Last year around this time I got a burst of culinary ambition and attempted to make a steamed figgy pudding. It was a complicated, hourslong process that left my kitchen a sticky shambles, though the results were highly edible (especially with extra boozy sauce). This year, I’m leaving ambition to the experts and trying something simpler yet still fig-ish: Mom’s recipe for fig bars.
She no doubt had the recipe because, during our family’s years in Southern California, our neighbor had a huge fig tree that dropped bucketloads of figs into our yard all summer long. We left them to rot so that simply opening the back door admitted a powerful whiff of fermented fruit. The off-putting aroma meant that we almost never went out there. Our yard became a blighted wasteland of yellow grass and weedy flowerbeds and our patio turned into a catch-all for household flotsam and jetsam. The only creatures that regularly visited the yard were drunken yellow jackets and our two dogs, who added their own fecund aroma to the mess.
At the time, it seemed normal, but now that I look back on it, I can’t understand why we didn’t appreciate that glorious outdoor space — clearing up the figs, planting a riot of tropical flowers and stringing patio lights from the avocado tree. We should have taken advantage of the peachy-pink Pasadena evenings to enjoy dinner al fresco or just sip a cool drink in our green oasis. Maybe Dad had this end goal in mind when, in a fit of exasperation, he all but commanded me to gather fresh figs and make fig cookies. I did but, being a teenager, I was legally required to resent every second of it.
The problem with making this recipe during the middle of winter in Washington is — have you spotted it? — fresh figs are nigh impossible to find, although I called around and Chuck’s Produce does have a limited supply. Because I never shy away from a cooking challenge (even when I ought to), I decided to try this recipe with a mixture of dried figs and fresh apples instead of fresh figs. If you don’t like figs, use fresh pears instead of apples or dried apricots instead of dried figs. If the whole thing sounds like far too much trouble, use two or three jars of store-bought fig, apricot or quince jam. Or just go buy some Fig Newtons.
If you opt to use only fresh fruit, combine 4 cups of chopped fresh figs (or apples or pears) with 1 cup water, 1 cup honey, 1 teaspoon vanilla, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons grated lemon peel in a saucepan and simmer on the lowest heat, stirring occasionally, for about 1 to 1½ hours or until the mixture has darkened and thickened. Combine 2 tablespoons flour with 2 tablespoons water and stir into the mixture. Cook for 5 minutes longer, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons lemon juice. If you like nuts, stir in 1 cup chopped walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts. As for me, I skipped the nuts because my family doesn’t like them and we’re all nutty enough as it is.
If you’re using a combination of dried and fresh fruit, follow the steps above but let all 4 cups of fruit stand in the mixture of water, honey, salt, cinnamon and lemon peel overnight in the fridge before simmering. I used about 3 cups of roughly chopped dried figs and 1 cup of chopped apples and I ended up simmering it for 2 hours instead of the recommended 11/2 hours, at which point the dried figs were nice and gooey and the apples were well softened.
If you’re using store-bought filling, just open the jars, you smarty-pants.
For the dough, cream 2 sticks of butter with ¾ cup packed brown sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla until light and fluffy. Stir in 2 cups flour, ½ teaspoon salt and 3 cups rolled oats. The dough will be somewhat dry and very crumbly. There are no eggs in this recipe; you’re essentially making oatmeal shortbread. Divide the mixture in half. Spread one half in the bottom of a well-greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish, then spread the filling over it, covering every part. Spread the remaining half of the flour-and-oats mixture on top and press down with a fork.
Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned. While everything is still warm, very carefully cut it into squares using a sharp knife, going slowly to avoid dredging up fruit chunks and breaking the topping apart. Wait until the cookies cool completely before lifting them out of the pan. Enjoy them in your indoor oasis, free from tipsy insects.