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Are These Christmas Cookies the Fig Newton's Ancestor?

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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.

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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Tags: Cookie, Edible Gift, Christmas, Holiday, Bake, Holiday Entertaining