. The skins are thick and the pulp is shot full of stubborn seeds. Ah, but the flavor, the perfume, the musky sweetness. No other grape compares.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Sheri Castle is an award-winning food writer and cooking teacher. She hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains but lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, daughter, and beloved dog. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook. This is her first story for Our State.

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Since 1933, Our State has shared stories about North Carolina with readers both in state and around the world. We celebrate the people and places that make this state great. From the mountains to the coast, we feature North Carolina travel, history, food, and beautiful scenic photography.

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