In December, holiday breads and desserts flood bakery shelves. Panettone may be the most popular Italian pastry served during the holiday season but I prefer homemade Christmas cookies especially nutty roccocò, chocolate covered mostaccioli and buccellati (Sicilian fig-filled cookies). Baked in a wreath ring or as cookies, the combination of figs, dates, nuts, raisins and sometimes candied fruits is simply delicious.
In the past, baked goods packed with dried fruits popped up around harvest time as cooler temperatures approached. Filled with figs, buccellati represented a successful and prosperous harvest. Traditionally buccellati appeared at family celebrations including weddings and christenings. Today, despite pastry chefs making it year round, buccellati are linked to Christmas festivities.
I cherish and miss listening to Christmas tunes while baking and eating cookies with mom in the days leading up to December 25. She will be baking away in Boston and I’ll do the same in Rome. There is no single recipe for these Christmas delights. Some recipes use dessert wine. All recipes use nuts, mostly almonds. Mom uses her plum jam.
Ingredients (5 dozen cookies)
Ingredients for the dough
- 4 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup
- 1 stick and 1 ounce of butter
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon baking powder (in Sicily bakers’ ammonia or hartshorn is often used. If you find it, it will leave the cookies more crisp).
Ingredients for the filling
- 1/2 cup home made or high quality jam (we use black plum jam but choose your favorite, strawberry and cherry work well too)
- 6 ounces dried figs
- 3/4 cup of vino cotto
- 2 tablespoons pistachios
- 2 tablespoons almonds
- 1/2 cup walnuts
Ingredients for the icing
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- juice of 1 to 2 lemons
- pistacchio granules for decorating
Finely chop the dried figs. Put the figs in a saucepan. Chop the nuts by hand or with a food processor. Add the jam, vino cotto and nuts (pistachios, almonds, walnuts). Stir frequently over low heat until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.Preheat the oven to 350° F before making the dough.
Pile the flour in a mound on a marble or wooden surface. Make a well in the center of the mound. Add the sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla and baking powder or ammonium bicarbonate if you’re using it to the well. Mix with your hands incorporating the flour into the well little by little, until the dough forms. If the dough is too dry add a tablespoon of milk moisten it. The dough should be easy to work with and not too sticky.Divide the dough into quarters. Roll one quarter of the dough into a rectangle. The dough should be about 1/4 inch thick. Use a spoon to spread the filling along the bottom third of the dough. Fold the bottom over the filling. Fold the top over, enclosing the filling within the dough. It will look like a log. Turn the log over (seam-side down) and press gently to flatten it. Cut into 2-3 inch pieces. Gently shape each cookie into a moon shape. Make 3 slits on the rounded side of each buccellato. Place the cookies on a unlined baking sheet. Repeat until dough and filling are finished.
Bake at 350°F for approximately 25 minutes, until golden brown. Place cookies on a rack to cool.
Place pistachios in a food processor and pulse or chop by hand.
In a small bowl, combine the powdered sugar with the juice from 1 – 2 lemons. Mix until smooth. When the cookies are cool, brush with the icing and sprinkle with pistachio granules. I ice one-half of the cookies and leave the others unfrosted. Mix it up.