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Shaping by Hand

Of all the cookie recipes I’ve baked one of my favorites is Homemade Fig Newtons. Perhaps it is the gooey fig center of dried figs moistened with fresh orange juice. Or maybe I can’t resist the little pastry wings that bake onto the edges of these homemade Fig Newtons. It could be the satisfaction of making something you typically buy, but which has the bonus of tasting even better than the store-bought version. Or simply the alchemy of nostalgia mixed with butter, sugar and figs.  However you slice it up, this recipe should definitely be in your recipe box, filed under Yummy.

Homemade Fig Newtons

Since I tend to make these cookies pretty often there are many opportunities to reflect on this recipe. One time,  just as I was about to put the pureed fig filling into the pastry bag, I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?” Don’t get me wrong I am a huge fan of pastry bags, but did this particular filling really need to be piped? The answer is no. I got out the best kitchen tools I have – my hands – and ran them under cold water so they were damp, then gently molded the fig filling into a log. It took less than two minutes. With the dough rolled out on the parchment paper I was able to fill and fold each fig newton log in seconds flat. The added bonus was there was no remaining fig paste stuck inside the pastry bag.

Moist fig paste for homemade fig newtons

Another change I made was to roll out enough dough for one log on a sheet of parchment. Doing it this way allowed me to use the parchment to fold the dough around the fig paste. I could probably have made a slightly narrower sheet of dough, but you should get the idea from the gif below.

Lastly I am going to admit to a rather serious character flaw – I seem to only be able to cook for a multitude. This flaw is actually a great one to have if you happen to have a couple of twenty-somethings living under your roof (which I do). Or are going to a party. Or need to gain twenty pounds (which no one I know does). But I will admit my friends and family are right, I make waaaaay too much food most of the time. So in an attempt to modify this excessive culinary behavior here is a smaller version of my Homemade Fig Newton recipe. You won’t have a mountain of Fig Newtons, you’ll have plenty. My recommendation is to have lots of cold milk on hand.

Homemade Fig Newtons

Dough

1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling out

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4  teaspoon salt

10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (1  1/4 sticks)

2/3 cups packed brown sugar

1 egg

2+ teaspoons vanilla

Zest of one large oranges

Filling

1 pounds dried figs (black or white or a combination)

1/2 cup fresh orange juice, extra water if figs are dry

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a mixing bowl and set aside. In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment), beat the butter and brown sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla, and orange zest and beat until combined. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended. Scoop the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, shape into a log, and refrigerate for at least 2-24 hours. Longer is better since this is a very soft dough.

Combine the figs and juice in a medium saucepan. If you don’t have quite enough juice for the full cup you can top it off with a bit of water. Bring the juice to a boil, cover, and turn to temperature to very low, simmering for about 8-12 minutes. When the liquid has almost completely evaporated turn off the heat and allow them to cool for 10-15 minutes. Transfer the figs and any remaining juice to a food processor and pulse until the mixture is completely smooth. If things are too dry add a smidge of water. You want paste, not soup and not cement.

The filling mixture has to cool completely before you put it in the dough or it will soften the dough too much before baking. Scrape the fig paste in a glass bowl, cover with a piece of plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

Move oven racks so they divide space into thirds. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Place 1/2 of the dough onto a sheet of parchment paper which has been sprinkled liberally with flour. Sprinkle more flour on top and roll into a long skinny rectangle, about 7” x 18”. You’ll want to move the dough every so often and perhaps re-flour to keep it from sticking to the parchment.

Form 1/2 of fig paste filling into a log and place near the middle of the dough rectangle. Wrap the dough gently over the filling by moving it with the parchment paper up and over the filling, one side at a time. Flip the Fig Newton roll over so the seam side is touching the parchment. Since this amount is slightly longer than in the original recipe you may need to either place the log on the diagonal or cut it in half, leaving a decent amount of space between each half on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough and fig paste. If the weather is hot you can slide the baking sheet and unbaked logs into the fridge for 15-30 minutes.

Cook both logs at the same time, rotating shelves (top to bottom) and giving each sheet a 180º spin midway through. Bake 18-22 minutes on each rotation (40+ minutes total) or until cookies are just browning along the edges. Don’t forget to flip and spin the cookie sheets half way through the baking process.

After letting the fig logs cool slightly (4-10 minutes) gently slice them into cookies with a serrated knife using a sawing motion. You may need to clean the blade of fig filling every so often. Let cool, then store in an air tight dry container. Makes 30-40 depending on how wide you cut them.

Common fig from the New York Public Library

Slices of homemade fig newtons

Russell helped me gif-ify the process on gfycat – thanks Russ!

Drawing of Fico rubado (common fig) courtesy of the New York Public Library digital collection.

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When is it Truly Spring?

PansiesAccording to the calendar spring showed up almost a month ago. Just not at our house. Instead, on the supposed first day of spring, it snowed. A little over two weeks later we didn’t even attempt to have an Easter egg hunt because the snow in our north facing yard had only melted three feet from the house. Plus in some sort of twisted joke Mother Nature decided to send us another dusting of snow on Easter.

Snow on Easter

While I admit I’m no weather forecaster, this is how I judge if spring has truly come:

  • The maple syrup run is over
  • We’ve turned off the furnace
  • The town notifies you that street sweeping will commence
  • Shawn has put the screen doors on
  • Somebody wins our Last-Day-of-Snow-Melt bet

Yes our family has an annual pool, betting on which day of spring will be the day that the very last pile of snow will melt. Winner gets dinner of their choice.

2015 Snow melt predictions

I admit I secretly thought that between the mountains of snow we had this year and the endless snowstorms dumped on New England week after week, I had picked the winning date for 2015. Alas, while I was puttering in the yard yesterday planting pansies and raking up last of the previous year’s leaves, I noticed the one remaining pile of snow had become just a wet spot on the driveway. Which makes Shawn the 2015 Snow Melt winner with his pick of April 19th!

Last spot of snow melt

The last spot of snow melt from the winter of 2015.

My husband is such an egalitarian that he’s chosen to postpone his winning dinner until the kids come home from college next month. So I decided to make him a little precursor treat that sings of sunny days and warmer climates – Homemade Fig Newtons.

Black and White Fig Newtons with Wings

 

I started making these cookies last year while I was teaching a studio block at The Academy at Charlemont on the Foods of Massachusetts. This was an in-depth cooking class based on a curriculum I came up with 2005* where we explored and made all the official state foods of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, along with several of the foods invented in or grown in the state, and (just to be fair) the contenders for what went on to become the “official” state foods.

On July 9, 1997 the Toll-House Chocolate Chip Cookie beat out the Fig Newton for the title of official state cookie of Massachusetts. If I’d been voting it would have been a hard call because they are both great cookies. There is no denying Ruth Wakefield’s chocolate chip cookie is an American classic, but that said, the machine to make Fig Newtons is pure genius. It is basically funnel within a funnel which simultaneously extrude the fig-y center into the center of the biscuit exterior. The Massachusetts connection is the machine to make this happen was invented in 1891 by James Henry Mitchel. Mitchel sold his machine, along with the recipe for fig cookies, to the Kennedy Biscuit Works (later known as Nabisco). Kennedy Biscuit Works had a tradition of naming their cookies and crackers after the towns surrounding Boston, Hence the now-famous name of Fig Newton. You can watch the machine in action in this video of Paul Newman’s Fig Newman’s cookies.

Figs ready to poach

This recipe was inspired by Megan Scott over at Food52. I’ve doubled her recipe because I’ve learned that there is no such thing as enough homemade fig newtons. However many you make you will always wish you’d made more. Scott doesn’t say what kind of figs to use, but I’ve given you the option of making these with white or black figs – I usually make them 1/2 and 1/2. My experience is the white figs tend to be a bit softer and bigger to start with (less cutting up at prep time), but when I’m tasting the finished product side by side the black figs edge out the white by a smidge, at least for me. I also like to use the juice from the oranges to poach the figs in rather than water, which ads that little je ne sais quois to the recipe. Note: This really is a two-day recipe, you can’t really rush it. One day to make dough and filling then an over night in the fridge to chill it all down.

White figs

Finally I’d like to thank our friend Adam Gilbert for helping with the name. I was so frustrated when the dough portion would cook out to the sides instead of staying tightly wrapped around the fig filling that I was ready to jump up and down and say bad words. It’s the food stylist in me I guess. It really steamed my spatula that these fig newtons weren’t perfect. Adam just looked at me as I was vocalizing my frustration and said, “What are you talking about? I love the fact that they have wings.” Thanks Adam, for reminding me that food doesn’t have to always be perfect, it just has to taste good, and these wings are delicious.

Fig Newtons with Wings

Homemade Fig Newtons with Wings

Dough

3 cups flour, plus more for rolling out

2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2  teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, softened (2  1/2 sticks)

1  1/3 cups packed brown sugar

2 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla

Zest of two oranges

Filling

2 pounds dried figs (black or white or a combination)

1 cup fresh orange juice, extra water if figs are dry

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a mixing bowl and set aside. In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment), beat the butter and brown sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, vanilla, and orange zest and beat until combined. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended. Scoop the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, shape into a log, and refrigerate for at least 2-24 hours. Longer is better since this is a very soft dough (see note above).

Combine the figs and juice in a medium saucepan. If you don’t have quite enough juice for the full cup you can top it off with a bit of water. Bring the juice to a boil, cover, and turn to temperature to very low, simmering for about 8-12 minutes. When the liquid has almost completely evaporated turn off the heat and allow them to cool for 10-15 minutes. Transfer the figs and any remaining juice to a food processor and pulse until the mixture is completely smooth. If things are too dry add a smidge of water. You want paste, not soup and not cement.

The filling mixture has to cool completely before you put it in the dough or it will melt the dough before you even get it into the oven. If you are in a rush you can pipe fig goo into lines on a sheet of parchment paper and pop in the freezer to cool faster. Once the filling has cooled down I put it into a sturdy disposable pastry bag and cut off the tip so I can easily pipe out 1″ lines of filling onto the dough.

Update: I’ve since decided there is an easy way to shape the fig paste, click here to see/read how.

Move oven racks so they divide space into thirds. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Place 1/3 of dough onto a sheet of parchment paper which has been sprinkled liberally with flour. Sprinkle more flour on top and roll into a long skinny rectangle, about 7” x 15”. You’ll want to move the dough every so often and perhaps re-flour to keep things from sticking. Cut the dough down the middle so you have two long rectangles. Place 1/6 of fig filling in middle of one rectangle in roughly a 1″ line. Wrap the dough gently over the filling and flip so the seam side is touching the parchment. Repeat with the second rectangle. Place the parchment on a cookie sheet and slide the whole thing into the fridge while you get another sheet of parchment and repeat with the next third of dough.

You’ll be able to cook two cookie sheets at a time, rotating shelves and giving each sheet a 180º spin midway through. Bake 20-24 minutes on each rotation (40+ minutes total) or until cookies are just browning along the edges. Don’t forget to flip and spin the cookie sheets half way through the baking process. Once the first 4 logs are out bake off the last two.

After letting the fig logs cool slightly (4-10 minutes) gently slice them into cookies with a serrated knife using a sawing motion. You may need to clean the blade of fig filling every so often.

If your dough was a bit warm when you were rolling these out, or your filling was too hot these fig newtons develop very intense “wings”. Don’t worry – as Adam says they’re delicious. Store in an air tight dry container. Makes 70-86 depending on how wide you cut them.

Fig filling for homemade fig newtons

Rolling up homemade fig newtons

So hip, hip horay for true Spring, a husband who is willing to share his winnings, and remembering what is most important about the foods that come out of our ovens.

Homemade fig newton cookies

*State school curriculum requires all third graders in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts study their home state. I am so grateful to Isabelle’s third grade teacher, Pat Bell, who while she a rigorous and dedicated teacher, did not want to include cooking in her class. Her reticence on the culinary front gave me the opportunity to come in and teach an adjunct Massachusetts food class to her 2004-2005 students. Which I taught again when Russell was in third grade.

It turns out that my adopted state’s legislature has a passion for voting to make all sorts of food “the official ______ of Massachusetts”. We have an official beverage, fruit, muffin, dessert, vegetable, donut, and cookie. There has even been proposed legislature to declare an official state sandwich. Can you guess what they are (without googling the answers)?

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