We’ve nearly reached the end of this year’s baking, but as Italy has already provide so much inspiration, we’re staying in that beautiful country and heading down to the island of Sicily where they make little fig rolls called cuccidati (or buccellati) at Christmas.
If you grew up in Britain, you might be familiar with fig rolls as those small, dry biscuits that were (at least from my point of view) the absolutely last choice in the biscuit barrel. I would go so far as to say that they put me off fresh figs when I was younger – I mean, why would such a thing exist? Anyway, I have long since gotten over my issues with figs, and love the things, and the good news is that these cookies are about as far away from my childhood memories as you can get. A fruity, lightly spiced filling with tender buttery pastry and a glaze of sweet, white icing. Mmmmm…
You’ll see that there are a few different shapes in there – the crosses above, and the crescent shapes below. This is all made using the same mixture, so it just adds a little more interest on the serving dish of they look different. If you wanted to get creative and have different shapes for different fillings, you could do that too. Apparently some bakers in Sicily even fashion cookies into the shapes of animals, but I could not work out how to roll out a long sausage of dough into the shape of a dog, cat or donkey. Perhaps it could have just passed for a sausage dog?
The pastry is rich and buttery, leavened with a little baking powder to make it light when baked. They came our of the oven rather crisp, but after resting overnight, the pastry had softened and was a little crumbly. Just the perfect texture! The filling is the real star – stuffed with chopped figs and sultanas, as well as pine nuts, walnuts and pistachios. There is sweetness from orange blossom honey and marmalade, and a little spice in there too.
For the marmalade, I skipped a sweet orange version, and instead went for a mixture of sharp Seville oranges and tangerines for a bit of Christmas cheer. While the marmalade on its own was tangy with a hint of bitterness, in the final baked version, it melts into the background and provides a more rounded citrus flavour, so it was definitely the right choice.
In addition to the more elaborate shapes, I also made my own version of those funny little fig rolls that I remembered as a child. I added some of the traditional coloured sprinkles to these, and I think they look really rather sweet. You might even persuade a child to try one, but my experience is that children will usually make a bee-line for anything with chocolate, and have an aversion of dried fruit when given anything that might pass for a choice on the matter! Still…I like them!
If you like mince pies but want to find an alternative, then these might be the thing for you. You can also play around with the ingredients – swap the figs for dates, use different nuts and dried fruits, use a stronger honey or different marmalade or jam, and play around with the spices, or even add a little chopped chocolate in there. Of course, if you rock up with a tray of cuccidati made with candied melon, macadamia nuts, thyme honey and strawberry jam, topped off with a sprinkling of cardamom and saffron, you might win top marks for creativity, but I’m not sure you’d obtain the approval of a Sicilian granny. I’d keep things simple, and close to the traditional flavours of Sicily. Think of the historic trade routes and commerce with North Africa and the Middle East, and you’ll be on the right track.
Of everything I have made this year, this is one of the recipes that took the most time. Making the pastry and filling is easy, but it takes some patience to make the long rolls of filling covered in pastry, and then to shape them. However, it is also very enjoyable, and the aroma of the spiced figs really is delicious. That, and they look pretty darned impressive on the plate!
To make Cuccidati (makes around 20-30, depending on size)
(adapted from the recipe on Food52.com)
For the pastry
• 300g plain flour
• 100g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt
• 200g butter
• 1 large egg
• cold water
For the filling
• 250g soft dried figs
• 75g sultanas
• 30g shelled unsalted pistachios
• 20g pine nuts
• 60g walnuts
• 60g honey
• 100g orange marmalade
• zest of an orange
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
For the glaze
• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring
• cold water
• sprinkles and chopped nuts
1. Make the pastry. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Rub in the butter. Add the egg and mix to a smooth dough. If the pastry is dry, add cold water – a few drops at a time – until it comes together. Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest overnight in the fridge.
2. Make the filling. Chop the figs, sultanas and nuts finely. I did this by hand to get some variation in texture and to avoid turning the nuts to dust. Put in a bowl and mix with the marmalade, honey and spices. Cover and leave to rest overnight in a bowl on the kitchen counter.
3. The next day, assemble the cookies. Start by preheating the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. There is no need to use oil or butter on the sheet, as the cookies contain enough butter.
4. Now shape the cookies. Divide the pastry into four, and work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest in the fridge. On a lightly floured worktop, roll a piece of pastry into a long sausage, around 30cm, then flatten using a rolling pin. It should be around 6cm wide and 50cm long. Now take one-quarter of the filling. Dust a worktop liberally with icing sugar, and roll into a long sausage the same length as your pastry. Then lightly moisten the pastry with a little water (really – the tiniest amount!) and put the filling on top of the pastry. Bring the pastry round the filling, and seal the edge. Roll the whole thing lightly to smooth out any lumps and bumps.
5. Cut the long sausage into pieces – either 7cm for the crosses or crescents, or smaller pieces for the bite-sized cookies. To make the crosses – take each piece, cut into the bottom and the top, leaving the middle intact. Bend the “legs” outwards. To make the crescents, make 4-5 cuts into one side of the strip, then bend into an arc. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, pop in the fridge for 5 minutes to firm up, and then bake for around 15-20 minutes until golden. Larger cookies might need longer, and smaller cookies might be done in less time. Make sure to turn half-way to get an even colour. If using cookies of different sizes, I recommend baking batches of the same size to get an even bake.
6. Leave the cookies to cool completely, then glaze them. Make the icing by mixing the icing sugar, white food colouring (if using) and enough cold water to make a thick icing. You want it to dribble slightly, but most should stay on the cookies, so err on the side of caution and make it thicker – you can always add more water if needed. Finish by covering the cookies with sprinkles, edible pearls or pieces of chopped nuts. Leave on a wire rack for the icing to set, then store in an airtight tin.