It's Christmastime, which means one thing to the females of a Sicilian-American household:
For the benefit of you "out" people (non-Sicilians), this is pronounced koo-che-DAH-dee. Also referred to as "Sicilian fig cookies", "Sicilian Christmas cookies", "Italian fig cookies", or simply "the figs" as in, "You gonna make the figs this year?"
I have never heard of one being referred to in the singular.
Cuccidati is an ancient recipe, if you judge by the ingredients, all of which are pre-Columbus-sailing-the-ocean-blue (except for the sugar in the dough, a modern upgrade). Of course, there are certain people who think that everything has to be chocolate (def a New World thing) and add chocolate chips to the filling. If you do this, stop it. It's an infamia. And your children will never respect you.
In my family, every Christmas season we baked cuccidati at my grandmother's house. When I say "we", I mean every last donna of the famiglia and the male children under the age of twelve. My grandfather would hide. The non-Sicilian daughters-in-law were expected to participate, but were closely monitored. Adult males were not invited to this gathering, even if they wanted to be, which they did not. In fact, most of them resented the invasion because it took over the kitchen, the main room of a Sicilian household. I once even heard my grandfather snarl, "Big deal. Buy some Fig Newtons and put some frosting on them." This sentiment was greeted by the mal occhio from my grandmother, but was otherwise ignored. Take into consideration that my grandfather didn't like ricotta in his lasagna, and was therefore probably insane, and that baking cuccidati is a leisurely activity spread out over 2-3 days, and that's sort of an explanation.
I'm going to share the family recipe with you. Yes, it's long and yes, it will probably take you three days, unless you have absolutely nothing else to do and that includes brushing your teeth. But learn to make cuccidati and you can have your pick of handsome Sicilian men to marry (check their work history first).
Call your sisters and your cousins. Put on your hoop earrings and your red aprons. Leave plenty of time to argue about who's got the "right" recipe. And prepare to get sticky.
Part I: The Dough
3 lbs of cake flour (13 1/2 cups. I looked it up.)
6 tsp of baking powder (yes, six)
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 tsp of salt (Never leave this out. Never. I did. Once. I will do time in Purgatory for it.)
3 sticks of cold butter (really)
1 cup of Crisco or lard
2 cups of milk
Sift together (or stir together; I'm not the kind of girl who "sifts") the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt, in a really big-ass bowl. With a pastry cutter, cut in the butter and Crisco until crumbly. Gradually add enough milk to make a medium-soft dough. Knead dough until smooth, about 10 minutes. Place in a covered container and put in the fridge for at least an hour. Overnight is better. Bring to room temperature when you're ready to use.
Part II: The Filling
1/2 lb of dates
1 1/2 lbs of dried figs, as soft as you can find them, hard tips trimmed
1 cup of blanched, slivered almonds
1/4 cup of candied, chopped citron
1/3 cup of raisins
1 small jar of orange marmalade (or a cut-up orange, peel and all)
3 Tbl of honey
1 tsp of ground cinnamon
A little whiskey (The good stuff. And just a splash, because you get to drink the rest. My grandmother liked Manhattans.)
Toast your almonds in a 300 degree oven until they're golden and you can smell them. Roughly chop the dates and figs. Combine the dates and figs in a big bowl with all the other ingredients. Take this mixture and put it through a food grinder, using a coarse blade. (A few words about food grinders. I'm talking about the kind that my grandmother used that looks like something that would make Dick Cheney's eyes light up. They are easy to find in thrift stores, and probably will be until they become a yuppie kitchen boutique "discovery" and they start selling them for the equivalent of a down payment on a car.) Gather the filling into a ball, wrap in Saran Wrap, and put it in the fridge. It will keep for at least a week. I am of the opinion that you could put it in a time capsule and bury it somewhere in Boston's North End and three hundred years from now somebody could dig it up and make cuccidati.
Part III: Baking and Icing
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Break off a ball of dough and roll thin. Cut into rectangles about the size of an index card. Put a teaspoon (more or less) of filling, shaping it like a Tootsie Roll, on top of each rectangle. Close the dough over the filling and pinch the ends shut. Make 2-3 little slashes on one side of the cookie and shape into a "C". Bake on an ungreased (thank God!) cookie sheet for 17 to 20 minutes, or until cookies are very lightly browned. Let cool.
Part IV: Icing
1 box of powdered sugar
6 Tbl of warm milk
2 tsp of vanilla extract
2 tsp of lemon extract
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Add a little more milk if the icing is too thick. Spoon icing on each cookie and shake some sprinkles on top. Fast. While the icing is still moist. This is one of the times of life when small children come in handy. They know sprinkles. Do ten or so cookies at a time. You may need more than one batch of icing.
That's it. Trust me, it's easier than it sounds. The Manhattans help. If you have extra dough, just roll it up and bake it without the filling. Which your man will probably like better than the figs because, as you well know, he doesn't appreciate anything.
Buon Natale. And, BTW, nobody sings "Ave Maria" like Perry Como.