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Grim's Grub: How a popular cookie celebrates a town in Massachusetts

An enormous cookie empire was born of over 40 bakeries.

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Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com
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Though invented in the mid-1800s, the Fig Newton didn't gain its current level of fame, or its name, until nearly the 20th century. And it took a lot of moving parts to make that happen.

Baker Charles M. Roser, of Ohio, is the father of this modest cookie. He invented the recipe for the always soft, never dry, jam-filled biscuits. But if the recipe had remained with him, it probably would have been lost to history.

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Making what would eventually become the Fig Newton required a little more work than it does today. The recipe was based on that of fig rolls, homemade cookies brought to the United States by British immigrants.

It requires a dough to be rolled out into a very accurate rectangle. Jam with a perfect thickness must be added in a line just so, then the dough must be rolled over the jam, sealed where the seams meet, cut and baked.

Not exactly the hardest thing any baker has ever had to do, but it was the innovation of big business that made these cookies endure.

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Roser sold his recipe to the Kennedy Biscuit Works of Boston. When they bought the recipe, the company needed a name for it.

While legend often says they borrowed the name from physicist Isaac Newton, the company would often habitually name their cookies after small towns, including Beacon Hill, Harvard and Shrewsbury.

They named Fig Newtons after Newton, Massachusetts.

Under Kennedy Biscuit Works, the process of creating Fig Newtons got an overhaul. Inventor James Henry Mitchell, of Florida, simplified the process using a new machine of his own design. Mitchell's machine combined two varying sized funnel shaped extruders.

The larger funnel would extrude a cookie dough while the smaller one would extrude a jam filling inside of that same dough, thus eliminating the rolling and filling step home bakers used. It also eliminated the presence of any seam at all in the cookie itself.

Mitchell invented many other cookie machines that could make dough sheets, wafers and more. His inventions are likely what made the Kennedy Biscuit Works endure to today, though under a different name.

The Biscuit Works are now a part of a much much bigger company. In 1889, the company merged with seven others to become New York Biscuit Company. In 1898, New York Biscuit Company merged with another company, the American Biscuit Company, which had been formed when 40 Midwestern bakeries merged.

These 48 cookie companies became the National Biscuit Company - Nabisco for short.

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The Fig Newton was first commercially produced in the middle of these mergers, back in 1891, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the history of one of the world's biggest food companies today.

Homemade Fig Newtons

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Fig Newtons were invented by one baker, but now are produced by a company born of over 40 bakeries.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

From Seriouseats.com

Dough

  • 10 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting (2 1/4 cups)
  • 5 ounces unsalted butter, soft but cool (1 1/4 sticks)
  • 4 ounces light brown sugar, gently packed (1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 ounce honey (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/2 ounce orange juice (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 3 large egg yolks, cold

Combine the butter, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, honey and orange zest by mixing in a bowl or stand mixer. Mix until light and fluffy then add orange juice and egg yolks one at a time while beating until smooth.

Sprinkle in the flour while continuing to mix until well combined.

Knead the dough inside the bowl to form a smooth ball then remove it from the bowl and flatten it into a disc before wrapping it in plastic. Refrigerate until cool and firm but not hard, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Knead the dough on a bare work surface until pliable and smooth. Dust both the dough and work surface with flour and roll the dough into an 8-inch square. Dust both sides again and roll it into a 15-inch square.

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Loosen the dough on the surface with a spatula, remove any excess flour and then cut the dough into 3 1/4-inch strips. Use a piping bag to pipe a 1-inch wide strip down the center of each portion of dough, lengthwise, then fold one side over the filling (see accompanying recipes for filling).

Remove any excess flour on the seam and fold the other side. Roll the entire strip so the seam side is down. Flatten the resulting log gently with your fingertips and transfer it to a parchment lined sheet pan and bake for approximately 18 minutes.

While hot, cut the dough into 1-inch long cookies. These can be transferred to an airtight container with paper towels on top of and below each layer of cookies. Allow cookies to rest for six hours to eliminate any dryness in them.

Fig Filling

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Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

  • 12 ounces sticky dried Mission figs, stems trimmed
  • 3 1/2 ounces sweetened or unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 ounce orange juice

Cut the figs in half and pulse with applesauce and juice in a food processor or blender until roughly chopped. Then process to a thick, smooth paste. Scrape down anything stuck to the walls and process once again.

Add filling to a piping bag with a 1/2-inch tip.

Strawberry Newton Filling

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Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

From recipeland.com

  • 1 cup strawberries
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water

Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth, then add to a piping bag with a 1/2-inch tip.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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