Happy spring! It has arrived. All wet, rainy, and cloudy. But! April showers bring May flowers (I just typed "flours"...ha!). They also mean more activities outside. Yes! Finally. I am really excited to explore the Driftless as the conditions become less...muddy. I did attempt a hike in Duck Egg Park in February, during one of our warm streaks, but the mud got the best of me and my shoes. With spring comes warmer weather, and also a renewed motivation on certain levels. However, this past week was...draining. Work is starting to ramp-up, and last weekend I had a hectic visit home. I played hookie from a potluck a co-worker hosted this weekend. As much as I wanted to go earlier this week, I really just needed some time to myself to re-charge this weekend. I have earned the nickname "Grandma" at work, since more often than not lately, chilling at home has been my favorite weekend and after-work activity. Indeed, I am still finding myself doing some mental spring cleaning of sorts, and not going to lie: I found myself worked up, upset, sad, angry and yep, you guessed it, crying in my kitchen a few times this weekend. This morning, as I sat with my second coffee, eating some toast (from my first *successful* loaf of sourdough bread...more on that later), some memories hit me. The guilt, anger, sadness and empty feelings that really don't suit my life anymore (but still try to creep in, damn them!) hit me out of nowhere. Does that ever happen to you? Maybe the caffeine brought it on, but I always feel better if I let the feelings run their course, and remind myself to be strong all the while. So, not surprisingly, I find myself really sensitive to the presence of other people lately. Their opinions, their timeliens, their values, their priorities. So, with that said, sorry family and friends for not calling this weekend...trust me, it is not you, it is surely me! I talked with my sourdough starter all weekend, so don't worry-I had contact with a life form of sorts...heh...As I mentioned, reminding myself that I am strong, resilient, and that I can truly take care of myself, has been really important this past week. I nearly laughed my dinner out the other night, because during an episode of Grace and Frankie (you gotta watch it, if you Netflix...and yes, I sometimes plop myself in front of Netflix while I eat dinner), Grace gets stuck driving Frankie's car, all the while Frakie's "self affirmations" are on repeat in her car. And yes, I think our gut reaction to this exercise is "really? Do we need to repeat these things, this hippy-dippy stuff, to make ourselves feel better??". But, to those people, as resistant as you are to this (I used to be, too), and as much as you want to make fun of it, I encourage you to try it sometime. It is powerful, on a sub-conscious level, that I am stil trying to figure out. But that is life, right? Enjoying the journey, learning from it, learning about myself (yourself) and others. Be gentle with yourself, and others. Have compassion. Carry love in your heart for those that you love, for those that you don't understand, and for those that have hurt you. All of that stuff, ya know...it really is an art, a practice, a work-in-progress. Ok, ok, ooook....time to share this recipe, becuase these fig bars are so damn good. Perfect for a snack with coffee or tea, awesome as a quick breakfast, really tasty with tangy plain yogurt (started to eat dairy yogurt again a few weeks back, and I am so glad I did! Shout out to all the dairy farmers in WI, we salute you).
Dried figs. Kinda like prunes, but a bit more...sexy? I dunno. My nickname at work is Grandma, so this should not be surprising, my love for dried, high-fiber fruits. My obsession with dried figs started a long time ago, when my journey with natural foods started, perhaps out of what now I see as some serious self-image issues. Out of sheer curiosity of what the hell a dried fig was, I went to our local co-op, bought some dried, wrinkly, almost black mission figs. A love the sweet, earthy flavor developed at first bite. Soon after, I discovered some magical fig bars at the Willy Street Co-Op. Alas, it was a short love affair, as the bakery team there stopped making them because they were "too hard" to get out of the pans (pssssh) after baking...something about too much crumbling and sticking. I was so upset that I called, super sad, and asked the baker manager "WHY, BUT WHHHHHY??". She did email me the recipe, but, it was for a HUGE pan of fig bars...and also called for some ingredients that I didn't ever have on hand (apple juice concentrate). WTF.
So, a few meh-level attempts over the years left me still longing for my beloved, very lost fig bars. My attempts were too sweet, too crumbly; the filling was always a pain in the ass to spread over the bottom crust, and they weren't thick enough, blah blah....Until....Sara's book. I had a hunch that the fig and walnut bars she has in her first book just miiiight be a worthy contender. After a few tweaks and making them several times, and also coming to the life-changing conclusion that I could use similar flavor's (orange, sea salt, black pepper) in the fig filling as Deb's amazing fig challah for the filing of these bars, my quest....was over. This is it, folks. Fig bar dreams realized. This recipe is a keeper. And yes, you read correctly: I called the bakery at the co-op about fig bars. I AM THAT PERSON.
My major changes to the original recipe include:
- First: Used mashed banana instead of apple sauce that the crust/topping calls for, since I never have apple sauce on hand (and when I do, it is from my Mom or Grandma, and I like to enjoy it plain or with yogurt, with lots of cinnamon). I could see pumpkin puree working, too. I also tried using ground flax instead of the chia seeds, and it worked perfectly, but either work.
- Second: I omitted the walnut toasting that Sarah includes, since I feel the baking of these bars provided plenty of heat to toast the nuts.
- Third: I have found that coconut oil, sunflower oil and olive oil all work for the crust/topping. I won't tell if you use melted butter, either. Just maybe use a organic, cultured variety? Please?
- Fourth: I stewed my figs with freshly squeezed orange juice, orange zest, black pepper, and a pinch of sea salt. I did this because I find that simply pureeing dried figs gives a really thick, really sticky filling that is a pain in the ass to spread over the bottom of the bars. I dunno about you, but here in WI, I can only find dried figs that are DRIED and pretty....hard, so, they need some lovin' before being converted to a speadable bar filling.
- Lastly, I also made a version that included one whole peeled, chopped apple in the filling, stewed along with the figs. Awesome decision, if you want to go that way. I could see a ripe pear being tasty, too. This adds a bit more sweetness to the filling, and also amps-up the volume of the filling if you want more of it.
In fact, if you just want to make the fig puree, I would endorse that decision 110%. I could see it being used as a spread for toast, used in oatmeal, swirled into yogurt, included on a cheese board for a sweet contrast....it really is quite tasty. It would for sure keep for a few weeks in the fridge, stored in a jar or other covered container. OR you can hop on over here, and make Deb's amazing challah. No regrets, people.Notes: I like to store these in a tin in the freezer to keep them fresher for a longer period of time. The filling is moist, the bottom and topping aren't...so...cooler temperatures mitigate moisture migration,(mitigate moisture migration....wow, say THAT 10x fast). A quick re-heat in a warm oven or toaster oven, or even a microwave, brings the bars back to life. You could also just forget about a (wrapped) bar(s) in your purse/bag/lunch box for a few hours, and be surprised by a sweet, gooey, not-full-of-crap or hard-to-find-ingredients treat. Cheers!
Fig and Walnut Bars // Makes 9 ~1.5"x1.5" bars, or 16 ~1"x1" bars // plant-based; vegan; gluten-free; refined sugar-free; soy-free // (Don't miss the Apricot-Coconut & Olive Oil version of these bars!**)
Base and Topping:
- 1 ½ TB chia seeds or ground flax seeds*
- ¼ cup (63g) water
- 2 cups (280g) walnuts
- 2 cups (200g) oats, using certified gluten free if ya need to
- ¼ cup (60g) mashed banana
- 2 TB maple syrup
- 1 TB melted coconut oil, sunflower oil or olive oil
- 1 tsp vanilla
- ¾ tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 cups (300g) dried figs, stems removed
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- Pinch sea salt
- Pinch black pepper, freshly ground is best here
- Zest of 1 orange
- Juice of 1 orange (about ½ cup)
- 1-2 TB water, if needed
- optional: 1 peeled, chopped apple or pear
*I grind flax seeds in my coffee grinder. I like to freshly grind my flax, and use right away, since these little dudes are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids; I sometimes store smaller quantities in the freezer in a jar. You may also substitute this flax/chia egg with 1 large egg, preferrably locally produced!
Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly oil an 8”x8” pan, or line with parchment paper. Start the fig filling by simmering all the ingredients in a pan, adding a TB or two of water if needed. There should be about 1” of liquid in the bottom of the pan, but this doesn’t need to be exact, and will depend on how large your orange is. Cook until the figs plump up, and are soft enough to puree, about 10-15 minutes on medium heat. Most of the liquid should be absorbed by the figs.
Meanwhile the figs are simmering, prepare the base and topping mixture: in a food processor, pulse 1 cup (100g) oats until a coarse flour is made. Add in 1 cup (140g) of the walnuts, along with the salt, baking powder and sea salt. Pulse to make a medium-fine meal of walnuts. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mash the banana. Add in the chia/ground flax, water, oil, maple syrup and vanilla. Stir to combine. Add this wet mixture in the food processor bowl, and mix thoroughly. Transfer this to a bowl, and add the remaining 1 cup (100g) oats, and mix thoroughly.
Pat about ⅔ of the mixture into the lightly greased 8”x8” pan, taking care to have a relatively even layer and compact mixture to prevent the bars from crumbling while cutting and handling. You can wet your hands to help with the dough sticking to your fingers.
In the bowl, of the food processor (no need to rinse it out), puuree the warm figs, scraping the down the food processor as needed until smooth. Spread the mixture over the dough layer in the pan, spreading as evenly as possible.
Crumble the remaining dough mixture over the top of the fig layer. Crumble the remaining 1 cup (140g) of walnuts over the top, gently pressing the crumble and walnuts into the fig layer.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until browned on top. Allow to cool thoroughly before cutting. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
Blitz the oats, walnuts, baking powder and sea salt together. You want a semi-coarse meal, small enough particles so the this dough can stick together, but still with enough texture for your tongue to be happy when eating these. You do not want to pulse to a point where the oils of walnuts are coming out.Mash up the chia seeds (or ground flax) with the banana and water...the mixture will be thick. That is what we want! Meanwhile, while this is all happening, you're getting your fig filling all simmered...right? This particular batch had 1 large peeled apple thrown into the mix. Totally optional, but also very tasty.Back to the bottom and topping: mix the wet mixture of chia and banana with the dry mixture in the food processor. Plop into a bowl, and mix the remaining 1 cup oats...mix thoroughly!Pat about 2/3 of the batter into the bottom of a greased 8"x8" pan, or parchmnet lined pan....up to you...just don't skip that step! This batter a little on the sticky side. To help pat it out, you can wet your hands, too.Back to the figs: plump, they are ready to be pureed! You want the dried fruit to be soft, and to not have a ton of extra cooking liquid left. But, don't sweat it, doesn't need to be perfect, just soft enough to easily shovel into your mouth, erm, I mean spread onto the bottom dough you just patted into the pan...You will have to scrape down the food processor a few times along the way, but it is worth it. Truly, it is. Spread it...evenly as possible. Again, not looking for pefection, just go for it. ......you got this...the fig filling can smell fear, so just dive in. Trust me. Crumble the remaining batter over the top, followed by the other 1 cup of walnuts. I like to simply crush the walnts in my hands a bit. Gently press into the fig filling. Admire your handy work. The layers. Love it. Notice the generous layer of fig goo? And prominence of the walnuts? Yes. These are indeed fig and walnut bars..so...that should be no surprise. Into the hot oven, to bake until the edges are golden brown, and topping is set. You'll smell the mild, earthy aroma of the filling and oats, mingling with the nuts, orange and a hint of spicy black pepper...it is indeed a good thing. Let this slab of delicious cool alllllll the way before cutting, as these bars are a bit delicate when warm. Cut into bars, stash away. Come breakfast or afternoon snack time, your tummy will be super happy you made these-trust me!