With Christmas approaching, I look back fondly and with much nostalgia at the time I spent in my Nonna’s kitchen, watching the preparation of my favorite holiday treats: a chocolate-spice cookie, sometimes called, tatù; and the reigning queen of all holiday cookies, the cuccidati, a fig-filled sweet. I’m not sure whether I was more enchanted by the intoxicating aromas or by the fascinating process of making these specialties.
As my Nonna aged, my mother took over the baking of these cookies, and though I never actually participated in the preparations my mother passed the recipes on to me. Now I’m sadly the only member of our family left who knows how to make them, so I feel compelled to share the recipes with future generations.
A variety of recipes abound on the internet for both cookies, but I note that my inherited versions differ somewhat from those that are available. I’m certain everyone believes that his or her grandmother’s version is the definitive one, but I suspect we just love best what we grew up with. People are the most adamantly defensive over the cuccidati recipes, and I am no exception.
In a suburb of Chicago in 2017, many Sicilians claimed they had the very best recipes for this confection, so someone decided to hold a contest to decide once and for all. It was not possible to choose a definitive winner because nearly everyone clung to their original prejudices.
What I’ve noticed is that my family’s recipes for both cookies use a simpler and smaller list of ingredients than those I read about. I’ve sampled cuccidati from the finest Italian pastry shops in both New York and Sicily, but I am still committed to my Nonna’s version. I had to fight against the urge to tell the owners of these shops that they needed to check out our recipe.
What I particularly like about this version is its clean flavor. Many recipes call for dates, chocolate chips, a melange of spices, Marsala, and a plethora of other ingredients, which in my opinion cancel each other out by providing no discernible or distinctive flavor. On the other hand, my grandma’s version makes the fig the starring ingredient, with a pungent undercurrent of tangerine in the supporting role. In fact, I’ve found no other recipe that uses the more assertive tangerine rather than the more usual orange peel. Also, this recipe calls for a dusting of powered sugar rather than the icing and colored sprinkles generally used. This gives them a more sophisticated appearance and taste. Some women I knew as a child were able to cut and shape the cuccidati into the most beautiful florid designs. I don’t have this ability, so my version is quite plain.
The simplicity of ingredients in these cookies may be the result that my grandparents came from very poor families and simply couldn’t afford all the elaborate additions. On the other hand, I suspect that our recipe mirrors more closely its obvious Arabic roots, with its combination of figs, nuts, and honey. Both recipes are large. They both take a bit of effort so it seems foolish to make small amounts. The cookies make wonderful homemade holiday gifts, and both are good keepers. They can be held for a week or two in an airtight tin or last for months in a freezer. If you wish, you can cut each recipe in half or thirds.
For the pastry:
3 pounds flour
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
6 ounces cold unsalted butter
6 ounces cold lard or vegetable shortening
1 ½ cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the filling:
3 pounds of good-quality dried figs
4.5 ounces raisins
¾ pound of walnuts
3 tangerine peels
1 ¼ cups honey
A little warm water
To make the pastry, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a very large bowl. Whisk them together until well combined. With a pastry blender, work in the butter and lard (or vegetable shortening) until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. I use the pastry blender with my right hand and work the dough between my fingertips with my left hand. Beat the eggs with the milk and vanilla. Using a large wooden spoon, combine the liquid with the dry ingredients until it forms a ball. I also use my hands to gently kneed and shape the ball. Place the ball in a large plastic bag and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. This makes rolling the pastry much easier.
Snip off the hard stems from the figs. In a bowl, combine and mix the figs, the raisins, the nuts, and the tangerine peel (no need to remove the pith), torn into smaller pieces. Take a handful of the mixed ingredients and pass them through the fine blade of a food grinder, continuing until you use all the mixture. Do not try to grind the ingredients separately because they are very hard to combine once ground. My grandmother used a hand grinder for this job, but it’s a lot of work. Many recipes use a food processor, but I can’t vouch for this method, never having tried it. I have a small, home electric grinder for the purpose.
Add the honey to the ground mixture. Moisten with a little bit (generally about ½ cup) of warm water. You want a moist mixture that will form nicely in your hands.
Cut off 1/3 of the pastry and return the remaining portion to the refrigerator. Roll out the dough on floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Roll out a rectangle about 2-feet long by 8-inches wide, until you achieve a thin pastry (much like pie crust) that is less than 1/8-inch thick.
With your hands roll the filling into a 1-inch-diameter sausage shape, and lay it lengthwise onto the pastry sheet about an inch from the front edge. This can be done in sections attaching one piece of filling to the next with your hands.
Roll the front edge of the pastry over the filling.
Cut the pastry lengthwise, leaving enough of an edge on the far side of the filling to cover the whole roll. Pinch the edges of the pastry end together to seal the roll. With the palms of your hands roll the entire sausage shape on the cutting board to create a nice even log.
Cut the log into about 3-inch lengths.
Take each 3-inch length and gently pull it with your hands to elongate slightly. This is done because the pastry tends to thicken as it sits, and you want it to remain as thin as possible. If necessary, roll the cut piece on the floured board to create a smooth well-shaped roll.
With the seam side down, cut slits on one side of the cuccidati at about 1/4-inch intervals.
Bend each cookie into a crescent or half-moon shape and place on a heavy, ungreased baking sheet.
You should be able to get 2 to 3 rolls from the rolled-out pastry. Cut the remaining refrigerated pastry in half and proceed in the same way, until you’ve used all the pastry and filling. If you have extra pastry and not enough filling, wrap and freeze the remaining pastry for another use.
Bake the cookies on the bottom shelf of a preheated 350° oven for 8-10 minutes. Move the sheet to a high-level rack and bake about 5-7 minutes longer. The tops of the cookies should be a very light brown color. Remove the cookies to a rack and allow to cool. When fully cooled, dust heavily with powdered sugar. Makes about 72 cookies.
Chocolate Spice Cookies
For the cookie:
3 pounds flour
1 1/3 pounds sugar
5 ounces best-quality cocoa, sifted
3 ½ tablespoons baking powder
1 tablespoon ground cloves
½ pound cold unsalted butter
½ pound cold vegetable shortening
3/4 pound chopped walnuts
1 pint milk
Juice and grated rind of one large orange
¼ cup Grand Marnier, brandy, rum, or other orange liqueur
For the icing:
1 box powdered sugar, about 4 cups
About 1/3 cup scalded milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
In a very large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, sifted cocoa, baking powder, cloves, and salt. Whisk together gently until well mixed. Work in the butter and vegetable shortening with a pastry blender and the fingers of your hand, until coarse crumbs are formed. Stir in the chopped walnuts.
Beat the eggs well, then beat in the milk, the orange juice and grated rind, and the liqueur. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients, and combine with a heavy wooden or metal spoon or heavy rubber spatula, until a smooth ball is formed. The dough will be extremely sticky. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or longer, until you can work the dough with your hands without sticking.
Roll the dough in the palm of your hands to form a smooth ball about the size of an unshelled walnut. Place the balls on an ungreased baking sheet. I find that I need to rechill the dough about halfway through the rolling process because it starts sticking to my hands.
Bake on the bottom shelf of a 350° preheated oven for about 10-12 minutes. Some people prefer these cookies hard all the way through. I like them with a hard exterior and a softer center. You may have to experiment by testing the first batch to see which you prefer (a hard exterior forms only after the cookies have cooled).
When done remove to a rack to cool. When the cookies are thoroughly cooled, prepare the icing, which is necessary because the cookies are too bitter without it. Sift 1/3 of the powdered sugar into a shallow bowl. Add enough hot, scalded milk to create a thick smooth glaze. Add in 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Dip the tops of each cookie into the glaze until well coated. Continue with the remaining powdered sugar and milk.
Place a wire rack on top of some waxed paper to catch the drippings, then place the glazed cookies on the rack to dry thoroughly. It’s very important to allow the cookies to dry for several hours before storing them in a closed container. If they are stored before fully dry, they will begin to sweat and then mold in a couple days. Makes about 120 cookies.
For more recipes by Norman Mathews and to learn about his autobiography, The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater visit: https:normanmathewsauthor.com