Italian

Are These Christmas Cookies the Fig Newton's Ancestor?

by:
December  2, 2014

This is one of those recipes that changes in form and flavor with the whims of the hands that make it. It's a recipe that's made with several generations in the kitchen at once, mixing, rolling, and shaping together.

It's also a recipe associated entirely with Christmas—and like other recipes that fall under that category, the first bite or whiff of the cookies' aroma is sure to bring on waves of nostalgia.

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Known as cucciddati or cucidati in the Sicilian dialect, buccellati are Sicily's best-known Christmas cookie. A thin pastry wrapped around a filling of dried figs and nuts, they are reminiscent of fig cookies, but better—and prettier. 

Often made into baroque forms, then glazed with royal icing and decorated with colored sprinkles or simply dusted with confectioners' sugar, these festive treats don't stick around for long. Make the most of them by baking a big batch and sharing the love with family and friends.

There are as many variations of these cookies as there are households in Sicily. You can find them in the form of one large buccellato ring, its pastry heavily decorated with intricate crimping; or as individual buccellati cookies in a variety of shapes and forms. The "X" shape and the arch are common forms, but you can also find them made like half-moon ravioli or, even simpler, in little logs like cannoli, as well as shorter, flattened versions (the predecessor to the Fig Newton, perhaps?).

It is common to cut slashes or patterns into the pastry with a razor blade or very sharp knife to expose the contrasting filling for decoration, as I have done here.

Sicilian Christmas Cookies

Once you've decided on the form you want, consider some of the following common variations in the filling. Instead of orange marmalade, try apricot or peach jam—or cut a step out by using fig jam instead of the dried, soaked, and chopped figs. Substitute the pistachios or pine nuts for almonds or hazelnuts. Change up the orange zest with other citrus—mandarin or lemon for example. Add 100 grams of dark chocolate chips, candied citrus, or dates. Use a splash of marsala or rum, or add some of your favorite Christmas spices (ground cloves or nutmeg are commonly used). 

Decorate with a royal icing glaze topped with chopped pistachios or candied fruit instead of colored sprinkles. Or keep things simple with a dusting of confectioners' sugar. And if you want to go really traditional, substitute lard for the butter for a wonderfully flaky pastry, and add some citrus zest for added aroma, too.

More: Make your cookies merry and bright with a dusting of artisan sprinkles.

This amount makes enough buccellati for your own Christmas table, as well as plenty for festive handmade gifts. This is such a decorative cookie with so many variations, so it's quite nice to experiment with the forms, patterns, and decorations in one batch—why not?

Buccellati (Sicilian Christmas Fig Cookies)

Makes about 40 to 50 cookies

For the filling:

1 pound (500 grams) dried figs
1 cup (5 ounces or 150 grams) raisins
1/2 cup (2 ounces or 60 grams) unsalted pistachios, without shells
1/4 cup (1 ounce or 35 grams) pine nuts
1 cup (4 ounces or 120 grams) walnut kernels
1/3 cup (4 ounces or 125 grams) honey
2/3 cup (200 grams) orange marmalade or apricot jam
Zest of 2 oranges
A pinch of ground cinnamon

For the pastry:

5 cups (600 grams) flour
1 1/2 cups (180 grams) confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch salt
7 ounces (200 grams) chilled butter or lard, diced
3 eggs plus one yolk, beaten

For decorating:

2 egg whites
2 cups (250 grams) confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 to 2 tablespoons colored sprinkles (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped pistachios (optional)
Confectioner's sugar for dusting (optional)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Emiko Davies

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27 Comments

ChefJune December 17, 2015
Oh Emiko, I am so glad you shared this recipe! All my Italian friends guard their versions like they're the Hope Diamond. And I LOVE them.
 
Daniel E. December 7, 2015
Another one I need to make. Sicilian dolci are fascinating; these are clearly another one with an old Arabic influence, which, as you say, may have then carried over into fig rolls (as we call them in the UK).
 
Amy December 4, 2015
My Sicilian family has been making these for decades and depending on which side of the family you're talking to they are called slightly different names. My mother's side calls them biccidati and my father's side calls them cuccidati. However, I have never heard them called buccellati and am curious where you got that name from. Thanks for your reply.
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 6, 2015
Bucellati are the well-known Italian name for these cookies (if you google it you'll see what I mean!), while the names you mention (as well as several more) are the dialect names. I noticed in some pastry shops in Noto in southeastern Sicily that they use buccellati too :)
 
Amy December 6, 2015
Thanks for the info. :) I love learning about Sicily, especially the customs and all the wonderful food. My families are from Valguarnera Caropepe and Villarosa in Enna.
 
Ivana C. December 4, 2015
Very good recipe! Congratulations! I am Sicilian living in Caracas, Venezuela and I use to prepare cuccidati every year. All my friend are waiting for my Christmas gift: a box with a dozen of buccellati. I would like to bring you my little secret in the filling: I add dark chocolate chips, mandarine zest and ground almonds (lightly toasted) Thank you for the honor remembering my land and sorry for my poor English.
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 6, 2015
Sounds delicious! Che buoni!
 
Moema B. December 2, 2015
What are walnut kernels and where can I find them?
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2015
They're just the walnut meat when you've cracked open the shell :)
 
Janet February 3, 2015
Hello, My name is Janet and I am wondering if these are like "cucidati?" My Grandparents where from Sicily and this is what they called them. When I was growing up- my grandmother and all of her cousins would come over the first week of December and make them. It was an all day affair! Thanks Janet
 
Author Comment
Emiko February 3, 2015
Yes they are! I talk about that at the beginning of the article, where you can read a bit more about this tradition! ;)
 
Christine H. December 3, 2014
Do you have a vegan version of this recipe?
 
Kathleen T. December 3, 2014
Thank you. Can I freeze these? I would love to spend a day making a few batches soon so closer to the holiday I have free time for visiting and entertaining.
 
Nancy W. December 3, 2014
I'm very allergic to pistachios. Can I substitute almonds?
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2014
Absolutely - some other ideas for substitutions are noted in the article above!
 
ATG117 December 3, 2014
I absolutely love fig newtons and these are lovely. Is the dough soft or more like a sugar cookie in texture?
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2014
The dough is much like a sweet shortcrust pastry which is why it's easiest to work with it when it is chilled as it gets very soft while working with it! When cooked it's soft and short like pastry.
 
Heidi December 2, 2014
Thank you! This brings back such happy memories from growing up. My mom made these every year at Christmas for my Nonno.
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2014
So happy that this jogged such a nice memory!
 
LLStone December 2, 2014
I'm so happy to see this - Now I don't need my friend's husband's secret recipe any longer! Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2014
Ha, that's great! Every recipe is probably a little different but now you can make it all your own!
 
Hilary H. December 2, 2014
This looks amazing and delicious!
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2014
Thanks, hope you give these a try!
 
molly Y. December 2, 2014
these are gorgeous, emiko!!!!!!!!!
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2014
Thanks Molly! Anything with sprinkles ;)
 
Nomnomnom December 2, 2014
Yes!! I have been looking for this recipe for years. Thank you!!
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 3, 2014
So glad! :)