Sunday, January 16, 2011

Happy Fig Newton Day!

It's Fig Newton Day! If you popped on in because you have this uncontrollable urge to know every crumb about the history of "the Fig Newton", stroll on over to the food time line. Lynne has you covered. Figure it this way, Fig Newtons have been around for at least 120 years, urban legends are bound to mount.

Fig Newton Day | January 16th

As soon as I realized it was National Fig Newton Day, I knew exactly what I wanted to post about. (that, doesn't happen often:) What is it that brings such glee to this frigid day in central Pennsylvania? Italian Fig Cookies, that's what. Now, don't get to jovial, I have no intention of actually baking them. I just want to share a few crumbs and be on my way.

Baking cucidati, as my grandmother use to say, was a tradition in our family when I was but a youngster. If we were really lucky, we were treated to these scrumptious Sicilian fig-filled pastries twice a year; Christmas and St. Joseph's Day; March 19th. (We also had Sfringes on St. Joseph's Day (St. Joseph's Day Cream Puffs) but that's a post for March. I haven't enjoyed the soft fig mixture concealed in a delicate covering of rich sugared pastry sprinkled with a shimmering glaze of anise flavored icing, in more years than I care to remember. I do however, tremble in delight at the thought of those tender crisp cookies as I write this post. Oh goodness:)

As is the case in many recipes passed down from generation to generation, everyone has a different take on the ingredients that embody the makings of classic Italian Fig Cookies. The preparation can be rather labor intensive, there's lots of rolling and cutting, but using a food processor certainly makes the combining of the fig paste much easier. My grandmother used a meat grinder to blend the fig paste. I don't think a blender would work. Marie, The Proud Italian Cook has a delectable recipe over at her place where she shares her family tradition.

Now just because I mentioned these fig cookies were holiday treats that doesn't mean they can't be enjoyed all year round. They make great snacks for school and office and since the concentration of sweetness is all bundled up in mouth size bites, you can almost always expect a welcome burst of energy. Toss the energy drinks, pot the tea and try one of these tempting recipes.

Italian Fig Cookies

Italian Fig Cookies
½ cup butter, softened
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp. baking soda
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 recipe Fig Filling (below)
1 recipe Lemon Glaze or powdered sugar (below)

1. Beat butter for 30 seconds. Add sugars and soda. Beat until combined. Beat in egg and vanilla. Beat or stir in flour. Divide dough in half. Cover and chill 3 hours or until easy to handle. Meanwhile, prepare Fig Filling. (see below)

2. On a floured pastry cloth, roll a dough portion at a time into a 10x8 inch rectangle. Cut each rectangle lengthwise in half. Spread Fig Filling lengthwise down the middle of each strip. Using the cloth, lift up one long side of dough; fold it over the filling. Lift up opposite side, fold it to enclose filling. Seal edges. Place seam side down on an ugreased cookie sheet.

3. Bake in 375 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Immediately slice strips diagonally into 1-inch pieces. Transfer pieces to a wire rack, let cool. Drizzle with Lemon Glaze (see below) or sift with powdered sugar. Makes about 36 cookies

Fig Filling: In a medium heavy saucepan combine 1 cup dried and chopped figs, stems removed; 2/3 cup raisins, finely chopped, 1/2 cup orange juice, 1/3 cup diced candied fruits and peels, finely chopped; 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel; and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, 5 to 8 minutes or until fruit is softened and mixture is thick, stirring occasionally. Stir in 1/3 cup blanched almonds, finely chopped. Cool to room temperature.

Lemon Glaze: In a small bowl combine 3/4 cup sifted powdered sugar and enough lemon juice (2 to 3 teaspoons) to make of drizzling consistency.

To Store: Place in layers separated by wax paper in an airtight container; cover. Store in the refrigerator up to 3 days or freeze unglazed cookies up to 3 months. Thaw cookies; glaze. (image & recipe)
Better Homes and Gardens Biggest Book of Cookies © 2003

Cucidati | Fig Cookies

In case you didn't make it over to Lynn's Fig Newton History, here's what John Mariani has to say on the subject in his book The Dictionary of American Food and Drink. (revised ed. 1994) This, of course, is one take on the legend. There are quite a few with assorted facts, inventors and inventions.

...Figs were introduced into America on the island of Hispaniola in 1520 by the Spaniards, and the Mission fig owes its name to the Spanish missions set up in California in the 1700s...Most of the fig crop goes into making a sweet filling for "Fig Newtons..." The cookie was first produced after Philadelphian James Henry Mitchell developed a machine in 1892 to combine a hollow cookie crust with a jam filling. This machine he brought to the Kennedy Biscuit Works, which tried it out in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, and the resulting cookie was christened "Newton Cakes," after the nearby Boston suburb of Newton. In 1898 the company combined with others to form the National Biscuit Company (now Nabisco Brands). The most frequently used jam in the cookie was fig, and soon the name became "Fig Newton."

Today may also be International Hot & Spicy Food Day @ Southern Grace. (some say the 20th) And, tomorrow is the birthday of first Lady Michelle Obama!