What prompts you to try a recipe? Is it the ingredients? A technique to learn? The photo?
Or the name?
I am attracted to names that have culture or history behind them, especially if they evoke the smells and flavours of places long ago and far away. Why have pinwheels when there is rugelache, sweet bread when there is krantz or babka, meat loaf when we can have farsumagru, pasties instead of borek or saltenas, or chocolate scrolls when there is kakaós csiga?
(Then, I am also fascinated by recipes with unusual ingredients and techniques. Like turduken, or the Tabrizi kofteh, or 90% hydration bread, or making Ratatouille’s ratatouille.)
Reading about these recipes, their origins and histories, and each step involved, is almost as good as tasting the food itself. I suppose, I studied literature at university and have always been susceptible to the magic of a well-turned phrase. Also as the saying goes: “This is what recipes are, stories of pretend meals.”
Cucidati is one of these recipes that got my attention with an intriguing name. A spiced Italian fig cookie that is made at Christmas, the name means ‘little bracelets’. Italians, especially Sicilians, still call these “mum’s cookies” and for them, it wouldn’t be Christmas without cucidati.
While the cookies might be like a version of fig newtons or other filled cookies, the name cucidati and the distinctive crescent shape made the recipe intriguing. I’ve read different versions of the recipe and wondered about who made the first batch of cucidati (and is the singular form of the noun cucidato?), whether it came from Sicily and shows the influence of Arabic cuisine in the spiced fig filling, and whether anyone ever tried to wear it as a bracelet.
So, when I saw this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) recipe is X cookies, or Nick Malgieri’s riff on cucidati, I became all excited and couldn’t resist making two shapes: the traditional ‘bracelet’ and the X shape. I also couldn’t resist icing some of the cookies with royal icing (as some traditional recipes call for), and dusting the others with icing sugar (as Nick Malgieri’s recipe asks for).
So it was that we had a festival of cucidati, a preview of Christmas.
And prompted us to say, “Let’s go to Sicily again!” – because this was one tasty cookie. Mr Gander took one bite and exclaimed “Oh yum! What is it?”. My explanation led us to reminisce about all the jam tarts and sweet glazed media lunas we ate, and the pastry shops (with more varieties of pastry than we could imagine, or realistically, sample) that we visited during our haphazard drive around that island. And that led us to say “Do you remember?” – about the mosaics, ruins, Valley of the Temples, the port to Malta, the welcoming, funny, idiosyncratic, and occasionally maddening hoteliers we met, including that old couple in Taormina who insisted on demonstrating how we should lock and unlock the front door by turning the key twice: “To lock: Uno. Due. To unlock: Uno. Due.”
And then we decided to focus on the cookies for now. The pastry was crunchy, but tasted as though it may soften over a couple of days. The filling had that sultry complex mix of flavours that I’ve come to associate with some Italian and Eastern European pastry fillings. I left the fillings a little chunkier, so there was an intriguing succession of flavours that ultimately mingled to a harmonious (albeit sultry, complex) whole.
The icing was probably unnecessary, but pushed the cookie into the realm of almost-excessive sweetness which we had come to associate with Sicilian pastries. After all, Christmas should be a time of excess – food, sweets, face time with the family, and (fingers crossed) festive goodwill.
More TWD stuff
X cookies or cucidati
(adapted from Baking with Julia, and this recipe from SBS Australia)
Pastry (mostly based on Malgieri’s recipe, except as noted)
4 cups or about 550 grams plain / AP flour
2/3 cup or about 100 grams sugar (I used half white sugar and half icing sugar)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
8 ounces or 225 grams cold unsalted butter (or 1/2 pound / 225 grams cold lard), cut into pieces
4 large eggs (I was a little extravagant and used two eggs and four yolks)
1 tbsp water (because I subbed yolks for eggs)
Filling (adapted from both recipes with my own substitutions)
500 grams dried figs (Malgieri recommends Calimyrna or Mission figs), stems removed, chopped
200 grams dried pitted dates, chopped
100 g (1⅓ cups) dried raisins, chopped (I subbed dried cranberries)
50 grams candied blood orange peel, chopped
60 ml (¼ cup) syrup from making candied blood orange peel
60 ml (¼ cup) honey
100 grams (1 cup) walnuts, toasted
80 grams (½ cup) almonds (I subbed hazelnuts), toasted
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground nutmeg
Optional: egg wash made with yolk and water.
1. For the pastry, put flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor fitted with the metal blade; pulse just to mix. Add the butter pieces and pulse 20 times. Add eggs, yolks and water, pulse until dough forms a ball on the blade. Remove from processor and knead briefly on a lightly floured work surface until smooth. Shape dough into a log and wrap in cling wrap (I divided the dough into 10 pieces and wrapped them individually).
(You can also do this by hand, by rubbing butter into flour until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs, then mixing in the eggs and water with a wooden spoon)
2. For the filling, Put figs and dried fruit into the food processor and pulse with the metal blade until finely chopped. Do the same with the nuts and remaining filling ingredients. Mix the dried fruit and nuts together. Scrape filling onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead to blend it, and shape it into a rough log. Cut the log into 12 pieces (I divided it into 10…)
3. To make the cookies, Preheat to 350°F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper, or one baking tray if you are only making half of the recipe as I was. Working with one piece of dough at a time, on a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough to form a rope with your hands, then use a rolling pin to roll the rope into a rectangle.
Note: I rolled out the pastry between a piece of cling wrap folded in half. This made it easier to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter, and the folds in the cling wrap made sure the dough rolled out with clean, straight edges.
4. Roll a piece of filling into a rope that is the same length as the rolled-out dough, and center it on the dough. Pull the dough up around the filling, making a seam, and roll it into a cylinder. Cut into 3-inch or 7.5cm lengths.
5. For X cookies: Place a cut piece of dough vertically in front of you, seam side down, and make two cuts, one from the bottom, the other from the top, toward the center. Use your fingers to separate the slashes and create an X-shaped cookie. Optional: brush with egg wash.
6. For traditional cucidati: Cut 4 to 5 slits three quarters of the way through the logs. Shape biscuits gently to fan out slits. Optional: brush with egg wash.
7. Place cookies on baking tray and bake for 15 minutes, or until a light golden color. Transfer to racks to cool. Ice with royal icing and sprinkles (I used gold edible dust on a whim), or dust with icing or confectioner’s sugar just before serving.