BraveTart: How to Make Homemade Fig Newtons

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Along with homemade Oreos, DIY Fig Newtons were among the first recipes I ever tackled on Serious Eats. But that was some six years ago, and I've learned a lot about recipe development since then.

Namely, how to make a dough that's a lot easier to handle outside of a professional kitchen. Six years later, I'm back with the recipe for homemade Fig Newtons from my new cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.

Like the original, these homemade Newtons aren't cookies—they're fruit and cake. To capture that unique texture, the batter is made with butter, sugar, orange zest, cinnamon, and honey, creamed until light and fluffy, then blended with a squeeze of orange juice and a few egg yolks. It's a curious combination of ingredients, but one that makes for a cookie that's soft and cakey, with a warm yellow hue.

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The yolks help it taste like "yellow cake," while the subtle use of honey, cinnamon, and orange make for a freakishly accurate match in the flavor department (even if those aren't necessarily the flavors that come to mind when thinking about Fig Newtons; have faith).

Those ingredients also make the dough very soft, so after adding the flour it should be gathered up in a ball, wrapped in plastic, and refrigerated until firm and cool.

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The exact amount of time will vary depending on the thickness of the dough, but expect about an hour. It can also be refrigerated up to a week in advance if you'd like to split the project up into a few bite-sized chunks.

Whether the dough is refrigerated for an hour or a day, that leaves plenty of downtime to make the dried fig filling. That's right, dried figs. Since the bulk of their water content has already been removed, dried figs have a flavor and sweetness that is much more concentrated than fresh figs, yet they taste surprisingly fresh in the filling because they haven't been cooked before. To achieve a similar intensity with fresh figs, you'd need to cook the fruit into a jam with sugar, a process that changes their flavor and consistency and makes the filling more inclined to ooze or bubble out of the cake.

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With dried figs, however, you don't need any additional sugar or cooking. Just trim off their stems, cut them in half, and purée with a touch of orange juice and applesauce to give the "jam" a smooth, pipe-able consistency (in the fall, you can replace the applesauce with an equal weight of fresh figs to achieve the same thing, but I wanted my basic recipe to be feasible year-round).

For the most Fig Newton-y flavor, grab dried Mission figs; other types of figs won't have the right flavor profile or sweetness. Also make sure the dried Mission figs are flavorful and plump; bland or withered up fruit won't do these cookies any favors. Your mileage may vary, but I've been really happy with the packaged figs at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.

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If your dried Mission figs are flavorful but a little too crusty or dry, the consistency of the "jam" may need to be adjusted by processing it with an extra quarter-ounce of water or so. In the end, the mixture should be much thicker than a traditional jam, with an almost dough-like consistency. Like the cookie dough itself, the fig filling can be made and refrigerated several days in advance, then brought back to about 70°F for use.

When you're ready to assemble the cookies, transfer the fig jam to a large pastry bag fitted with a half-inch round tip.

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Place the chilled dough on an unfloured surface and knead briefly until it feels cold and firm but pliable, then generously dust the work space and dough with additional flour.

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Seriously, don't be shy here. The dough is soft and a little sticky, so using plenty of flour will make the rolling a lot easier. Excess flour can be brushed away in the end, but you undo a sticky mess*.

* With this or any other recipe for a rolled dough, it will always be necessary to take special precautions if it's above 75°F in your kitchen; for more information, check out these tips for keeping a dough cool.

Roll the dough as evenly as you can to create a square-ish shape; once it's about eight inches across, dust it with a bit more flour then flip it over, dust again, and keep rolling until it's about 15 inches square. I find this easiest to do with a French pin, but as with any pastry project, the most important thing is to work with equipment that feels comfortable in your hands.

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It's important to use a ruler for this step. The dough doesn't have to be a truly perfect square, but it does need to be approximately 15 inches square; an extra quarter inch one way or the other isn't a big deal, but if the whole thing's a full inch too big or too small, the cookies will turn out too thick or too thin.

Not only will that throw of the ratio of "fruit and cake," but significant deviation from the proper size will change how the cookies bake, potentially leading to cookies that are either doughy or dry. So do take the time to check the dimensions of the dough as you roll, and don't try to wing it! As long as you use a ruler to keep yourself in line, you won't have any trouble.

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Once you've established a roughly 15-inch square, slide an offset spatula under the dough to ensure it hasn't stuck somewhere along the way. Dust off the excess flour with a pastry brush, and trim the dough into four three-and-a-quarter-inch strips.

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To fill the cookies, position the pastry tip just above the dough, about one-eighth-inch from its surface, then apply firm pressure to begin piping, and move slowly down the length of a prepared strip. The placement and speed will force the filling to spread and flatten; if the piping tip is held too high or moved too fast, the filling will come out as a narrow cylinder, instead.

Pipe the filling down the middle of each strip of dough. If needed, you can redistribute some filling if you happen to misjudge the piping speed or the amount of pressure needed to apply it evenly and run out before the end. With damp fingertips, the filling can be molded and portioned with relative ease, then flattened back into shape.

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Next, fold the dough over the filling on one side. If needed, dust off any excess flour, then roll the whole thing over like a log, so that the seam runs along the bottom.

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Brush off the floury tops, then use your hands to smooth the fig bars into a flat, even shape.

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With both hands, carefully transfer the fig bars to a parchment-lined half sheet pan.

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When I say parchment, I really mean it; the slippery surface of a silicone baking mat will allow the cookies to spread more than they should (as a general rule, I don't recommend baking cookies on silicone, but that's a rant for another day).

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Bake the fig bars at 350°F until they're puffed, firm, and very pale gold, without any significant browning around the edges.

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Immediately cut the warm bars into 1-inch pieces with a bench knife.

Technically you can cut the bars with whatever you like, but it can be hard to maneuver a chef's knife in a sheet pan, and the bench knife is great for scooping up several homemade Fig Newtons at once.

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Transfer the warm cookies to an airtight container with a paper towel placed along the bottom and between each layer.

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Once the container's all filled up, top it with another paper towel (to catch condensation from the lid), and close it up. This unusual set-up lets the warm cookies steam themselves to soften and retain moisture, while improving their cakiness as well. Freshly baked, the homemade Fig Newtons may seem a little dry, but after cooling in a steamy environment they taste absolutely perfect.

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In the end, these cookies come together with a flavor remarkably like the original, with a freshness that can't be beat. They're tender, soft, and cakey, with a gentle hint of cinnamon and orange to play up the concentrated fruitiness of dried Mission figs.

You can find variations on this recipe (including Apricot Strawberry, Blueberry Lime, Cherry Banana, and even "Pig" Newtons made with bacon) in my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.