Compared to her colorful cakes, tarts, and eclairs glistening in the pastry case at Lafayette, pastry chef Jen Yee’s Linzer Newton cookies aren’t much to look at. They’re petit, nut-colored pillows, piled on the counter somewhere between the chocolate chip cookies and the granola bars. But like their other more humble-looking neighbors – the burnished mini cannelles, the messy and magnificent almond-banana-coconut-chocolate "croissant du jour" – they’re an impressive feat of pastry in their own way.As the name suggests, these cookies (a winter addition to the Lafayette counter) are a cross between a Fig Newton and a Linzer cookie. The cookie itself is softer and more tender than you average Newton, made rich and Linzer-like with ground hazelnuts and warm wintry spices. It curls around a hearty raspberry and fig jam laced with a little brandy, and makes for a great two-bite snack on a cold day.
Yee says she had always loved Fig Newtons – or thought she did – until she actually tried one recently, for the first time since she was a kid. "It was not as good as I remembered." Disappointed, she decided to develop her own. For help on the recipe, Yee called up legendary pastry chef Sherry Yard, "because she’s the cookie queen." And because she had tasted Yard’s fig bars and knew she had a good recipe (it’s actually in her cookbook, Desserts by the Yard and can be found in adaptations on the Internet).
With Yard’s recipe as a starting point, Yee began making adjustments. She had also been contemplating Linzer cookies for the holidays, so she decided to blend the two. She replaced a third of the flour with ground hazelnuts, then added nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. She cooked her dried figs in brandy, then stirred in raspberry jam. And, because it wouldn’t be hard with this sort of recipe, where gluten isn’t needed to help anything rise, she swapped regular flour for Cup 4 Cup, Thomas Keller’s brand of gluten free flour (she emphasizes that these cookies still may not be 100 percent gluten free, since they’re made in a kitchen that churns out dozens of bread loaves and gluten-full pastries a day). The cookies she makes here are the result.
The dough starts with cold butter. Yee doesn’t let it soften first, as you would for many cookie recipes, because she doesn’t want to aerate it. Soft butter quickly whips up fluffy, which is good for cookies and cakes that need lift, but not these. It would make the dough too delicate, Yee explains, and "the cookies would break down too much when baking."
The cold butter whacks around in the bowl as the mixer strong-arms it into a smooth paste. First it forms big globs, which tend to climb up the sides of the bowl and cling to the top of the spinning paddle, so Yee has to stop often and scrape it all down.
When the butter is smooth she pours in the sugars – white and a little brown – and mixes on low. Again, she doesn’t want to aerate the mixture, so she goes slowly, and stops as soon as the sugar is completely blended in.
Next she pours in egg whites. These will make the dough soft and supple, but also strong, so it’s easy to roll out, fill with jam, and roll up into logs. Using whole eggs, Yee says, would make the dough too rich and delicate, while an eggless shortbread dough would be too likely to crumble, and would lose that soft, cakey Newton-like texture.
She adds the whites in small increments, because liquid doesn’t blend well with cool, thick butter unless you add it bit by bit. When all the egg whites have been added, the mixture still looks coagulated, like a broken hollandaise, but no chunks of butter remain.
Finally, Yee adds the dry ingredients. It’s about two parts flour to one part ground hazelnuts, plus cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, and baking powder. Dumping it all into one container, Yee gives everything a rough, unthorough mix. Again, she adds the dry ingredients a little at a time, this time mostly to keep it all from flying out of the bowl.
Though the dough is soft and sticky, it’s ready to roll right away. Yee scoops out big blobs of it and slaps them onto a piece of parchment paper. She smushes and presses the dough out into a rough rectangle and covers it with another sheet of parchment paper. Then she runs the sandwiched slab back and forth through the spinning rollers of a dough sheeter, which will roll it out much faster and more precisely than any rolling pin.
As Yee dials down the settings to narrower and narrower widths, the slab of dough labors to squeeze through the rollers. It stretches out into a wide oval, and Yee pauses between the last few rolls to trim the ends, which are threatening to extrude out from between the parchment. When it’s thin enough, somewhere around a quarter of an inch, Yee puts the dough in the freezer to quickly chill it, making it firm but pliable, easy to cut and easy to roll into logs.
Meanwhile, she prepares the filling, which is actually two jams, raspberry and fig, mixed together. She makes both from scratch, but already has a big batch of raspberry jam on hand (it’s also used for other pastries, and for people who want something on their toast), so here she just makes the fig jam.
Yee has already snipped the stems off these dried Calimyrna figs and cut them into quarters. She dumps them in a pot with equal parts brandy and water, some lemon juice, and just a little sugar. This is a quick jam: once the liquid boils, Yee simmers the mixture for just five minutes, while the figs soak up the liquid and soften. When the air is heady with evaporated brandy, she pours the mixture into a Robot-Coupe (the only type of food processor you’ll ever find in a restaurant kitchen) and purees it until it’s "as smooth as possible."
The result is not very pretty, a sludge the color of old apple slices, but swirling in the raspberry jam turns it a more attractive shade of rusty burgundy. The mixture has twice as much fig as raspberry in it because, like its color, the flavor of the raspberry really stands out. "Figs are more muted," Yee explains, "raspberry is more high-pitched." This is a thick jam, more a paste than a liquid, and it will be even thicker when it cools. That may not be ideal for toast, but it means the filling won’t ooze everywhere when the cookies are sliced and baked.
To assemble the cookies, Yee pulls the dough from the freezer and uses a ruler and a metal straightedge to divide it into two five-inch wide rectangles. After painting one long side of each rectangle with egg white, so that it seals tightly when rolled into a log, she smears a few big dollops of chilled filling onto the dough. "You want to be generous with the jam," she explains, as she meticulously spreads it into an even layer across all but the egg white-painted inch on one long side.
"I use the paper to help me roll," Yee says as she picks up both parchment and dough and folds one side of the slab inwards toward the middle. Unwrapping it, she gently presses the fold smooth and tight with her fingertips. Then, again using the parchment to keep the long roll even, she folds the dough in half, so that the bare end seals on the bottom. After doing the same with the other log, she wraps each in parchment. These will go in the freezer again, to firm up before slicing and baking. Usually Yee makes a bigger batch than the one shown here, and slices up a log or two for baking a day. The rest of the logs stay in the freezer, and are usually enough to last the bakery a week.
Yee pulls out an already-chilled log and begins slicing cookies, measuring each before she does. She’s decided to make the cookies as long as her ruler is wide, a shortcut of sorts that makes it easy to measure. Sliced, the cookies get brushed with egg white and sprinkled with a little spiced sugar, which will melt into each cookie, "giving it a gloss." They bake for just 10 minutes, and come out puffed but barely golden around the bottom. "They don’t really color that much," says Yee. But that’s when they’re best, still soft and cakey all the way through, holding a tight spiral of sticky, tart and sweet jam. Even better warm.