Before we worry about the oat-y crust we used for these bars, the filling needs tending to as there is a bit of work that has to be done first. To breathe some life back into the shriveled figs and dates, they are covered with water, brought to a boil and left to simmer until they have plumped back up and softened. While this is needed, they can absorb a bit too much liquid, which would leave you with a filling that is too loose. To solve this, the figs and dates are drained, then left to sit on several layers of paper towels to absorb the excess moisture. Since this takes several minutes, you can jump ahead and start preparing the crust mixture as we did.
Oats, of the quick-cooking variety, are mixed with flour and baking powder for the dry ingredients, which are added to a creamed combo of butter, plenty of brown sugar, a couple eggs, vanilla and a somewhat more unique ingredient, orange extract! While it calls for a couple teaspoons worth, I can understand if you'd rather not run out and pick this up - try using fresh orange zest instead... it may not be the same, but it is a swap I would do. Also, with the oats, if you just have old-fashioned on hand, feel free to use that instead if you like - just give them a quick pulse or two in a food processor (or blender) to break them up a bit. Sweet and nutty already, to give this crust mixture a real thunder, toasted chopped walnuts were stirred in.
The re-hydrated fruit had plenty of time to drain now - into the food processor they went, along with a touch more brown sugar and cognac, which acts as magnetic ingredients to grab your attention. To thrust in aromatic notes, orange zest, cinnamon, fresh grated nutmeg and ground cloves were also added just before pureeing the mixture into a smooth paste. Friction from the food processor may warm this filling back up (along with already being warm from them simmering), so scoop it into another bowl and leave it to cool down. Why bother? Because you want the bittersweet chocolate pieces you are about to stir in to keep their shape and not melt down.
Assembled by smashing down a portion of the crust mixture into a baking pan and spreading the slick filling over the top, the bars were then topped off with dollops of the remaining oat crust and more of that bittersweet chocolate. I found the crust mixture pretty sticky, so to help ease it over the bottom of the pan, try laying a piece of plastic wrap over the top and then use your fingers to smush (technical term, I know... hee hee!) it evenly over the bottom. When you drop the rest of the crust on top, don't try to spread it smooth, covering every single spot - leave it in haphazard dollops for a more appealing, rustic approach with peaks and valleys. The bars need to bake long enough to cook the crust and topping to a rich golden brown that is dry to the touch.
With smells of an adult homemade fig-newton bar lingering all day, I hastily eased my knife through the crusty topping, into the sweet fruit filling and finally cleared the way to my square with a little extra pressure to release the bottom. Think a thick, moist and chewy oatmeal cookie stuffed with a spiced figalicious (ugh, really... did I just say that?) filling and spiked with chunky chocolate nibbles. Almost taken aback by the richness at first, I found the crust, with its firm, buttery texture, was just the right paring to stand up to the decadent filling and create a hand held cookie that is substantial, isn't too messy to eat and may just rock your world! I thought the chocolate might take these a little to over the top, but I'm glad I didn't reduce the amount - those dark nuggets seemed to fit right in, adding to the homey, comforting quality these bars had.
Chocolate-Fig Oatmeal Bars