Opening and Closing Ceremonies

CuccidatiHoliday Breakfast and Baked Goods

Story by Sanford D’Amato

And they were prepared as it was written. He looked, took a bite, and was pleased. It was good.

In my pre-pubescent world, there was not-a-morning-person, and then there was my mother. For her, the only appropriate first salutation of the day was, “Good afternoon.” This put a damper on breakfast at our house. My sister and I would self-prepare our morning meals. I learned to open a box and pour milk over Sugar Pops or Kix from a very early age.

I was always amazed, and a bit jealous, when I went over to my friend Rick’s house before school. Uncommon smells emanated from his kitchen: ham, bacon or sausage, accompanied by sizzling eggs, pancakes, waffles or French toast. An ever-present sticky bottle of Log Cabin syrup was a beacon in the center of the table. This was another world to me, as Mrs. Sheridan, with help from her kids, would put out this full-scale spread every morning.

Christmas Day was the only day of the year that my dad closed his grocery store and didn’t work. My sister and I would rush down to the presents and right after the “grand opening,” the unmistakable smell of bacon would start to roll in from the kitchen. Was Mrs. Sheridan here? No, my mother had the Sunbeam electric skillet out. As the bacon would start to get crispy, she broke eggs right over the top and covered the skillet. Aroma-filled steam wisped and rattled out of the tiny vent on the cover. Within seconds, a divine combo emerged—eggs slightly crisp at the edges and totally infused with the flavor of bacon fat.

As she sat at the table with only a cup of coffee in front of her, my mother murmured under her breath, “country eggs and bacon.” They were porky, crisp and creamy, all at the same time. What followed was the breakfast I was always waiting for: all of us together, happy, joking, and completely satisfied. With a start like that, the closer better be good.

Later, after Christmas dinner at his house, my grandfather would open a large round tin and motion for me to take my pick—light, dark, colorful cookies. How could I choose? Then I saw this shiny mini-log that had at least 3,000 colorful candy sprinkles jutting out at different angles. I went for it and took a bite. The sugar-glazed cookie coating, crisp and molten at the same time, encased a brown, sweet, savory, sticky filling. I was halfway through the first bite, and I knew I loved it. It was a fig-filled cuccidato, a traditional Sicilian Christmas cookie. That was certainly not my last, as every year’s Christmas after brought a new covered plate of fig cookies. They ranged from sublimely succulent to a tad dry and dusty, but all evoked the emotion that it was Christmas and that this was the only present of love and caring that I needed.

It’s tough when you get into making classic recipes, especially holiday cookies. They have such intense memories for people as one of the first bites of food that are filed away, keepers, never to be messed around with. It’s like cooking for some sort of all-knowing Supreme Being that we seem to become.

But that is not going to stop me. For the cuccidati that I make today, I mix the figs with enough dried cherries to enhance, but not intrude. Then I bathe them in some fresh orange, lemon, and dry Marsala and reduce to a moist filling. The dough is where I may part ways with many traditionalists. It’s a simple cream cheese dough which yields an extremely crisp, flaky cloak for the rich filling. And glazing while still warm makes for a tasty balance of crunchy, rich, savory and sweet that brings you back for a second and third cookie.

This opening and closing may not be your tradition, but I guarantee it will bring a smile to your face. I’m sure you’ll take a bite and later concur that from the beginning to the end, it was good.

Cuccidati—Sicilian Fig Cookies—My Way

Yield: 20 cookies

For the filling:
1 c. (5 oz.) dried Mission figs, stem removed
and cut in ½-in. pieces
½ c. (2 oz.) dried tart cherries, chopped into
¼-in. pieces
Zest of 1 orange
¼ c. fresh orange juice
2 T. fresh lemon juice
¼ c. dry Marsala
1 t. honey
3⁄8 t. ground anise seed
¼ t. kosher salt
½ c. (2½ oz.) toasted and salted almonds, chopped small

Place all of the ingredients except the nuts in a saute pan. Place over medium heat and reduce stirring until dry. Remove to a bowl to cool in the refrigerator. Mix in the nuts and reserve cold.

For the dough, glaze and to finish the cookies:
6 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
6 oz. salted butter, room temperature
6 oz. all-purpose flour
½ c. granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
1 T. heavy cream
½ c. confectioners’ sugar
2 t. dry Marsala
1 small bottle of decorative sprinkles

In a mixing bowl of a mixer with a paddle, cream the cream cheese until smooth, about 2 min. (Scrape down the beater once or twice.) Add butter and cream until smooth, 1–2 min., then scrape and add the flour to just mix in. Do not overmix. Form dough into a 1-in. thick square. Cover and refrigerate one hour until solid.

Using the sugar to dust the top and bottom, roll out the dough in a 9×20-in. by ¼-in. thick rectangle using enough sugar so the dough doesn’t stick to the board. Cut the dough down the middle into two 4½x20-in. strips. Mold the filling in your hands like clay and run a ½-in. strip down the middle of each of the dough strip, using up all of the filling.

Mix the egg yolk and cream together, and brush one side of the exposed dough on each strip. Bring the other exposed part of the dough over the top of the filling to meet up with the eggwashed side, and press down lightly to seal. Brush the remaining egg wash over the tops.

Cut each strip into 10 2-in. cookies, and make a cut through the filling side of each cookie top to bottom in the middle of the cookie, leaving the dough part intact. Open slightly to form a slight V shape. Place on a parchment- or Silpat-lined baking sheet and bake in a 375° preheated oven for 10–12 minutes until golden.

Whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and Marsala until smooth. Brush on the warm cookies as they come out of the oven, and while glaze is still wet, scatter them with sprinkles.

SanfordDamatoSanford (Sandy) D’Amato is a James Beard Award–winning chef who teaches cooking classes at Good Stock Farm, his home in Hatfield, Massachusetts. He is the former chef/owner of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI, and the author of GOOD STOCK: Life on a Low Simmer, his memoir with recipes. Learn more about Sandy and Good Stock Farm cooking classes at GoodStockFarm.com.

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