There were many reasons to anticipate spending the night at Grandma Marie’s. Little cans of apple juice with the peel-off tab, styrofoam airplanes for launching in the backyard, the enormous feather duster, “Murder She Wrote”, “Father Dowling Mysteries” and “Hyacinth”, that wonderful musty basement smell, pouring and stirring the creamer into her mugs of coffee.
What I anticipated most of all was her kitchen. Not because we cooked together — there wasn’t much of that — but because of the treasures hidden in her cabinets. Cautiously pry open the cabinet doors, wince at every creak, and then (if yet undiscovered) slink away to devour stolen sweets under the weeping willow tree. I was a good kid; just a sucker for Fig Newtons.
Years passed and things changed. College professors preached scrutiny of nutrition facts labels, opening my eyes to unsavory ingredients lurking in those once-pilfered goodies. I said goodbye to practically everything packaged and processed without another thought. Leaving behind my Newtons hurt.
It wasn’t until one day not too long ago that I thought of them again. I tried remembering the taste after these long years, but what came to me was foggy and muddled. Sad, I thought. (Also, curious where an idle mind takes you.)
All this time it never dawned on me to make my own. I bake my own bread, I press my own tortillas, I even make my own yogurt and cheese — why not fig bars? The ingredients, flavors, nutrition, everything would be under my control. Nothing could stop me from enjoying them now, entirely guilt free.
In spite of my changes, I was transported to my hiding spot behind the willow with one bite, nibbling away and trying to stifle a huge grin.
These really should be considered second cousins to Fig Newtons — the grown up version, an improvement on the original. Not quite as sweet and the pastry more rustic, but every bit as delicious and satisfying. Flavors of orange, cinnamon and vanilla elevate and refine this simple cookie.
If you have leftover filling like I did, it makes a great spread for whole grain toast and biscuits, or spooned into yogurt and oatmeal. These fig bars are terrific any time of the day, perhaps eaten under a large tree. You know who would love a plate? Your grandma; especially if you’re a reformed child cookie thief.
Orange Fig Bars [makes 15 bars]
Play around with the filling if you like. Instead of orange, cinnamon and vanilla extract, try cardamom, star anise and almond extract, or maple extract and cinnamon — anything that piques your interest!
For the Pastry:
1 1/4 c whole wheat flour
1 c all-purpose white flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 c wheat bran (or sub more WW flour)
1/4 t salt
1/4 t baking soda
2 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1/2 c dark brown sugar
1 t vanilla extract, or the seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
5 T unsalted butter, softened
2 large egg whites
1/4 c unsweetened applesauce
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For the Orange-Fig Filling:
2 c good quality dried figs, stemmed and finely chopped, or an equal amount of fresh figs — dried Calimyrna were used here, which is why the filling is light; try Mission figs for a traditional dark filling
1 t freshly grated orange zest, or 1/4 t dried orange zest
1/2 c unsweetened applesauce
2 1/2 c water
3 T granulated sugar
Whisk together flours, bran (or more WW flour), salt, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon in a medium bowl; set aside.
Put brown sugar and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until fluffy. Beat in egg whites and vanilla extract (or seeds) until smooth. Reduce speed to low. Blend in the flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the applesauce.
Divide pastry dough in half and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Place the chopped figs and orange zest in a saucepan, and cover with applesauce and water. Give it a couple stirs to combine. Let sit 15 minutes. Add sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently 30 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes, transfer to a food processor and puree until smooth.
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Roll one piece of pastry dough between two lightly floured sheets of parchment, to a 9 1/2 x 11 1/2″ rectangle, about 1/8″ thick. If dough becomes too soft, refrigerate again until firm. Remove top piece of parchment. Trim dough 1/2″ on all sides. Transfer rectangle on the parchment to a baking sheet.
Cut rectangle in half lengthwise. Spread 1/4 c orange-fig filling down half of each length, leaving a 1/2″ border. Fold dough over; pinch to seal. Refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes. Repeat with remaining chilled dough and filling. (The fig bars can be frozen up to 2 weeks, wrapped airtight.)
Cut crosswise into 1 1/2″-wide bars, but do not separate until after baking. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool on the sheet on a wire rack. Bars can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Adapted (quite heavily) from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The New Classics
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It’s National Nutrition Month and the theme this year is “Eat Right With Color”, so let’s talk nutrition.
Purple, black, green or brown, fresh or dried, figs are considered a functional food — meaning they have health benefits beyond the nutrition they offer. The fruits contain polyphenols and flavonoids, both of which are antioxidants that may protect against cancer and heart disease. In addition, figs are an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, and boast an exceptionally high mineral content, including potassium, calcium, iron and manganese.
Overall the bars provide a healthy dose of natural fats, fiber, minerals and antioxidants from the whole wheat flour, wheat bran and figs. But don’t forget they are still cookies — enjoy in moderation!