Friday, December 16, 2011

Italian Fig Cookies (Cucidati)

I finally got around to starting my annual Christmas cookie baking last Sunday. There are many years when it is likely that it would never happen at all if it weren't for the fact that I teach a class that features eight of my favorite Christmas cookies. (This is one of those years...) I have already posted two of the cookies that I teach in my class—Scottish Shortbread and Cranberry-Pistachio Biscotti. Today I thought I would share the recipe for Italian Fig Cookies (Cucidati).

I found this recipe in Gourmet magazine almost ten years ago. For several years running (2000 through 2006) Gourmet Magazine's December issue was filled with recipe after recipe of amazing Christmas cookies. I looked forward to that issue's arrival every year—many of my favorite Christmas cookies come from those issues. (I am still so sad that Gourmet is no more.)

Cucidati are the original Fig Newton—only they are so much better. Besides figs, cucidati typically include other dried fruits like raisins (dark or light), currants and/or dates. In addition to the dried fruit, most recipes also call for finely chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans...). The finished filling is fragrant with orange—fresh zest, juice and/or candied peel—spices and spirits (brandy, rum, whiskey...). To my mind, a Fig Newton is a kid's cookie...Cucidati are for grownups.

The fig filling is encased in a soft, tender cookie crust. To make the cookies, the dough is rolled out and cut into strips that are 1/8-inch thick and 3 1/4-inch wide.

The filling is arranged in a narrow mound down the center of each strip and the dough on either side of the filling is lifted up and over and then sealed so that the filling is wrapped in a thin tube of dough. These "logs" are then cut into short lengths to form the individual cookies.

The description of how to roll out the dough in the recipe may seem a bit convoluted, but the details of rolling to a specific size, then trimming and then cutting are to help you create strips that are exactly 3 1/4-inch wide and 10 inches long. This size strip will hold exactly 1/3 cup of the filling. But once you have made these cookies a few times, you will have a feel for how much filling to use and you can then roll the strips (of any length) in the way that works best for you (so long as it doesn't create too many scraps—the scraps can be re-rolled once, but more than that and they will be tough).

The recipe tells you to chill the dough until it is firm, but even when well-chilled it will still be soft and a bit sticky. When rolling it out, make sure your work surface and your rolling pin are well floured. (You can always brush away the excess flour with a dry pastry brush.) Because the dough is so soft, it is easiest to lift it up and over the filling if you have a long, narrow spatula. Slide the spatula under the edge of the dough and use it to lay the entire edge over the strip of filling in one motion. At that point the other side (which will have been moistened to help it adhere) can be lifted in the same manner. Roll the log over and rock it gently against your work surface so that the dough is well-sealed.

The logs can be cut immediately, but because the dough is so soft, a quick chill of 15 minutes or so in the freezer will make it so that they are much easier to cut cleanly and neatly. I have never done it, but I imagine that the uncut logs could be frozen (just like a traditional "slice and bake" cookie). You would then be in a position to have a few warm Cucidati any time the mood strikes....

Italian Fig Cookies

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 T. sugar
1 T. baking powder
1 t. Salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 large eggs
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1/2 cup milk

Place flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor and process to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Turn butter and flour mixture into a large bowl. Whisk together the eggs, vanilla and milk. Drizzle over the flour mixture and stir with a fork to form a dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead a few times. Flatten the dough into a rectangle between sheets of plastic. Chill until firm—at least 8 hours.

9 oz. (1 heaping cup, packed) dried figs (preferably White Turkish), stems discarded
3 3/4 oz. (3/4 cup) golden raisins
zest and juice of one orange
4 oz. (3/4 cup) whole almonds, toasted and finely chopped
3 oz. (3/4 cup) walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
1/4 t. ground cloves
3/4 c. honey
1/4 c. brandy, dark rum or marsala

Place the figs, raisins and orange juice in the food processor and process until finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Stir until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 8 hours.

To form the cookies, divide the rectangle of dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator while you work with the first half. Roll the rectangle of dough out on a well-floured surface into a 12- by 15-inch rectangle that is about 1/8-inch thick. Trim to a 10- by 13-inch rectangle (chill the trimmings). Cut this rectangle into 4 10- by 3¼-inch strips. Arrange 1/3 cup filling in a 1-inch wide log down the length of each strip. Working with one strip at a time, lightly moisten the one of the long edges of the dough with water. Fold the opposite edge up and over the filling and then fold the moistened edge up so that the filling is enclosed in the dough. Roll the cookie logs over so the seam is down and press lightly to make sure the seam is well sealed. Repeat with the remaining 3 strips of dough and filling. Cut the logs crosswise with a sharp floured knife into 1-inch lengths. Arrange the cookies ½-inch apart on parchment lined baking sheets. Roll out the remaining dough with the trimmings in the same manner to make more cookies.

Bake the cookies in a 350° oven until set and golden—about 16 to 20 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 80 1-inch cookies. If you prefer a larger cookie, cut the logs into 1½-inch lengths to get 4 to 5 dozen cookies.

The cookies may be decorated in a number of ways:
• Dredge the cooled cookies with powdered sugar.
• Just before baking, brush each cookie lightly with egg wash and sprinkle with sanding sugar, turbinado sugar or colored decorative sugar.
• When the cookies are cool, drizzle with a glaze made of 1 c. powdered sugar, 1/2 t. vanilla and 1 1/2 to 2 T. orange juice.

(Recipe adapted from Gourmet, December 2002)


Anonymous said...

Gourmet still publishes a holiday issue every year :)

terriskitchenuk said...

Oh these look wonderful. I will definitely have to come back to this for next Christmas!

born in carbondale said...

Paige, I just discovered your blog this afternoon. It was around 2:30 and I was working, decided to take a quick break, and within a couple of linking forays from where I no longer recall, landed here. It's now after 6 pm... ahem.

I may just have to come from St. Paul sometime to take some of your classes. In the meantime, it occurs to me that this cookie, maamoul--which I intend to make a great number of this coming winter until I perfect them--is one that might also appeal to you. I've been making cucidati for years, and these are in the same line.

I had them for the first time when I was in Madison, WI visiting my daughter. It was a rainy afternoon, and I took refuge in a coffee shop on State Street. I wasn't really hungry, but there were a few of these interesting little round, plump cookies covered in drifts of confectioner's sugar on a plate on the counter, so I purchased one to go with my coffee. They were shatteringly good! Tender, buttery pastry surrounding a delicious ground date nut filling with the faintest scent of orange. I went to the counter and asked about them, and was told a local man, a Syrian, supplied them to the coffee shop. I asked if I could buy a dozen (there were only four on the counter...) and the owner pulled some out of her freezer and put them into an old ice cream bucket for me.

The coffee shop no longer had them when last there(although the owner remembered me from my previous ecstatic visit) as they couldn't entice enough people to try them to keep them in stock. I found a recipe for them in Ottolenghi's Jerusalem, and many variations on the web, like this one:

I see what I'm written isn't so much a comment as it is more of a post itself. Sorry. Sorta. It's just that I'm enjoying your posts so much, and have been tagging and copying so many it's as if I've been talking about food with you all afternoon. It's a pleasure to read you. It's very skillful, the balance you've struck between being inviting and serious.

Paige said...

Thank you! For the link....and for taking the time to let me know how much you enjoyed spending some time on my blog! Your comment arrived in my inbox just when I needed a lift.

Those cookies look wonderful. I have probably been to that very coffee shop...I used to spend time in Madison every summer, visiting a friend. But I don't remember seeing those cookies. I will have to try them. Is the one you linked to your favorite version....or do you prefer the Ottolenghi version? or another?

If you are from St. Paul, do you take classes at Cook's of Crocus Hill? I have a good friend who teaches Swedish Baking classes there (She did a guest post on my blog a few years ago: )

Thank you again....for the recipe...and the kind words! I love hearing from readers...and conversing ...and learning. If you are on FB, I have a page and do my best to respond to comments and questions there too.