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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter! Sicilian Fig Cookies (Cuccidati)

These are actually traditional Christmas cookies, and the heady aroma from the fruit, wine, and spices in the filling is definitely reminiscent of the winter holidays.  But these cookies are festive and colorful, and I thought the egg shape would work well for Easter.

A little digging also revealed that these are generally made into stuffed pillows, like Fig Newtons (probably where Nabisco got the idea).  However, there is also a tradition for making them into elaborate animal shapes with elegant patterns snipped into the dough.  According to Christopher Gronlund on his blog The Juggling Writer, when made like this they are called "cosi di ficu".

Photo from The Juggling Writer.

I hope to make these again eventually, but I will try a different shape.  A more simple version of the cosi di ficu would be nice, and I think would give a better filling-to-pastry ratio.  The balls presented here made cookies that are too large -- that's a lot of fig! -- and the thin glaze did not work nicely on them.  (I discuss that below.)

Europeans don't usually include salt with their sweets, so I adjusted the original recipe slightly to more closely match American taste.

For the Dough:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Pinch 1/8 teaspoon of salt
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

For the Filling:
1 cup whole almonds, toasted
1 cup dried figs, stemmed
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Glaze:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
3 2 tablespoons (approximately) fresh orange juice*
nonpareils, for decorating

For the dough, pulse the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until it looks like coarse meal. Whisk together the yolks, vanilla, lemon zest, and juice, then add to the food processor and pulse until the dough holds together when pinched. (Stop before it gathers into a ball).

Very dry and powdery, but holds together when pinched.

Turn out onto a sheet of waxed paper and knead into a log. Wrap tightly and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.  (Dough should be firm, but still workable.  If it's been chilled for several hours, let it warm up a little until you can work a piece without its breaking.)

Meanwhile, make the filling. Pulse the almonds in a clean food processor until coarsely chopped; transfer to a saucepan. Pulse the figs in the food processor until finely chopped and add to the saucepan along with the orange zest, wine, honey, cocoa powder, and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring, 5 minutes. Let cool.

Slice the dough into 24 equal pieces.  Working with one piece at a time, flatten each into a 2-3" disk.

Flatten it further while pinching it into a rough bowl shape, then fill with about a tablespoon of filling. (There's plenty of filling -- be generous.)  It helps to shape the filling into a ball first.

If the day is warm and you find the dough getting too soft, work with portions at a time and keep the rest chilled.  The dough should be cool and firm, but workable without falling apart.

Wrap the pastry over the filling and seal closed, then roll into a smooth ball.

Place on ungreased baking sheets, cover, and refrigerate about 30 minutes.  (This step can probably be omitted, especially if your kitchen is cool.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake until the cookies are lightly browned, 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool 2 minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Make the glaze: Whisk the confectioners' sugar and orange zest in a bowl.  Add enough juice to make a thin but stable glaze that isn't too runny.  (*The glaze in the original recipe is VERY thin -- it's supposed to just give a shine to the cookies. That concept works nicely with a flatter shape, especially if they've been cut into animals or other decorative designs.  In that case, you would brush the glaze on.  But with this ball shape, the glaze just ran off, it didn't look very nice, and there was WAY too much left over.)  Dip the tops of the cookies into the glaze, and then sprinkle with the nonpareils. Let set, about 15 minutes. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.  (These were actually better the second day, but after that the pastry crust lost some crispness.)

Conclusion:  These were very time-consuming, but worth it.  The light, crumbly, shortbread crust paired nicely with the rich fig filling.  I feel the filling still needed something... a tiny bit more salt, perhaps, and I'm thinking maybe some orange flower water.  That said, they received rave reviews just as they were.  One of my co-workers even convinced a vegan they were worth breaking his policy for, and on tasting one I got a high-five.  High praise, indeed.

Original recipe:  Sicilian Fig Cookies via Food Network Kitchens

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