(We’re thrilled that this recipe is being featured at Oprah.com’s roundup of holiday recipes for 2009. For more of our featured posts, visit Oprah.com today.)
Lately, I’ve been thinking about all that processed food I ate as a kid. TV dinners, bad candy bars, Oscar Mayer meat packs, Jolly Green Giant green beans from a can: everything came labeled and stuffed full of preservatives. It was the 1970s, the 1980s. The television told us what to eat, and we paid attention. We all ate like that– with the exception of a few strange friends of mine whose mothers actually made their food from scratch. (And now, I envy them, but they mostly say they felt bad they couldn’t have the food on the commercials between Saturday morning cartoons.) It’s amazing to me now, but that was the food supply of my childhood. Iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing, Wesson oil, and anything vacuum-packed.
Thank goodness our food supply has broadened to include the rest of the world. And now, we’re starting to tilt back toward the old ways, making our food from fresh ingredients and what’s seasonal. Not everything comes in a package. And we all cook with olive oil, now. (But me? I didn’t even hear of olive oil until I was in college. What a travesty.)
And of course, almost all the packaged foods I ate as a kid were filled with gluten.
I don’t miss it. I’ve lost my taste for enriched white flour, everything stuffed with sugar, and anything wrapped in plastic. Before my celiac diagnosis, I never knew what good felt like. Now that I know that my enervation and headaches are directly related to the evil gluten, I’ve lost my taste for it.
Except, a couple of days ago, I started missing Fig Newtons.
I don’t know why, exactly. They’re really not that good. All of them the same size, the cookie part a bit dry, and the fig a uniform shape, ending at the edge. But when I was a kid, I grabbed stacks of them from the rattly plastic tray and ate them while reading my favorite books. It’s funny, because every other food blogger is talking about being done with baked goods for awhile. I really didn’t eat many over the holidays. I just didn’t want them. But now, I do. Maybe it’s something about the dark winter time — the holidays over, the rain incessant — that makes me want to curl up with a book and some cookies.
So what could I do? Yesterday afternoon, I started pulling cookbooks off the shelves, consulting websites, hoping someone had a recipe for gluten-free fig newtons. I couldn’t find one I liked, even the ones for regular fig newtons, which I thought I would adapt. So, I made one up.
Before I had to stop eating gluten, I was a baker. I could make a pie crust with my eyes closed. Warm cookies appeared from my oven in half an hour. People always asked me for my recipe, even when I was using the one off the back of the Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip package. For whatever reasons, the science and art of baking appealed to both sides of my mind, and I loved having my hands in dough, kneading something out of nothing.
For the first few months after going gluten-free, I thought I would never bake again. I learned to adapt. There are so many fantastic foods without gluten that I didn’t need to dwell on what I couldn’t have. Who needed to be a baker when I could be a chef in my own kitchen?
But if I know anything about life, it’s this: everything changes. After months of relying on gluten-free flour mixes, I finally took the plunge. I bought all the “alternative” flours in little bags, most of them from the wonderful Bob’s Red Mill. My middle refrigerator shelf is filled with clear bags of millet flour, quinoa flour, teff, and xanthan gum. And now, I know them all so well that I just reach for them and start making up a recipe without needing to consult books. I just start baking.
This evening, after a delicious dinner of sauteed salmon and roasted quinoa I made with homemade chicken stock, I set my KitchenAid whirring. Put on my favorite new cd — a Christmas present from my brother, a mix cd called “Food Fight,” with songs from Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Monty Python, the B52s, and the Hoosier Hot Shots, all songs about food — and danced in the kitchen, gluten-free flour flying. I could feel that old feeling under my hands: the patting reassurance of baking without trepidation. Warm butter, creamed sugar, the sharp tug of nutmeg in my nose. The lovely, soft pull of dough. And that intoxicating aroma as the sweet, spicy cookies are baking in the oven.
Gluten-free fig cookies (a la Fig Newtons)
These cookies taste exotic and familiar at the same time. The thick fig spread tastes like the gunk we ate as kids, but with an adult twist: a liberal spilling of port. The dark brightness, the sticky consistency, the little flecks of fig seeds — they all make these a joy to eat. Bite down and taste the molasses and nutmeg cookie crumble in the mouth, then dart around your tongue to lick the fig off your teeth. They’re milk-dunkable and sophisticated at the same time. And I dare you to eat just one.
The flour combination is vital here. Rice flour and cornstarch together make a smooth consistency. Teff flour’s softness makes it all hold together beautifully, to give that slighty sponginess that the brand-name fig newtons have. And the millet flour makes for a crumbly consistency. It took me too long to break down and buy xantham gum, because it’s so darned expensive. But it’s worth it, because a full recipe like this only calls for half a teaspoon. Be sure to store it in the refrigerator, though. All gluten-free flours do better when refrigerated.
Enjoy them. I hope these help you feel like a kid again.
(make this at least twenty-four hours in advance for the true flavor)
one-half pound of the best dried figs — I used both light brown Calimyrna and dark Mission figs — chopped into quarters
one-half cup pomegranate juice
one-quarter cup port
one-quarter cup Meyer lemon juice
Chop the figs into quarters. Put them into a large bowl and cover with the liquids. Soak the figs in these liquids (or play with your own combination) for at least twenty-four hours in advance.
Before you make the cookies, drain the figs of the liquid, except for a few tablespoons. Put the figs and remaining liquid in your food processor and blend until it is a thick paste, somewhat like a tapenade consistency.
one-half cup butter
one-half cup brown sugar, packed in
one-half cup organic cane sugar (this is key, because it has a more granular consistency)
one teaspoon vanilla
two tablespoons molasses
one-half teaspooon baking soda
one and one half cup white rice flour
one-half cup of cornstarch
one-quarter cup teff flour
one-quarter cup millet flour
1/2 teaspoon xantham gum
lots of fresh-grated nutmeg (as much as you can take)
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl. Set aside.
Melt the butter on the stove, or in the microwave, if you must. Pour the melted butter into your favorite mixer (if you don’t have a stand mixer yet, you really should splurge. They make all the difference in the world). Add the brown and organic cane sugar to the butter and mix them together. Mix them only until they are blended, then turn off the mixer. Add the egg, the vanilla, and the two tablespoons of molasses. Mix until just blended.
Add the dry ingredients, and mix until the dough is thoroughly blended.
Refrigerate the dough in the refrigerator for at least an hour. This is key with gluten-free doughs.
After you have chilled the dough, roll out one-third of it to a half-inch thickness. (Be sure to flour the board first. White rice flour seems to work best.) Spoon some of the rich fig spread down the center of this circle, then roll the dough up into a little log. Do the same with the remaining dough and spread.
Place the three logs of fig goodness onto your favorite baking sheet, covered with parchment paper or a silpat. Slide it into the oven for twelve minutes (less or more, depending on your oven), checking once in a while to make sure they aren’t browning too much. Take the logs out of the oven when they are firm to the touch and just starting to brown. Let them cool on a wire rack for ten minutes.
When the cookies have cooled just a bit, slice up the logs in inch-thick slices, or as large as you want. Turn them onto a plate, and they look like fig newtons. But you never ate anything this good as a kid. So much better than the ones that came in plastic.
Makes twenty to thirty cookies.