I was walking through the maze-like backstreets of Newtown, and stopped in my tracks. In the air was a scent that was heady, sweet, fresh and just dive in and luxuriate. I think, am almost sure, it was the scent of jasmine flowers.
The memory of it so strong that I was still thinking about it days later, when I read about jasmine scented confectionaries and pastries that were made in Sicilian convents. Jasmine-scented ricotta, Sicilian pastries, the legendary fruits of the nuns’ labour. These ideas lingered like a line of poetry or music. Like a food earworm.
I didn’t have jasmine water, instead, I had lots of Sicilian pastries bookmarked under ‘must make this soon, really soon’. One of the recipes was Buccellato.
That’s how two of the Sicilian Christmas/new year ‘cakes’ found their way into our Christmas gift boxes, along with other goodies like thousand-layer spiral mooncakes (pictured above). I made a Sicilian version of Buccellato based on a recipe from Manu’s Menu, which is more like a giant cookie log with a fig-chocolate-wine filling. After I made it, I realised it’s like a larger version of the cuccidati or fig cookies from the Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) group, using a recipe from Baking with Julia.
Another version of Buccellato, from further North in Italy, is a yeast cake with the filling ingredients folded into the dough (see here, for example). But I couldn’t go past a Sicilian recipe just now, especially something that can be described as a giant cookie.
It’s a forgiving recipe. My circles weren’t perfectly circular, the pastry was perhaps unusually dimpled, but they still had an appealing home made look. The original recipe has an apricot jam glaze topped with pistachio and glace cherries. I also drizzled royal icing and sprinkled over finely grated dark chocolate. Gilding the lily? Me?
Buccellato makes a great food gift, not only because of its festive appearance. It lasts for quite a few days if kept in an airtight container. The filling probably gets better with time as the flavours meld together. It’s also a sturdy pastry, which was important as one of the gift boxes had a marathon journey around Sydney: it travelled to work on a commuter bus, got knocked around by briefcases and gym bags, walked to a cafe, back to a friend’s office, and caught the train home. No fluffy buttercream icing could have survived that round trip.
Sadly, I didn’t get to eat the Buccellati (imagine giving someone a cookie log with a slice missing). We still have some of the filling left though, and I’m thinking of Sicilian-style mince pies, maybe with a fabulously sturdy yet crispy pasta frolla (sweet pastry) from Mary Simetti’s book, Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle.
I’m still thinking about the scent of jasmine. We’ll get to that jasmine-scented ricotta one day. Soon.
This is not a quick recipe, it takes at least a good few hours, and preferably two days with an overnight rest for the pastry / cookie dough. On the other hand, it can be made in a leisurely manner, fitting around all the other chores that you may have forgotten until one or two weeks before Christmas, or unexpected guests, or just ‘I want to take a break and have some jasmine tea’.
Rolling out pastry: the pastry is soft at room temperature. Rolling it out between sheets of baking paper or cling wrap will keep it more manageable. Cling wrap can also be folded into a kind of tube, and if you roll out the dough to fill the tube, the dough will have neat edges, almost a perfect rectangle.
Comparisons: so far I’ve made similar recipes from Manu’s Menu, TWD/Baking with Julia and one from SBS Australia. Here are some thoughts on their similarities and differences. Note I’ve given Manu’s pastry recipe and the SBS Australia filling recipe below.
Lard vs butter: the TWD / Baking with Julia recipe give the option of using butter or lard, some recipes use butter. I’ve gone with the lard option (which, according to this article, isn’t quite as bad for me as I thought??), though butter would also give you that inimitable buttery flavour….
Eggs and sugar: Manu’s and TWD’s recipe both use whole eggs and white sugar; the SBS Australia recipe uses egg, extra yolks and icing sugar. I don’t have a preference, yet, out of the three – maybe I need to try them again? Since Manu’s Buccellato recipe got me baking, her pastry is given below.
The filling: My favourite, taste-wise, is the SBS Australia recipe, so that’s the one given below (amount adjusted to roughly match the quantity in Manu’s recipe). Try the others too – there’s an element of personal taste, and the quality of the ingredients is just as important.
For the filling
750 grams dried figs, stems removed, chopped
300 grams golden raisins, chopped
225 grams dried pitted dates, chopped
150 grams walnuts, toasted
120 grams blanched almonds, toasted
2 tsp orange zest
2 tsp lemon zest
90 ml orange juice (I used 60ml orange juice plus 30ml brandy)
130 grams honey
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground nutmeg
For the dough
500 grams or 17 oz. flour
150 grams or 5.25 oz. sugar
200 grams or 7 oz. lard
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
1 tbsp honey
8 gms – a little more than 1/4 oz. baking soda
For the glaze and decoration
3 tbsp apricot jam (I’ve also used 4 tbsp honey, omitted the sugar and used 1/2 tbsp water)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp water
Candied or glace cherries, whole or chopped depending on your decorating preferences
Pistachios, chopped or ground depending on decorating preferences
Optional: royal icing, and finely grated dark chocolate
1. Make the filling: Process figs, dates, raisins, orange and lemon zest, juice and honey in a food processor until finely chopped (I got a kind of chunky paste, and quite liked that texture). Transfer to a bowl.
2. Process nuts in food processor until finely chopped (I processed the nuts until there was a mixture of finely ground and chunkier bits, the chunkier bits added texture to the filling). Add to fruit mixture with cinnamon and nutmeg, and stir to combine.
3. Make the dough: If using a stand mixer, put all pastry ingredients into its bowl and knead with a hook attachment for 5 minutes or until you get a smooth and pliable dough. If mixing by hand, mix together lard and sugar, then mix in eggs and honey, then add the other ingredients until a smooth dough results. Wrap in cling wrap and rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour in the fridge.
4. Make the Buccellato: note the instructions here make one big Buccellato. I made two smaller, skinnier Buccellati for gift boxes (skinnier rectangle = skinnier Buccellato), which meant I had some filling left over.
5. Roll out the dough to a rectangle of 15 cm by 30 cm. Make a sausage out of the filling and put it in the centre of the rectangle (I found slightly wet hands made this much easier and less sticky).
6. Lift one long side of the dough over the filling, press down slightly. Fold the other side over the top of the first. Press to seal the seam. Roll the log so the seam side is facing down. Gently transfer the log onto a baking sheet, keeping seam side down. Bring the ends together to form a ring and close the joint by pressing with your fingers. (Note, I found the pastry on the outer edges of the ring cracked a little, but I could patch the cracks just by pressing the soft pastry together again.)
7. Make little holes in the pastry (probably to let out steam while baking?). Manu tells us that traditionally, we would need a Pinza per buccellato. But for the rest of us, dig a fork into the dough until you pierce it, drag the fork slightly to create longish dents. Do this in the same direction, all the way around the log to form decorative patterns. Mine were a bit jazzy, as in the decorative patterns went in all directions, but they looked ok after baking since the pastry puffed up a little.
8. Put the Buccellato in the fridge and rest for 1 day or at least overnight.
9. Baking: on day 2, preheat the oven to 200°C / 390°F. Place the Buccellato (still on baking paper) on a baking tray or cookie sheet, and bake for 35 – 45 minutes, or until brown. Remove from the oven and let it cool down. I placed the Buccellato, baking paper and all, on a cooling rack. The baking paper helps to catch drips from the glaze and icing later.
10. Glaze and icing: while the Buccellato is cooling, prepare the glaze. Put apricot jam, sugar and water in a pot and simmer for 5 minutes. Brush the cold Buccellato with the hot glaze.
11. When the glaze has sunk into the Buccellato, prepare a runny royal icing according to packet instructions. Carefully spoon or pour royal icing over Buccellato. Decorate with candied cherries, pistachios and grated dark chocolate.
Tagged: almond, brandy, Buccellato, Christmas, Christmas gift, Cuccidati, cucidati, dates, fig cookies, figs, food gift, honey, lard pastry, Manu's Menu, Orange, pastries, raisin, SBS Australia, Sicilian, Sicily, spiced fig filling, walnuts