Last weekend's Holiday Baking Marathon resulted in some lovely cookie baskets, including a couple for the office. The baskets included my traditional shortbread and my mother's butterscotch brownies, plus cocoa chocolate chip, honey ginger, Chinese Five Spice, and my first attempt at pinwheel cookies - anise-scented fig and date swirls. It was this last variety that inspired a comment from a coworker that captures the spirit of holiday baking. He said that his grandmother had made those cookies, and he remembered eating them every Christmas when we was a kid. And that's really really the reason for the holiday baking season - to summon cherished childhood memories from years long gone and recapture a little of that magic.
So, out of the three new recipes I tried this year, the one that will be added to my permanent repertoire is the Anise-Scented Fig and Date Spirals from the Gourmet Cook Book for that hopeful, happy feeling it conjured in a colleague. Apologies for the lack of photos - I was deep in the throws of the Marathon by the time I got to these.
You will need:
1 cup packed soft dried figs (8 oz), stemmed and coarsely chopped
1 cup packed pitted dates (7 oz), trimmed and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons anise seeds, ground in an electric coffee/spice grinder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
4 oz cream cheese at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup granulated raw sugar such as turbinado or Demerara
Whisk together flour, anise, baking powder and soda, and salt in a bowl. I used all purpose flour and did not sift it. Set aside.
Beat together butter, cream cheese, and the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar at medium speed until pale and fluffy, usually about 3 minutes. Then add the vanilla and egg yolk until combined well. Add flour mixture and mix at low speed until just combined. The dough will be slightly crumbly.
Form the dough into two flat rectangles, using a pastry blade. Don't work it too much yet. The idea is to just get it into a well-formed shape to chill. Wrap it in plastic wrap and set it in the fridge for at least an hour. I let my dough chill for the better part of a Sunday while my counterpart and I did some gift shopping.
While the dough is chilling, make the filling. At first I was a little intimidated about the whole chopping figs and dates thing. They are thick and sticky and kind of gooey. But, it's easier than you think if you follow good prepping technique:
1. Sharpen your knife.
2. Cut the fruit down into manageable strips.
3. Chop carefully, using a slow and steady cut. Remember, you're not chopping veg - you're chopping something that really is sticky and kind of gooey. Take your time and watch your fingers.
Once the fruit is chopped to a fairly uniform size and shape, transfer it to your food processor and purée with water and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar until almost smooth.
When you are ready, assemble the cookies. The recipe recommends rolling out the dough between 2 sheets of wax paper. I did not do that. Remembering the Bonus Cookie Technique I learned making the shortbread, I used the pastry blade and eased the dough into a 9- by 7-inch rectangle, about 1/3 inch thick.
Then, I used an offset icing knife to evenly spread the filling on the flattened dough, leaving a 1/4 inch border. Use the pastry knife to loosen the dough off the rolling board. Gently and carefully, roll the dough into a log. The recipe advises using waxed paper here. I didn't and got good results, so it's up to you. Roll the log in the raw sugar and wrap the rolled dough in more waxed paper. Chill for at least four hours. I assembled my cookies on Sunday night and baked them on Tuesday, so they can rest for quite a while.
To bake, preheat the oven to 350 and line your cookie sheets with parchment paper. Using a sharp paring knife, gently cut the logs into slices about 1/3 inch thick. They will expand when baking, but not much, so you can place them fairly close. Bake them until they start to turn a nice golden color, about 15 minutes.
The result is a slightly sweet, mild cookie with a light fruit filling.