I guess if I had to pick one cookie that screamed out Sicilian Christmas tradition it would be Cuccidati, or fig cookies. They are also called Buccellati, Cuddureddi, or—as our family calls them—Cosi di fico (loosely translated as fig things). Almost every Sicilian eats these at Christmas. Each family covets their own secret recipe. This one is my Nonna Vicenza’s recipe.
In the Old Country, the women in the family would get together to make them, because they were so labor-intensive. The cookies ranged from elaborate creations—such as the photo I included of the cookies our family makes—to more simple ones. My dad says that in the old days, families had a storage drawer that they would line with a tablecloth and store the Cuccidati in. They would make enough to last through January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. I can’t imagine them even lasting that long.
My grandmother Vincenza’s fig cookies were the essence of Christmas to me. As a child, there was a certain festivity around making these cookies. It was a joint effort with my grandmother, mother, and aunts. The smell of spices would permeate the air as she was making them, similar to those orange pomanders we make studded with cloves. The scent was heavenly to me and so were those cookies. A moist fig filling redolent with spices, orange peel, and nuts enrobed by a crisp pastry dough. What could be a more perfect combination? A thin glaze topped with colored nonpareils makes for a festive touch.
My mother Maria and Aunt Antionette had the job of cutting and decorating the cookies. Yes, I do mean cutting – with a razor blade in fact, and each cookie can take up to fifteen minutes to make. They were works of art. and you’ll see what I mean from the photos.
Being a working mom, I never had time to make them that fancy, so I make a simpler version, which I have included the instructions for. They are every bit as good. I hope you enjoy them as much as my family does.
Cuccidati: Sicilian Fig Cookies
Difficulty Rating: Medium
Makes approximately 2 1/2 dozen.
FOR THE DOUGH:
2 pounds all-purpose flour (about 6 1/2 cups)
12 ounces vegetable shortening (about 2 cups minus 1 tablespoon)
1 cup granulated sugar
5 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup ice water
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup whiskey or brandy
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 egg, beaten
Nonpareils for decorating (optional)
FOR THE FILLING:
1 pound dried Turkish figs
1 cup honey (18 ounces)
3/4 cup tangerine or orange marmalade
1/4 cup apricot marmalade
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup sultanas
1/4 cup candied orange peel or citron
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 Tablespoons pine nuts
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon nutmeg
2 Tablespoons dark rum, brandy, or whiskey
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
FOR THE GLAZE
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
3 Tablespoons water
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest (optional)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. MAKE THE DOUGH: The night before, place the flour in a large bowl and blend in the shortening by rubbing between the palms of your hands. Refrigerate overnight.
The following day, stir in the sugar, baking powder, and lemon zest to the flour mixture. Using a small bowl, combine the egg yolk and water with a whisk. Stir in the whiskey and vanilla, gradually add to the flour mixture while stirring with a fork as much as possible. Mix with your hands until the flour is just incorporated, don’t over-mix. Refrigerate for several hours.
2. MAKE THE FIG FILLING: Place figs in a medium bowl and cover with boiling water. Let steep for 10 to 15 minutes, drain and cut off stem ends. Using a meat grinder fitted with a coarse-grind disk or a food processor, grind the figs or run through the processor until a thick, smooth, paste is formed.
Using a medium heavy-bottom pan, over medium-low heat, stir in the figs, honey, marmalade, jam, raisins, sultanas, orange peel, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, cinnamon, orange zest, cloves, and nutmeg. Cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fig mixture becomes translucent and has the constituency of a thick jam. Add more honey to thin, if necessary. Remove from heat and stir in whiskey and vanilla extract. Can be made a week or two ahead of time.
3. MAKE THE COOKIES: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 cookie sheets with shortening. Divide the dough in four parts. Take one piece of dough and knead several times, roll out on a lightly floured board into a 4 1/2-inch by 10-inch strip, less than 1/4-inch thick. Using a teaspoon, place a 1-inch diameter strip of filling along the center of the dough. Brush with beaten egg along top edge of the strip.
Bring the bottom end over the filling and fold over the top end with the egg wash, overlapping by 1/4 to 1/2-inch. Turn the roll over seam-side down. Optional: decorate by making cuts along the sides and top with a sharp knife or single-edge razor. Repeat with remaining dough.
Place on cookie sheet and bake about 25 to 30 minutes, until lightly browned. Cut with a serrated knife into 1 1/2-inch pieces while still warm. Let cool.
4. MAKE THE GLAZE: Place all ingredients in a medium bowl and stir with a spoon until smooth. Glaze should have a thin consistency, if necessary add a little more water or sugar to get desired consistency.
Brush or spoon glaze over the top of each cookie and sprinkle with nonpareils.