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SWEET NOSTALGIA

Tangerine Peels on the Radiator: A Tale of Christmas Baking

Generally speaking, there wasn’t much baking going on throughout the year in my Grandma Jennie’s kitchen. But what a baking hub it became starting the first of December! First, there were “cream cheese” cookies to be made. These are light, delicate cookies made with a cream cheese-and-butter dough, filled with lekvar, a dried plum butter, and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. I never  found out where the recipe originated, but given the ingredients, I’ve always suspected that this was a recipe from one of my grandparents’ long time friends or neighbors, who were Jewish. Until I was about 10 when we moved out of the two-family house we shared with my grandparents, into our own house, large enough for 5 kids, 2 parents and our maternal grandmother, I lived in a neighborhood that had an Italian butcher shop on one end of the block and a Jewish deli on the other end. There was naturally a lot of neighborly sharing of kids, coffee, fruit and vegetable garden yields, and recipes.


There was strufoli to prepare, a recipe of fried sweet dough balls, stacked
to look vaguely like a Christmas tree, drizzled with a honey syrup and studded
with pieces of candied fruits. It seemed that everyone we knew made these treats so there was always more than one on the holiday dessert table.

Another Christmas specialty was almond torrone, and this was part of the reason there were tangerine peels, as well as lemon and orange ones, on the radiators. They were put there to dry in preparation for their role in multiple recipes, and almost as much as the taste of any of these yummy confections, what I remember most today is the sweet, citrusy aroma and warm, happy feeling that I had when I walked into my grandparents’ kitchen every day in December. As a kid, it meant good times were here, even better things (Santa! more food! company! more desserts! cousins!) were coming.

   Almond torrone is a Sicilian specialty; an almond bark made with toasted whole almonds, the citrus peels, and a thick,dark spiced honey syrup. I didn’t actually start to appreciate the taste until I was an adult, but as a kid, I loved watching the preparation of it take over the kitchen table. For many years after Grandma passed away Aunt Angie still made it; for a couple of years, Aunt Angie and Uncle Albie (yes, the fig-tree man!) prepared it together. Today, Uncle Albie still carries on the tradition, and we bless him for it.

The one Christmas treat, however, that I am most fond of is cuccidati, the fig- and-nut filled cookies that are ubiquitous in Sicily at Christmas time. Even through my first years as a culinary professional, I thought this was a recipe only known to my family. It wasn’t until I was working on a catalog project for the New York specialty food store Balducci’s, with Andy Balducci, that I mentioned it as a family specialty. I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce the name, so I described it, and Andy said, “Oh, you mean cuccidati.  Of course, we make it here every Christmas season.” Makes me wonder why we let the opportunity to really listen to our elders slip away so easily!

 




When I finally got to Sicily several years ago,  and asked in my
almost non-existent Italian, if I  could find cuccidati anywhere, I
got looks that very  plainly said, I was just plain pazzo (crazy) for thinking that a Christmas specialty would be available in October. 
To every thing there is a season, after all! Given that there were no food processors when Grandma was making these cookies; I believe she used a meat grinder. And that there are a lot of expensive ingredients, requiring a lot of pre-preparation, I can certainly understand why they are a once a year treat.

 
As far as I'm concerned, cuccidati are the ultimate Christmas treat. The dough is sweet and buttery with just a hint of lemon at first bite. Then the complexity of the dried fruits, the citrus hit, and the chocolate kicks in all at once, and the tastebuds are saying, “give us more.”

These cookies are rich with the spirit of Christmas past, and each time I make them, I enjoy the aroma of the tangerine peel almost as much as the cookie itself.
A’ tutto, Buon Natale!

 

Cuccidati (Fig Cookies)
Makes about 24 cookies

Directions

1. Grate 1 teaspoon zest from lemon; reserve. With a vegetable peeler, remove
a strip of zest about 3-inches long x 1-inch wide from the lemon; reserve. Cut lemon in half, squeeze juice from both halves; set aside. With vegetable peeler, remove a strip of zest about 1-inch wide all the way around the tangerine. reserve. Remove and discard tangerine peel. Section the tangerine; remove and discard the center pith; reserve tangerine sections.

2. For the dough, in the large bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, at high speed, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy; Beat
in egg and egg yolk. Reduce speed to low; stir in flour, salt and 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel until just blended.

3. Gather dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap; flatten into a disk. Refrigerate 1 hour (dough can be made 1 day ahead).

4. For the filling, snip off and discard the tough top stems from the figs. With kitchen scissors sprayed with vegetable cooking spray, coarsely cut the figs and place in medium bowl. Pour in red wine; let stand about 15 minutes or until figs are softened.

5. Place the nuts in a glass or ceramic pie plate. Microwave on High 3 to 4 minutes, stirring every minute, until nuts are lightly browned.(Nuts will continue to brown for a minute or so after they are removed from the microwave; so do not over brown). Set aside to cool.

6. In the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, place the dates, raisins, apricots and granulated sugar. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the toasted nuts, the figs with wine, the honey, cinnamon, the tangerine sections and piece of zest and the piece of lemon zest. Process until mixture is a thick paste. Remove mixture from workbowl to a large mixing bowl. Scrape down any mixture on the steel blade into the mixing bowl. Lightly fold in the grated chocolate.

7. Remove all but one rack from oven, placing the rack in the middle position in oven. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line 2 cookies sheets with parchment paper.

8. Remove dough from refrigerator; unwrap and cut into 2 pieces; re-wrap and refrigerate one piece, while working the other piece. On a clean, dry, lightly floured surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll one piece of dough into a 13-inch x 10-inch rectangle. Lightly brush the dough with the egg wash, then spoon about half of the filling down the center of the piece, to within ½ inch on either end. Starting at one long end, fold the edge of the dough over the filling; gently roll to form a long log. Pinch short ends to seal. Brush log with egg wash. Cut log into 10-12 pieces.

9. Bake 18-22 minutes until golden brown. Remove from cookie sheets to wire racks with a piece of wax paper underneath to cool completely.

10. Repeat Step 8 with remaining piece of dough and filling. 

11. For glaze, in a small cup or bowl, whisk sugar with milk, then add lemon juice until glaze is of a thin but still spreadable consistency. (It should glaze the cookies and dribble off a bit). Add sprinkles. Let stand until glaze is set, about 10 minutes.

Ingredients

1 medium lemon
1 tangerine or small orange

Sweet Dough
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
Pinch salt

Filling
1 pound dried figs
¾ cup red wine
½ cup whole blanched almonds
½ cup walnuts
1 cup pitted dates, coarsely chopped
½ cup golden raisins
¼ cup dried apricots
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon orange blossom or other pure light honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Glaze
½ cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons milk
½ teaspoon reserved lemon juice

Multicolored sugar sprinkles