Smile Politely

A Sinfully Sicilian Christmas Cookie

In large families, the holidays are often surrounded by a myriad of food traditions. Family members all arrive at the table with signature dishes — and these are recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Whether it’s Aunt Ida’s green bean casserole or Uncle Frank’s marinara, the holidays wouldn’t be the same without these delicious traditions.

My great-great-grandmother Angelina Guagliardo Scaletta was known throughout Altavilla Milicia, Sicily, as one of the finest bakers in town. When her daughter Rosa emigrated to Chicago in the early 1900s she brought along many of her treasured recipes, including dozens for Sicilian cookies that were baked to celebrate special occasions and family gatherings. Wedding, holiday, baptism or birthday — in our family, there have always been plenty of cookies to go around.

My mother learned to make many of these cookies from my great aunt Lena, and every Christmas she carries on the family tradition. The most popular of all these cookies, the cuccidati, is a fig cookie accented with honey, almonds and orange.

Centuries ago, cuccidati were made with the finest ingredients available in Sicily: almonds, important religious and artistic symbols; figs and raisins, staples in Sicilian cuisine; fresh honey, gathered from the countryside; oranges, a special treat, available only during the growing season; and cinnamon, brought from India. Cuccidati were the finest blend of tastes and texture, and for this reason became a cookie reserved for special occasions.

This year, the family decided it was my turn to learn the craft of making cuccidati, which means that from now own it will be my responsibility to carry on the family tradition. So last weekend I packed up the car and traveled through the icy rain to help my mom with her holiday baking. During the holidays, she sends packages of cuccidati, and other Italian cookies, to our distant friends and relatives — and though this has long been a labor of love, she welcomed the opportunity to pass the torch.

And I was glad to accept it.

Over the years, my mom has received many requests for this coveted recipe, and has been more than happy to pass it on to others. Several years ago I came across a similar recipe printed in the December issue of Gourmet magazine. I imagine that for many Sicilians across the country cuccidati are a treasured family heirloom.

Our recipe for cuccidati makes about six dozen cookies. My mom bakes about three batches every year, so we decided to break up the process up into two days, making the filling on the first day and rolling, baking and frosting on the second.


For the filling:
• 1 pound dried figs
• 1 pound seedless golden raisins
• 1 pound almonds, chopped
• 1 cup honey, plus extra
• 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
• Zest and juice of one orange

For the dough:
• 5 ½ cups flour, plus extra
• 1 tablespoon plus 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
• 1 ½ cups sugar
• 8 oz. shortening, chilled
• 3 eggs
• ½ cup whole milk
• 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

For the frosting:
• 1 pound confectioners’ sugar
• ¼ cup whole milk, plus extra
• Colored sprinkles for garnish

Combine the figs and raisins in a bowl. Add enough boiling water to cover them, and let sit for three hours or overnight. Drain them, placing a small amount in a food processor. Pulse until smooth, then transfer to a bowl. Continue pureeing the remaining figs and raisins in small batches. When all the figs and raisins have been pureed, fold in the chopped nuts, honey, cinnamon and orange zest and juice, and mix well. If the filling seems dry, add more honey.

Transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for two hours or overnight to let the flavors blend.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift the flour and baking powder together. Place in a large bowl, and add the sugar. Add the shortening, and using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut it in until the mixture resembles small pellets. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, milk and vanilla.

Make a well in the flour mixture and add the egg-milk-vanilla combination. Mix well, then turn out onto a floured work surface. Knead the dough quickly, just until it comes together. Roll out the dough to 1/8 inch thickness, and cut into strips about 2 ½ inches wide.

Spread the filling down the center of the length of each strip. Fold the sides over the filling, overlapping slightly. Cut each strip into two inch length pieces and place on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and let them cool completely before frosting.

Place the confectioners’ sugar in a bowl, and add the milk. Stir, adding more milk as necessary, until thick frosting forms. Spread the frosting on the cookies and decorate with colored sprinkles immediately.

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