Hello, again, from Connie Pappalardo.
It's Christmastime, which means one thing to the female contingent of a Sicilian-American household:
For the benefit of "out" people (non-Sicilians), this is pronounced koo-che-DAH-dee. Also referred to as "Sicilian fig cookies", "Sicilian Christmas cookies", "Italian fig/Christmas cookies", or simply "the figs" as in, "You gonna make the figs this year?" I have never heard them referred to in the singular.
Cuccidati is an ancient recipe, pre-dating Columbus if you judge by the ingredients, all of which are pre-Columbian, except for some sugar in the dough. Of course, there are certain people - and you know who you are - who feel that everything has to have chocolate in it and (I shudder to think) add chocolate chips to the filling. If you do this, stop it. It is an infamnia.
Every Christmas season, we baked cuccidati at my grandmother's house. When I say "we" I mean the donne of the family, and male children under the age of twelve. The non-Sicilian daughter-in-laws were expected to partake, but were closely monitored. Adult males were not invited to this gathering, even if they were so inclined to be, which they definitely were not. In fact, most of them resented the invasion because it took over the kitchen (the main room in a Sicilian household), and I once even heard my Grandfather snarl, "Big deal. Buy some Fig Newtons and put frosting on them." This, of course, was greeted with the mal occhio from my Grandmother, but otherwise ignored. Take into consideration that my Grandfather eschewed ricotta in his lasagna and the fact that baking cuccidati is a leisurely activity spread out over 2-3 days, and that's sort of an explanation.
I'm going to share my family's recipe with you. Yes, it's complicated and yes, it will probably take you three days. But learn how to make cuccidati and you can have your pick of handsome Sicilian men to marry (check their work history first).
Call your sisters. Put on your hoop earrings and your red aprons. Leave plenty of time to argue about who's got the "right" recipe. And prepare to get sticky.
Day 1: Dough
3 lbs of cake flour (13 1/2 cups. I looked it up.)
6 tsp of baking powder (yes, six)
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 tsp of salt
3 sticks of butter (really)
1 cup of vegetable shortening (Crisco) or lard
2 cups of milk
Sift together (or stir together, I'm not the kind of girl who "sifts") the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. In a really big-ass bowl. With a pastry cutter, cut in the butter and shortening until crumbly. Gradually add enough milk to make a medium-soft dough. Knead dough for 10 minutes, or until smooth and satiny. Place in a covered bowl or container and put in the fridge at least an hour (better overnight). Bring to room temperature when ready to use.
Day 2: Filling
1/2 lb of dates
1 1/2 lbs of dried figs, as soft as you can find, hard tips trimmed
1 cups of blanched, slivered almonds
1/4 cup candied, chopped citron
1/3 cup of raisins
1 small bottle of orange marmalade (or a cut-up orange, peel and all)
3 Tbl of honey
1 tsp of ground cinnamon
A little whiskey (The good stuff, and just a splash, because you get to drink the rest. My Grandmother preferred Manhattans.)
Toast your almonds in a 300 degree oven until they're golden and you can smell them. Chop the dates and the figs. Combine the dates and figs in a big bowl with all the other ingredients, except the almonds. Put through a food grinder*, using a coarse blade. (Add a teaspoon of water now and then, if needed, to keep things moving.) Chop up the almonds and stir them into the ground mixture the best you can. Gather into a ball, wrap in Saran Wrap, and put in a cool place until ready to use. Some recipes say that this mixture will keep for a week. I am of the opinion that you could put it in a time capsule and bury it in Boston and three hundred years from now someone will be able to make cuccidati.
*A few words about food grinders. I'm talking about the kind that my grandmother used that looks like something that would make Dick Cheney's eyes light up. They are easy to find in second-hand stores, and will be until the yuppie kitchen boutiques "re-discover" them and start selling them for the equivalent of a downpayment on a car. I suppose you could use a food processor, but I wouldn't know, having never used one. Try it.
Day 3: Baking and Icing
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll dough thin and cut into rectangles about the size of an index card. Put a teaspoon (more or less) of filling, shaping it like a Tootsie Roll, on top of each rectangle. Fold closed tightly and pinch the ends. Make 2-3 little slashes on one side of the cookie and shape it into a "C". Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet (thank God! I hate greasing cookie sheets) for 17 to 20 minutes, or until cookies are very lightly browned. Let cool. Ice cookies with the icing recipe (below).
1 box of confectioner's sugar
6 Tbl of warm milk
2 tsp of lemon extract (the real stuff)
2 tsp of vanilla extract (ditto)
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Add a little more milk, if icing is too thick. Ice cookies, spooning the icing on, and sprinkle some colorful little nonpareils on them -fast! - while the icing is still moist (this is one of the times in life when small children come in handy). Do ten cookies or so at a time. You may need 2 batches of the icing, depending on how thick you lay it on.
That's it. Trust me, it's easier than it sounds. The Manhattans help. If you find that you have extra dough, you can bake the cookies without the filling and the sprinkly things on top. Which your man will probably like better than the figs because, of course, he doesn't appreciate anything.
Buon Natale. And, btw, NOBODY sings Ave Maria like Perry Como.