Thursday, October 8, 2009

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As difficult as it is to think about, we must face it....THE HOLIDAYS ARE ONLY 8 to 10 WEEKS AWAY! It is time to start planning. One thing we all think about and plan for is baking cookies. Let’s face it, we love Christmas cookies. Italian cookies are some of my favorites.
In Italy, one of the highlights at a young woman’s wedding is a table covered with cookies. At traditional Italian weddings, there is generally a dessert table with a large cake made of Italian cookies. A cookie dance is started much like a line dance where the bride and groom lead guests dancing around the reception area, and then over to the cookie cake where each person takes a cookie. The non-dancers can then take cookies also. I asked my buddy, Jasper Mirabile, about the Italian cookie tradition. He said “My mama tells me this tradition dates back to the 18th century in Naples and Sicily....areas known for sweets. The offering of cookies from the family to friends as a gesture of not only friendship and love but to also "Show Off" the families recipes and artistry. In Sicily, they also offer bags of almonds for good luck from the bride and my family's hometown, they make THE FINEST FIG COOKIES and it is a tradition to have at all weddings. Jasper says they soak their figs in whisky instead of brandy, and that his Mom’s cucidati are his ALL TIME FAVORITE!!!!!
Jasper’s Mom, Josephine Mirabile, is writing a cookbook. I hope she includes her recipe for her Cucidati!
Cucidati, a cookie with a fig filling, have become part of my holiday baking. They can be as simple as a cookie resembling a Fig Newton, only MUCH BETTER, or as intricate as beautiful hand sculpted birds and fish, iced and sprinkled with colored sugar.
The filling for cucidati is an amazing blend of dried figs, raisins, dates, nuts, honey, spices, brandy and orange. Tell me that doesn't make you think of Christmas!

The recipe I have used for the last 5 or 6 years is from Gale Gand.
8 ounces dried figs, chopped
6 tablespoons brandy
1 (8-ounce) jar honey
2 ounces raisins
2 ounces dates
2 ounces dried cherries
2 ounces citron or candied pineapple
1 cup walnut pieces, toasted
1 cup whole, blanched almonds, toasted
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 pinches ground clove
Rind of 1 lemon (remove any white pith)
Rind of 1 orange (remove any white pith)
Pastry :
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
3 eggs (1 whisked with 1 teaspoon water, to make an egg wash)
1/4 cup milk
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
Colored sprinkles, or small dots
Make the Filling: In a bowl, combine the figs with 4 tablespoons of brandy and let soak overnight or up to 4 weeks.
In a food processor, combine the soaked figs, the remaining 2 tablespoons brandy, and all the remaining filling ingredients. Process until chopped and well combined. (Alternatively, run all the ingredients through a meat grinder. Some Italian women bring their filling ingredients to the butcher and have him grind it for them.) Keep chilled until ready to use.
Make the Pastry: In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and pulse to mix. Add the butter and pulse until it looks like fine crumbs. In a small bowl, whisk together the 2 eggs and milk. While the motor in running, pour the liquid through the feed tube until just combined and a dough is formed. Form the dough into a disk and chill 30 minutes.
On a floured work surface, roll out the dough 1/8-inch thick. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut out large (3-inch long) almond shaped pieces from the dough. Transfer the pieces to a sheet pan; then chill.
To form the cookies, have ready the filling, the chilled dough pieces, the egg wash with a pastry brush, and a sharp knife. Paint the edges of the dough pieces with egg wash and place 1 teaspoon of filling shaped into an oval in the center of half the pieces. Top each with a second piece of dough and carefully pinch the edges together to seal. Trim the excess dough from around the edges.
Make each dough package look like a bird or fish, by shaping and cutting decorative lines. You can split 1 end to look like a tail, carve rows of lines to look like feathers or fins, cut a curved line for the gills or beak opening, and a hole for the eye. (There are many different shapes they're made into, such as wreaths, slippers, and crescents.) Re-chill the cookies
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Brush the cookies with the egg wash. Bake the cookies until lightly golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile make the Icing: In a bowl, whisk together all the ingredients.
Toss the cookies with the icing while they're still hot and sprinkle with the colored sprinkles, or leave them plain. The icing makes the cookies look like porcelain when they're done.

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