Wednesday, December 26, 2012


A Christmas or two ago, I did a post about the mother of all Sicilian cookies– Cuccidati. But I hinted at a cookie far more strange and wondrous, one that always fascinated me as a child– Ossa dei Morti or "Bones of the Dead." Of course, in that particularly Italian habit of having different names for the same thing, my family called them Scadalini. My first etymological instinct was for some Arab linguistic connection, as is often the case, especially in the southern parts of Sicily where my grandfather's ancestors are from. My sister, however, who speaks fluent Arabic, saw no such connection. And my guru of all food Sicilian, Mary Taylor Simeti, consulted with her experts in Palermo and informed me that they've never heard the word and can find no historical evidence of it. It turns out the most wondrous and mysterious thing about Scadalini starts with its name.

I've associated the Sicilian cookies that my grandmother and aunt made with Christmas simply because they were always part of our holiday meals, but Scadalini are actually cookies more specifically made around All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day– the Day of the Dead, or our Halloween. The reason for the name "Bones of the Dead" is obvious once the cookies are baked and cooled - the rigatoni shaped cylinder of dough oozes out its soft filling, leaving a crispy bone white shell intact. Essentially powdered sugar and anise, nothing could be simpler (or stranger.)


This recipe comes from my Aunt Lena who learned from her mother Rosa (my great grandmother, or "Big Nana.") We always called her Big Nana so as to distinguish her from my grandmother (just Nana), but in ironic fact she was all of four feet six inches tall. Rosa emigrated from a small fishing town in southern Sicily in the early 1900's. She was all of 9 and had informed her older brother in New York that she would be accompanying his fiance and to please send her a one-way ticket for the ship, thank you very much. Leaving her parents and home at the age of 9 should tell you all you need to know about the towering will and determination of my diminutive great grandmother. She spoke no English and was therefore a distant and imposing figure in my childhood, but my father remembers living in outright terror of her.

A few things to keep in mind with this recipe– the dough resembles pasta dough more than cookie dough and the rolled and cut raw cookies need to sit over night to form a dry crust on top. Other than that, these are fairly simple affairs.

2 pounds powdered sugar (2 boxes)
1 pound flour (Aunt Lena measured it in an empty sugar box)
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons fennel seeds (lightly toasted and ground)
3 eggs
water as needed

Combine all the dry ingredients in a very large bowl and whisk about to thoroughly mix. Beat the eggs in a small bowl and then mix into the dry ingredients. Add water a little at a time until the dough resembles pasta dough. Test it by rolling a small amount into a 3/4 rope, like you're making gnocchi– it should just hold together. Kneading helps to bind it all together.

Once you've got the dough to the right consistency, take a small hunk and roll it out as above, into a 3/4 inch rope and then cut with a knife or pastry srcaper into 1 1/2 inch pieces. Arrange the cookies on a hard surface or cookie sheets (if you have a lot) and let them sit overnight or at least 12 hours to form a hard crust. The bottoms will remain moist and this is how the dough escapes the shell during baking.

Preheat the oven to 275˚

When ready to bake, place the cookies on a parchment lined cookie sheet, 2 inches apart (approximately 12 cookies per sheet) and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the tops start to golden.

Let them dry completely and get crunchy before eating many with a piping hot espresso.


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