One thing’s becoming clearer to me the more I cook is that I am not an ideal cookbook user. I usually view recipes in them as “suggestions” and guidelines for how the final result will be, mainly because as soon as I see a picture and description, my mind starts wandering off in a “what-if-maybe” melee of substitutions and usage of ingredients I have on hand. I find that with a small European apartment the list of ingredients I have “on-hand” is not always the same as what I thought I had on hand and the possibility to purchase missing items on a Sunday afternoon in Italy is close to nil. So, needless to say, many cookbook authors will find their original recipes given a slight massage in my kitchen.
With that being said, that’s part of the reason I’ve waited so long to post about Julia Usher’s “Cookie Swap” cookbook – not because it’s not a great book (I’ll get to that) but because a) it was incredibly hot this summer and I didn’t want to heat it up in any way by cooking and b) I wanted to present one of her recipes to you unadulterated or modified and, as you read above, I just can’t.
So we’ll compromise. I’ll post the original recipe, and you’ll allow me to say my final version pictured is sliiightly different from hers, and I’ll tell you why in the recipe notes.
But first, thanks for all the birthday wishes, here, on Facebook, and on Twitter! The winners of the little Pocket Coffee/Espresso packets are: #3 Tina and #10 The Food Hunter! Contact me with your addresses, please!
Back to Cookie Swap. First I have to say that I received this book from Julia’s publisher, but it was one of the most pleasant and effective interactions I’ve had with an author and her PR firm that I really wanted to give them accolades. Brave! Last year I hosted my own Cookie Swap (and I plan to do it again this year) so they did their research and therefore when I got the email my answer about trying the cookbook was a “heck ya!”
After I received the book and its helpful PR packet (well done!) full of author information and suggestions for post topics it was almost like this post wrote itself – of course, after I finally got down to making something from the book when the weather cooled down. (If you’re curious why I’m so excited about a relevant and well-done PR pitch, just know that it rarely rarely happens)
Julie’s book is exactly what the title implies – a book full of cookie recipes and instructions for those who want to host and/or participate in a cookie swap party. The great thing is she orients her book for year-round cookie swaps, so you don’t have to limit yourself to just the winter holidays – she covers themed cookies for Valentine’s, Easter, summer, Halloween, even bridal showers! I think this would make a great gift for your favorite hostess or to try together with girlfriends or even your family.
The cookies in the book are decorated and photographed beautifully, and most of them I will probably never be able to replicate because of their intricacy, but I will have fun trying (and using my Wilton decorating tip set)! Julie doesn’t just make you pick from her recipes, but the back of the book has several basic recipes for cookie dough and frosting/icing you can mold and shape any way you want (see: me!) along with indications for every recipe on the difficulty and how much time it will take.
Tomorrow Julia will share some of her decorating tips for cookies here – stay tuned!
Fig and Chocolate Bars
Recipe by Julia Usher, reprinted with permission
Notes: Please read and try her original recipe for yourself – I used a homemade fig jam I received from a friend as the filling which greatly reduced the prep time, but I will also try her version (yum, dates!) next time. I also used dark brown sugar (the only kind I can find in Italy) and therefore the bars have a much darker appearance than those in the book. I had some spiced pecans on hand so I used those, too. And I omitted the orange extract in the streusel, well, just because.
Chocolate Fig Filling
1 cup coarsely chopped dried figs (preferably Black Mission Figs, stems removed)
1 cup coarsely chopped dried pitted dates (stems removed)
About 2 cups warm water, enough to cover dried fruit
3 Tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
2 Tablespoons fine cognac
1 1/2 T. finely grated orange zest
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cloves
1 cup premium semisweet chocolate chips, divided
Oatmeal Streusel Crust (and Topping)
2 3/4 cups quick-cook oats
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure orange extract
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup pecan halves, lightly toasted and cooled, and coarsely chopped
(recipe greatly condensed from the cookbook version – get the cookbook for detailed instructions!)
- Preheat oven to 350F and line a 9×13 baking pan with aluminum foil. Lightly coat with nonstick spray or butter.
- Prepare the chocolate-fig filling: Boil the figs and dates in a 3qt. saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain fruit and blot dry with paper towels, let sit for about 10 minutes to absorb excess moisture. In a food processor, add the fruit, brown sugar, cognac, orange zest and spices and process for about 30 seconds or until the mixture is reduced to a smooth paste. Cool completely and stir in 1/2 cup chocolate chips.
- Mix the Oatmeal streusel crust (and topping): combine the oats, flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Set aside. Combine brown sugar and butter with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well, and then the extracts. Add the dry ingredients and mix by hand until thoroughly mixed. Stir in pecans.
- Assemble the bars – press 2/3 of the streusel into the bottom of the pan and put aside the rest. It should be about 1/4-3/8inch thickness. Spread the fig/chocolate filling evenly over the crust. Drop the remaining streusel by heaping tablespoons on top to create a cobbled effect; then sprinkle with the rest of the chocolate chips.
- Bake about 40 minutes, or until the streusel is golden brown and dry to the touch. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely in the pan.
Cookie Swap is available on Amazon and through independent booksellers.
Disclosure: I received this book from the author but if you’ve read my review policy, I clearly state I do not promise a review for anything sent my direction, and I haven’t been compensated for this post. There are some affiliate links to products in this post, and I will receive 4% if you purchase them through the links. Otherwise, you can just use Google and find them yourself!