We all have that one special food item we crave with our entire being during the holidays. A food so vital to you, it’s as if its ingredients are embedded in your DNA. A treat you countdown to… not only for its indulgence, but also the nostalgia it brings back year after year. Whether it’s Nana’s sweet ‘n’ sour brisket for Hanukkah or the 7-bone prime rib roast that looks almost Flintstonian, most families have a flagship dish they hold dear.
Every year when school let out for Christmas break, I’d fly from my home in sunny South Florida to my father’s in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a small town about 60 miles outside Pittsburgh known for its once-booming steel industry and a few historical catastrophic floods. We all know how magically alluring snow is to a child; there is no twisting a kid’s arm to get them to travel to a snowy destination. Needless to say, leaving my tropical scenery for 10 days or so was A-OK with me as long as I got a few days of playing in “the white stuff.”
My father’s ancestors have always celebrated Christmas Eve with their own loose rendition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes. With a respectful nod to the Pope and generations of tradition, red meat was rarely consumed on Vigilia di Magro, or the eve of Christmas, in the Russo homestead. This was always our biggest meal of the season, with headliners that consisted of deep-fried cod or haddock, cocktail shrimp, fried smelts, calamari, and various signature dipping sauces in which my father took great pride. Although I relished the deep-fried smorgasbord, it was the wide array of Italian holiday cookies lining the antique sideboard that really got my prepubescent blood pumping.
My “inside guy” for holiday baked goods wasn’t a guy at all … it was Lida Prestipino, a sweet older lady who lived next door to my father. Like a “Patron Saint of the Pizzelle,” Lida would hand deliver an assortment of Italian cookies that could stand toe-to-toe with the best bakeries in Pittsburgh. Totos, butterballs, biscottis, lemony frosted knots, various cookies with anisette, sesame rounds, homemade fudge, gooey walnut morsels; you name it, IT WAS THERE! After my grandmother passed away, Lida kind of became our cookie surrogate, and for that I will be eternally grateful. There isn’t a Christmas season that goes by that I don’t look back on her generosity and smile.
There was one cookie, however, that stood out among the rest. The cucidati: a somewhat elusive Italian cookie that you don’t see often in the pastry cases of Italian bakeries, usually overshadowed by hundreds of other varieties. I can only describe it to an outsider as “The Sophia Loren of the Fig Newton World.” Aside from one of my customers taking pity on my soul and occasionally supplying me with my holiday fix, I would only get cucidati if my stepmother baked and shipped them.
If I wanted to consume these cookies in mass quantities this season, I was going to have to learn how to make them myself. With a few pointers from my stepmum Jodi Russo, my grandmother’s original recipe card, and a few Hail Marys, I set out to create my own variation of the cookie that was so near to my heart.
Cucidati Italian Cookies
(Yields about 4 dozen cookies)
1 cup seedless raisins
1 cup prunes
1 cup Kalamata dried figs, finely chopped
½ cup pitted dates, finely chopped
1 heaping tbsp candied fruit
1 whole orange, squeezed, ½ an orange zest
1 nip dark spiced rum
⅛ tsp ground cinnamon
⅛ tsp ground clove
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp lemon extract
Pinch kosher salt
1 cup powdered sugar
Enough water to make a medium-thick slurry
Lemon or orange zest
⅛ tsp lemon extract
Rainbow nonpareils (sprinkles)
3½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable shortening
1½ tbsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tbsp orange extract
1 tbsp lemon extract
½ cup milk or slightly more, just until dough is pliable
Running your fruit through a grinder is the preferred method, but not necessary. If you do not have a grinder, simply put raisins, dates, figs, and prunes in a medium saucepan with a little water and cook them down on medium-low heat. As your fruit begins to soften, proceed to mash ingredients until everything is soft and incorporated. You may need to add some water a few times during this “cooking down” process. Proceed to incorporate other filling ingredients to your pot until everything is somewhat mushy, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Leave it to set in the fridge for a few hours.
When making the dough, I incorporated my flour and sugar together first with a mixer. I then started adding my wet ingredients, leaving out the shortening and milk. Mix on low. Next, gradually start to mix in the shortening on low speed. Once that starts coming together, you begin adding milk until you get a soft, workable dough. Roll dough into a ball and set aside in the fridge, covered, for at least 2 hours.
Now that everything is chilled, begin by rolling your dough into pieces about 3 inches wide and 6 inches long. The dough should be about as double thick as pie crust or just thick enough so you can fold it over without it falling apart. Roll the chilled filling into tube shapes with your hands and place down the center of your dough strips. Fold one edge of the dough over to the other and pinch closed. Poke these logs with a few knife slits to let hot air escape. Carefully transfer logs to a lined cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees. Cookies are done as soon as they begin to brown, about 20 minutes. Immediately transfer logs to a cooling rack. Let rest for at least an hour. Once the cookies are cooled, liberally frost and sprinkle. Cut into biscotti-thick slices and enjoy my favorite holiday cookie for yourself!