I don’t often find myself longing for the industrial rigours of a factory when I’m baking in my kitchen at home. But as I patted the squiggle of fig paste with wet hands, corralling it into a rough sausage shape I thought ruefully of Charles Roser of Philadelphia and his patent for a fig roll machine.
In the late nineteenth century, poor digestion was thought to be the cause of a number of wider ailments and, as with breakfast cereal, biscuits were seen as an aid to digestion – and figs, of course, were a particularly digestion-friendly fruit. Brought over from Britain to America, the fig roll tended to be made by hand in small batches. That is, until 1891, when Roser came up with a machine which could pipe the fig paste directly into the cakey biscuit dough, a sort of sweet extrusion process. The Massachusetts Kennedy factory bought Roser’s recipe and method, and began commercial production of the biscuit, calling it the fig newton, after the nearby town of Newton.
No such luck for me (or, I imagine, you) in my fig roll making endeavours. My fig rolls are very much hand-made, but no poorer for that. To my mind, whether you call it a fig roll or a fig newton, it’s more of a cake than a biscuit: the dough is very soft, almost damp, buttery and tender. Dried figs are cooked with a little water and muscovado sugar, until the fruit bubbles and starts to break down. A quick whizz in a food processor with a ball of stem ginger creates a simple fig jam that will firm up a little as it cools, and then can be manipulated with damp hands and rolled into that cakey, sweet dough. The jam shouldn’t be bland in texture or taste, but sticky sweet, dark and caramelly from the fruit and muscovado, and popping with little fig seeds. Filled with the rich fig jam, and striated (and slightly flattened) with the tines of a fork, the long sausages of fig roll are ready for the oven.
Rather than cutting before baking, I use a sharp, bread knife to cut the rolls fresh from the oven, to ensure clean, neat slices. The biscuit dough is not so short that it should crumble away from you, but to be light handed, and avoid squashing your handiwork.
Once the rolls are baked, I steal a trick from the excellent American chef and cookery writer, Stella Parks, who transfers her fig rolls to a Tupperware container straight out of the oven, before clamping a lid on them. The hot biscuits steam within the box, which makes them stay soft and cakey once they cool.
Makes: 20 biscuits
Takes: 30 minutes
Bakes: 15 minutes
For the biscuit dough
180g plain flour
1 egg yolk
50g light muscovado
90g butter, soft
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon mixed spice
¼ teaspoon fine salt
For the filling
200g dried figs
30g light muscovado
1 ball stem ginger in syrup, roughly chopped
- Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and very light in texture. Add the egg and vanilla, and completely combine. Fold in the salt, plain flour, mixed spice and baking powder. Press the pastry together against the side of the bowl, wrap in baking paper, and chill for an hour.
- Snip or chop the figs into chunks, add the sugar, and just cover with water. Bring up to a bubble over a medium heat, and cook for 5 minutes until the figs have broken down. Add the stem ginger, and whizz in a food processor or with a stick blender until you have a paste. Leave to firm up until the dough is rested.
- Preheat the oven to 170°C, and line a baking tray with baking paper. Roll the dough out on a floured work surface to the size of an A4 sheet of paper, trim the edges, then cut longways down the middle of the dough, to give you two strips.
- Divide the fig filling into two and roll into two sausages the length of your dough, and lay each one on one of the dough strips. Dab the edge of each strip with water, then gently roll the pastry up and over the filling so that the two sides of the dough meet in the middle, and the seam sits on the bottom of the biscuit. Transfer to a baking tray, and use the back of a fork to drag lines down the pastry.
- Bake for fifteen minutes, then use a bread knife to cut each strip of baked dough into inch-wide biscuits. Transfer all biscuits to a container, with a sheet of kitchen paper in between any layers, and leave to cool in the container. The steam from the warm biscuits will ensure that the exterior dough is slightly soft and cakey.