Homemade fresh Fig Newtons
Ahhhh, delicious Fig Newtons. Are they cookies stuffed with fig preserves or are they cleverly filled miniatures cakes? I prefer to think of them as bite-sized jammy morsels of heaven, the perfect treat to have alongside a lovely cup of tea or coffee.
However, I am painfully aware of the divide that fig Newtons generate. Those of us who love them and those of us who, well let's just say, are devoid of taste buds. I guess by now you have figured out on which side of the fig Newton fence I sit on.
Fig Newtons, like most things that are wonderful, have their enemies. Foes who only view the lovely fig bars as fiber packed laxatives presented in cookie form and relate them to Baby Boomers parents or in generation language “the Lucky Few” also referred to as the Silent Generation. So basically geriatric food. I’m guessing this kind of nonsensical hatred to what is arguably one of man’s greatest inventions is, in fact, the result of a fiber devoid diet and the misery that a life of constipation can bring. However the opinion so strong that even Nabisco gradually added all sorts of fillings into the unsuspecting biscuits until it finally dropped the Fig name all-together rebaptizing the pastry just Newton.
If you ask me, the nice folks over at Nabisco should consider stepping away from some of the Oreos and Chips Ahoy in their diet and add a bit more jammy goodness. (Not that I have anything agains Oreos)
I have to say I am very biased towards fig Newtons, because they remind me of my grandmother. They were, without a doubt, her favorite store bought cookie.
I particularly have one memory forever etched into my mind of a sunny day in her kitchen having Fig Newtons and juice while making crêpe paper flowers. (Another one of her many talents). Now for those of you who have never been to Bogota, let me tell you that a sunny day out there is about as common as winning a Bingo three times in a row. It can happen, but it usually doesn't.
Let food be thy medicine
There was a time when physicians used to think that most illnesses and disorders were directly related to digestive issues, and consequently, treatments were prescribed in food, or should I say, cookie form. Enter the Fig Roll.
The cakey cookies were a delicious solution to incorporating a bit more fiber into one’s diet. But it wasn’t until a Mr. Charles Martin Roser from Ohio engineered and patented a clever machine in 1891 that funneled the fig filling into the cookie, that Fig Newtons were widely available. The story though becomes a bit less straightforward as official Nabisco records show no trace of Mr. Roser and his invention, furthermore, the company claims that the contraption was actually invented by a Mr. James Henry Mitchell owner of Kennedy Biscuit Works in 1891.
Although this version makes a lot of sense since F. A. Kennedy Steam Bakery not only was the actual company who first started marketing and selling the Newtons on a large scale, but it was also responsible for coming up with name Fig Newton. Why Newton? Contrary to popular belief it has nothing to do with sir. Isaac Newton, but more to do with location.
F. A. Kennedy Steam Bakery was a large industrialized company that had set up shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1875. It’s marketing experts advised that naming products as neighboring towns was a sure way to sell more. And so Newton, Massachusetts became immortalized forever in cookie fashion. Other baked goods included Harvards and Beacon Hills. As a fun fact, the Fig Newton was almost called the Fig Shrewsbury. I guess we should all sigh in relief for how the cookie naming vote went down that day.
Eventually F. A. Kennedy Steam Bakery merged with 113 other bakeries into what would become the giant conglomerate of the National Biscuit Company, which we all know now as Nabisco. That is how Fig Newtons became the first commercially baked product in the US.
As a little fun fact, the old bakery building still stands proudly at the University Park at MIT, yet the steam-powered factory has been converted into loft apartments to supply the housing demand in Cambridge.
But what about Mr. Roser? Well, he was, in fact, the first person to patent the fig filled cookie. And although Nabisco has reported it has no evidence in their archives, we do know that Charles M. Roser “mysteriously” came into a large chunk of money after selling the rights to his cookie. Rumor has it, it was Nabisco itself who paid him off. That being said, he took the cash – an equivalent to 30 million dollars today – and established himself in warm St. Petersburg, Florida where he became a well-known philanthropist.
Humble Fig Newtons have been around for over a century, and the mere name is somewhat of a household staple for many a generation. I’m not even talking about American families. Fig Newtons have traveled the world and are loved all over the globe. So when Nabisco decided to rebrand the cookie many were outraged, not that we didn’t welcome other family members like Mora Newtons –although I think these might have been only available in Colombia as mora is a type of VERY tart blackberry we have due to the lack of seasons in our little corner of the Equator – But rebranding Fig Newtons as a whole, dropping the Fig from the Fig Newton, changing the logo, the packaging, and deciding that it was unequivocally a cookie without even consulting with the consumers, were to say the very least, very drastic measures.
I personally believe that saying just “Newton” is somewhat lacking, you know like if you wanted to say something and got cut off mid sentence. So I call them what I always have because in this case, I don’t believe the cookie by any other name is quite as sweet.
Long gone are the days that figs were celebrated by Nabisco and James Harder danced, dressed as an oversized musical fig. They have gone for the “sexier” cookie trends and include new flavors and whole grain for extra fiber. But wasn’t that what the original fig version brought to the party anyway? And seeing as how FIG Newtons are still the 3rd most sold cookie in the world, I wonder why Mondelez International went and fixed something that wasn’t broken, to begin with. I don’t know how many more changes I can take. Seriously Newton thins? A crispy-unfilled Fig Newton? What more do they want to do to one of the world’s most iconic pastries?
Since I cannot bear any more of this nonsense, I decided to come up with my own Fig Newton recipe. One that I will go to every time I get a Fig Newton crave. One that I know is made with only great ingredients and that won’t change over time unless I want it to.
Homemade fresh Fig Newtons recipe
For the fig preserves:
500 g. (18 oz. or 10 large) fresh figs
250 g. (9 oz. or 1 1/4 cups) sugar
1 lemon (juice and zest)
1 tsp. Vanilla extract.
Roughly cut washed figs into quarters or medium-sized chunks.
Add all ingredients into a pot and transfer to medium heat.
Cook until preserves have reduced in half, stirring constantly to avoid the jam to burn in the bottom of the pan.
Let cool completely and transfer to a piping bag. If you don’t have a piping bag at hand a ziplock bag will do. This ensures an even amount of filling in every bite. If you have neither at hand you can always wing it with a spoon.
For the “cakey” cookie
300 g (10 1/2 oz or 2 1/4 cups) of all-purpose flour (you could also go for a whole grain flour, but the result won’t be as soft.
140 g. ( 5 oz. or 1 1/4 sticks) butter
70 g. (2.5 oz or 1/3 cups and a tbsp.) of sugar
1 tsp. Baking powder
1/4 tsp salt.
1/2 tsp. Cinnamon
1 tsp. Vanilla extract
2 tbsp maple syrup (you can substitute for honey if you don’t have some at hand)
1 tbsp milk
3 large egg yolks (if you don’t know what to do with the egg whites you can always freeze them and make meringues later)
Whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
Place butter and sugar in a bowl and beat until fluffy. If using a stand mixer best results are achieved with the use of the paddle attachment.
Once the butter is pale and has doubled in volume add honey, milk, and vanilla and mix until well combined. Add the egg yolks one at a time alternating with a third of the flour mixture. Do not over mix as the cookie would lose its cakey-ness.
Bring the dough together and flatten into a disc. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about an hour, this makes the dough much easier to work with.
Assembling the cookies
Preheat oven to 180°C or 350°F.
Cut the dough into 4 equal parts. Take one-fourth of the dough and lightly knead the dough so it is a bit softer and pliable.
Place a sheet of wax paper on your kitchen counter and roll out the soft dough into a square. (roughly 25 x 25 cm or 10 x10 in.)
Trim off the edges so your square is as even as possible, the cut square in half running down the middle.
Pipe a finger thick strip of jam along the center of one of the cookie portions.
With the help of your wax paper fold a third of the dough over the preserve. Fold the remaining third of the dough over.
Transfer the log onto a cookie sheet and flatten it out with your fingers. Repeat this process with the other rolled out cookie dough as well as the remaining dough.
Bake bars for proximately 20 min or until slightly golden.
Cut the freshly baked bars into 5 cm (2 in.) cookies.
*Note when fresh out of the oven the cookies are still crispy. You should allow the cookies to “relax” overnight. The fig preserves will soften the crispy cookie and they will have the soft cake-like texture we all love.