I normally am not a fussy-cookie kind of girl. I like them plain and simple, dropped from the edge of a spoon. A bit of vanilla extract here, or a few good chunks of chocolate there, a sparkle from buckwheat flour or a nubby bit of ginger, and that's all. The crunchier the better, since those kinds are best dipped in tea, but I'm democratic: I'll eat them even if they're soft and chewy. I guess the only requirement I have is that they be easy to make. I spent one evening before Christmas years ago awake all night dealing with the nightmare that is the production of Zimtsterne and while I love those little things with a hot, burning passion, I will never make them again. Uh-uh, life's too short.
So while the idea of homemade fig newtons always appealed to me, the reality of all that cooking and processing and rolling and filling seemed like far too much work for such a layabout like me.
And then. (There's always that, isn't there?)
I had express instructions to myself to do nothing - but nothing - this past weekend. To stay home, keeping the kitchen warm, detaching from every single possible thing outside the confines of the four walls of my apartment. But you know, five hours of cooking meat sauce only takes you so far. Plus, I happened to have all the requirements for a homemade fig newton in the house already, meaning I wouldn't have to leave the house for a single thing. (I told you I was lazy.) And then I considered the fact that, since I refuse to eat commercial fig newtons anymore, I haven't had one since my freshman year in college. Which is far, far too long to have gone without a fig bar, wouldn't you say?
I'd even argue that the fig-filled cookie is one of America's greatest contributions to the cookie lexicon. (Or perhaps the derivative hermit.) Along with the graham cracker and the chocolate chip cookie, of course. Am I leaving something out?
Anyway, all of this to say that, yes, fig bars are more work than a simple drop cookie. But they are also worth that work if you have an afternoon to spare, one in which the skies darken prematurely - requiring cuddles and cookies to keep you warm. (I happen to think fig bars are paired best with a glass of cold, cold milk. Biscotti can have their hot tea. Newtons need their milk.) Plus, while they are more work, they are not necessarily harder work, which can be an important differentiation.
The vanilla-speckled dough (so, so pretty) is flecked with little shreds of orange peel and the luscious fig filling (of which, luckily, there is too much, so you can eat it for breakfast on toast or stirred into yogurt all week long) is crunchy and aromatic and just exactly what you'd imagine a homemade fig newton to be filled with.
If it at all possible, and I know that it might not be, try to resist eating all the newtons at once. Because kept overnight, they sort of transmogrify into an even better version of themselves - the cookie softens somewhat, the filling squidges just so. The different parts of their anatomy all sort of coalesce perfectly in the night, leaving you with the best newton you ever ate - yielding, fragrant, simple, delicious.
You might find yourself converted then, as fussy-cookie-loving a girl as they come.
Makes 40 (1-inch) cookies
Note: This recipe makes more fig purée than is needed for the cookies; the extra can be spread on toast and will keep for 1 week refrigerated.
1 cup (12 ounces) finely chopped dried Black Mission figs, packed
1 cup apple juice
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/8 plus 1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 large egg white
Seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1. In a medium saucepan, combine the chopped figs, 1 1/2 cups of water, apple juice and one-fourth cup of sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a bare simmer for 1 hour, until the figs are so soft that they're spreadable. Transfer to a food processor fitted with the steel blade, add one-eighth teaspoon orange zest and process until smooth. Remove and allow to cool to room temperature.
2. While the figs are cooking, cream together the butter, remaining one-half cup sugar and one-half teaspoon orange zest in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand mixer) for 2 to 3 minutes on medium speed. Scrape down the bowl and paddle or beaters. Add the egg white, vanilla bean seeds and vanilla extract and beat in. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle. Add the flour and beat on low speed until the dough comes together. Shape the dough into a flat rectangle, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.
3. Place racks in the middle and lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Unwrap the dough and center it on a lightly floured piece of parchment paper measuring 12 inches by 16 inches. Lightly flour the surface of the dough and place a large piece of plastic wrap over the dough to prevent it from sticking while it is rolled out. Roll out the dough to the dimensions of the parchment; it will be less than one-eighth-inch thick.
5. Cut the dough lengthwise into four (12-by-4-inch) strips. Spoon a line of filling down the center of each strip, leaving one-half-inch of room on either side. To roll the dough over the filling: Gently lift the long edge of the parchment under the first strip and roll it, along with the dough, over the filling, carefully peeling the parchment away as you go. You should have a sort of log-shaped roll. Because the dough is thin, it may crack; if this happens, allow the dough to sit so it warms a little, then try again, being gentle and using the parchment under the dough to force it to fold over. When the roll is complete, gently slide a flat cookie sheet under the log and transfer it to the parchment-lined cookie sheet. Pinch the ends of the log closed. Repeat with the three remaining strips, placing 2 logs lengthwise per cookie sheet.
6. Using a serrated knife, slice each log on the diagonal into 10 cookies. Bake, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and from front to back halfway through, for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack. The bars will keep, stored airtight, for 2 days.