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From Sicily, for Christmas: discover the fig cookies called cuccidati

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Sicilians love their sweets, and the island’s bakers make some of the world’s best desserts, whether elaborate concoctions like cassata, a sweet cake of Arab origins, or gelato (ice cream) or granita (ices), or the world-famous cannoli. Desserts often are associated with religious observance, like cuccia, (sweetened wheat berries, often with ricotta) made for St. Lucy’s Day, and for holidays. One of the greatest of the holiday sweets is cuccidati (also known by their dialect name, cuddureddi), Christmas cookies filled with a typically Sicilian mix of figs, dates, nuts and spices.

You can find cuccidati in just about any Italian bakery; sometimes in the form of a ring called buccellato, rather than as individual cookies. But why not try making your own? Sicilian (and Italian) recipes can have a lot of variation, but there are certain ingredients all must have. The same is true of cuccidati – some recipes include chocolate, others don’t; some use apricot preserves while others – like the recipe below – have orange. But you can’t make cuccidati without the basics: figs, dates and nuts.

This recipe is quite traditional, but it’s not ironclad – feel free to make substitutions. You can use only almonds and no walnuts, or substitute apricot preserves for the orange preserves. The recipe, however, calls for refrigerating the filling for six hours before you make the cuccidati, so plan ahead!

Cuccidati (Sicilian Christmas fig cookies)

Ingredients
For the filling:
• 2 cups dried figs
• 1 ½ cups pitted and dried dates
• ¾ cup almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
• ½ cup walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped
• ½ cup orange (or apricot) preserves
• ½ cup honey
• 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
• ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon nutmeg
• ¼ teaspoon cloves, ground

For the dough:
• 4 cups all-purpose flour
• ¾ cup sugar
• 1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon, baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup butter, in 1/2-inch cubes
• 1 large egg
• ½ cup milk
• 1 tablespoon vanilla
• 1 egg white beaten with 1 tablespoon water (for the egg wash)
• Colored sprinkles (optional)

Procedure
• For the filling, combine the figs, dates and raisins in a food processor and chop them finely. Place the mixture in a bowl and add the remaining filling ingredients. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 6 hours.
• For the dough, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and blend it well with the other ingredients so that the consistency is like coarse meal.
• In another bowl, beat together the egg, milk and vanilla; add this mixture to the dry mixture and stir to make a dough.
• Put the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead for a few minutes until smooth.
• Cut the dough in four pieces, cover it and refrigerate for 45 minutes.
• Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease 2 large baking sheets.
• On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a foot-long square. Cut the dough into small rectangles, about 4 x 3 inches.
• Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center of each rectangle and then fold the sides of each rectangle toward the center to enclose the filling. Pinch the edges closed.
• Turn the cookies over and press them so the seams become flat.
• Cut the cookies crosswise into slices, about 1 – 1 ½ inches wide, and arrange them on the baking sheets. Brush them with the egg wash and lightly cover with the colored sprinkles, if using them.
• Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown and then place them on wire racks to cool.
• Enjoy your cuccidati with espresso or a dessert wine, like vin santo.

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