There are many cookies we like to bake here at Christmas time. There is one that is my most favorite: i cuccidati! They are Sicilian Christmas cookies also known as ‘buccellati’.
"pinniculu pinnacula pinnia, s'un era pi pinniculu pinnaculu muria". Part of a Sicilian proverb.
The cuccidati have a long history and the filling ingredients are for me, very representative of Sicily and of my dad. Some variations of the name in dialect: cucciddatu, vurciddatu, purciddatu or‘ucciddatu. The name buccellati derives from the medieval Latin “bucellatum”. These cookies are said to have antique origins of the Roman "panificatus" .
The filling shows the Arab influences of Sicily and consists of sweet dried figs, raisins, candied citron, almonds, chopped hazelnuts, fresh lemon and orange zest, and a touch of spice. I've seen recipes that include clove and cinnamon. I like to sometimes add a dash of cinnamon. You can decide if you want to add a dash of cloves. The cuccidati take on many different shapes: wreaths and sometimes the "X" form. They are sometimes even shaped as animals. I don't think I'll be attempting any time soon the animal shaped version. As in the way the dialects change as you travel from town to town in Sicily, so do these cookies. There are the different dialect names for the cookies, different shapes they can be formed in, and the slight differences in the fillings.
There is the Sicilian background of these cookies and my family and then there is the Calabrian version and my mother-in-law. The other day my husband made a Skype call to his parents. It was almost Christmas Eve and Teresa was busy baking and it was already 10:30 at night. She finally came to the computer to say "ciao" and she had on her cute apron and was carrying a huge basket of "i sammartini". That's Calabrese for her biscotti di San Martine, which are almost the same as these cuccidati. They are also made at Christmas time in Calabria as they are in Sicily. Except Teresa doesn't reserve them just for the holidays. She makes them whenever she visits us and whenever we are there in Italy with her. Any time is a special occasion. Their recipe is almost the same as the Sicilian version. I called her the next day to have her run by the filling for me again. She told me it's simply figs, raisins, almonds, some Moscato or Vin Santo, a little bit of chocolate chips and a dash of cinnamon. I have seen recipes with dates and honey. Teresa reminded me her recipe is made without dates and no need for any honey. She told me to add orange marmalade since I can't find orange peels from wonderful oranges like she gets from Calabria.
Since we were thousands of miles away from Teresa and couldn't be with them for Christmas, I had to bake i cuccidati (or as she calls them, i sammartini). Normally we make cuccidati with our neighbor's Sicilian parents or with my mom. Nonno Sal and Nonna Maria (my neighbor's parents)were out of town this Christmas and it was up to me to bring a little bit of Sicily (and Calabria!) to my kitchen and for our holiday table.
My mother used to make them every Christmas for us when we were growing up. She came by on Christmas Eve to bake with my kids and my nieces. She gave me a hand with the cuccidati. The kids were awaiting their turn to get baking the sugar cookies. The cookies are not that hard to make. If you can have someone around to give you a hand, it will make the process go a little quicker. While the dough rests in the fridge, you can make the fig filling. Then when the cookies are filled and baked, it's time to ice them. When you ice them, it's better to have someone with you to help you with the sprinkles. The kids are always ready to sprinkle!
It's been almost a year since my dad passed and this is the first Christmas without him. Daddy was from Sicily so I think of him when I bake these cookies. He was greatly missed this holiday. I told the kids when we were picking up some last minute things on Christmas Eve that I can't believe my dad won't be coming by with his famous ham platter. I told them I will miss his ham so much this year and that the dinner won't seem the same without it. My mom asked if we would bake a ham this year and I couldn't do it without my dad. My daughter told me even though his ham was her favorite dish of the holiday, she won't really miss the ham as much as she will miss him.
A year passed in a flash and the holiday as well. I kept myself busy and kept the spirits high because it is the kids favorite time of year. I baked these cookies thinking of him. I baked the cuccidati thinking if he were in the kitchen with me he would be my eager assistant. I imagined that in his opinion, a little more Marsala in the filling would be better. My dad would most likely tell me, "Don't be shy with the raisins. Add a little more!" (he loved raisins!). I could imagine him hovering over me as I sliced the cookies making sure each piece was precisely cut. My dad was quite the perfectionist. I could see his very happy face and eyes light up in satisfaction when they were complete.
Here's a photo of my dad from Christmas 2011. It was too hot for him to that year to wear his favorite Christmas red, white and green sweater. His ham platter was very Sicilian with touches of rosemary and orange slices from his garden. He added slices of star fruit and there was, of course, his huge and proud smile. Miss you, daddy. I baked these cookies remembering you and all of our Christmases together!
a note on the cookies: Chocolate is optional. My mother-in-law always adds a little bit of chopped chocolate to hers. I made one batch of filling with dark chocolate chips and one without. I like it both ways. I tried to keep as precise as I could with measuring the size of the cookies. When my mom was around helping me with the first batch, they were very evenly sliced. When she went outside to take a phone call, I was a little more liberal with the size of the cookies. They weren't as symmetrical as the ones she and I sliced together. The fig filling could be made a week ahead and stored in the refrigerator. I know some bakers don't cook the filling and just bring it all together in a food processor. I like the way the fig thickens and becomes more like a thick paste from cooking it with all the other ingredients.
These cookies may surprise you and be a hit with your kids and trust me, they are a hit when you bring them to a party. I made the mistake of not bringing enough to a Christmas Eve party we went to this year. I brought more American cookies and less of the fig cookies thinking not everyone would like them. Big mistake! I disappointed the host and promised to bring more this week! They are that good! Happy baking!
Buon Natale-Merry Christmas!
Cuccidati-Sicilian Fig Cookies
Prep Time: 30-40 minutes
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes
Ingredients (12 cookies)
- ½ cup butter, softened
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ tsp. baking soda
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 cup dried and chopped figs, stems removed
- 1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
- 2/3 cup raisins
- 1/4 cup chocolate chips (add more if you like more chocolate flavor)
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- 1/2 cup Moscato (or Marsala or white wine)
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon
- 2 Tablespoons orange marmalade
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more if necessary
In a stand mixer, beat butter until smooth (1 minute). Beat in the sugars and soda until combined. Beat in egg and vanilla. Lower speed of mixer and beat in the flour. Divide dough in half in plastic wrap. Chill until firm. While dough chills, prepare the fig filling (see directions below).
when dough is firm:
Sprinkle a little flour on the bottom and top of a portion of dough and place it in between two sheets of plastic wrap (or parchment paper). Roll into a 10x8 inch rectangle. Cut each rectangle lengthwise in half.
Spread fig filling lengthwise down the middle of each strip.
Gently lift up one long side of dough and fold it over the filling.
Lift the other side over the filling. Pinch together the seam.
Flip over the log seam side down.
Carefully slice into the pieces.
Place them seam side down on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Finish filling and slicing the rest of the dough.
Bake in 375 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer pieces to a wire rack to cool. Drizzle with lemon glaze (see directions below) and sprinkles.
Fig Filling: In a medium saucepan combine filling ingredients. Cook over medium-low heat for about 5-7 minutes. If it doesn't seem moist enough, add orange juice a Tablespoon at a time until the mixture soft and thick. Cool to room temperature.
Lemon Glaze: In a small bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice until it forms a thick but pourable glaze (add more lemon juice if necessary). If it gets too thin, add a little more confectioners' sugar.
Drizzle on each cookie, add the sprinkles and let set, about 15 minutes.
To Store: Place in layers separated by wax paper in an airtight container. They are perfect to give as a gift.