Saturday, December 25, 2010
At some point in my early adulthood I decided there were several things that I needed to start gathering from my grandparents' generation before it was too late – in no particular order, the negatives of old family pictures, tea cups and Sicilian cookie recipes. The negatives turned out to be easy - both grandmothers and a couple of aunts had surprising stashes and were happy to let me take them. The tea cups I'll leave for another time. It's the cookies that interest us here.
For me, no childhood memory of family holidays is complete without homemade Sicilian cookies – sesame cookies (good for dunking in coffee), spiced chocolate balls, the strange and mysterious anise-flavored "bones of the dead," and the glorious and glorified Cuccidatti (think fig newton for grownups.) When I started making these cookies myself, it was usually during the Christmas holiday season when I had the time and the inclination. Over the years I have come to associate all of these Sicilian cookies with the holidays but in reality only the Cuccidatti are traditionally served during Christmas.
Nothing sums up the history of Sicily quite like a Cuccidatti. The mash-up of figs and raisins and chocolate and citrus represent all the occupiers, conquerors and rapists who have spent any appreciable time on the island – the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish. They're all there, wrapped snugly in cookie dough and sweetly drizzled with icing.
modified and adapted from Gourmet magazine
These cookies can be quite heavy (and in Sicily quite sweet) so over the years I've tried to lighten them up a bit. I'll use white figs (Calimyrna) in equal proportion to black figs (Mission) or substitute dried apricots for some of the black figs. I've seen recipes that won't say to chill either the filling or the dough but I think both are a good idea - the filling should have time to come together and the butter-dough should chill and set. Make them in the evening and then let it all sit overnight in the fridge.
4 oz almonds - toasted
3 oz pine nuts - toasted
4 oz Calimyra figs (or dried apricots)
4 oz Mission figs
4 oz golden raisins
zest of half a lemon
zest of half an orange
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 oz dark chocolate
3/4 cup honey
1/4 cup brandy (or grappa)
Put everything in a food processor and pulse until it's broken up and more or less uniform but not whizzed into a paste - you should be able to make out bits of nuts and chocolate etc. Refrigerate overnight or at least 8 hours covered in plastic wrap.
4 cups flour
1 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter - cubed
2 large eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
zest of half a lemon
zest of half an orange
Put all the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the cubed butter and pulse again until the butter is roughly pea-sized. Empty into a large mixing bowl. Combine the liquid ingredients into the food processor and mix. Add the liquid mix to the dry ingredients and stir with a fork until everything starts to come together. Switch to your hands and quickly knead it all together. Cut in half and form each half into a thick, rough, rectangle shape. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight, or at least 8 hours.
Making the cookies
Preheat the oven to 350˚
Measure 1/3 cup of the filling at a time and roll into logs about an inch wide and 10 inches long. The filling is quite sticky and a little hard to work with, so a tiny bit of flour on your hands can help. I've taken to using plastic wrap and my sushi roller and just squeezing the 1/3 cup of filling to the width of the bamboo roller.
Working with one piece of dough at a time (leaving the other in the refrigerator) roll into a 15"x14" rectangle, an 1/8" thick. With a ruler or straight-edge trim to 13"x10", then cut into 4 (10"x 3 1/4") strips. Lay a log of filling in the middle of each strip and then bring up the dough on each side and pinch the seam together. Roll the log over, seam side down, and press gently, flattening it slightly. Cut the log into 1 1/2 - 2 inch cookies with a sharp, floured knife and then arrange on a large baking sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat mat.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 15-20 minutes, until lightly golden around the edges. Transfer to cooling racks for at least 10 minutes before icing.
Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons lemon + orange juice (you didn't throw them away after zesting, did you?) sprinkles (more or less depending on the degree of your inner child)
Whisk together the sugar and vanilla with enough citrus juice to make a thick, pourable icing. Drip the icing onto the warm cookies and shake those sprinkles. Let cool and store in an airtight container. Alternatively you could pour yourself a mug of coffee and consume the entire batch standing at the counter.