Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Very Italian Christmas

Every so often, my mom digs up a gem of a recipe from my grandmother. More often than not, those recipes conjure up vivid memories of my childhood, but sometimes they only spark a vague recollection ... that is, until I taste them. That was the case with these cookies, which my mom brought up out of nowhere a few months ago and I finally made on Christmas Eve.

The timing was appropriate, as they're sometimes called Italian Christmas Cookies. I've also heard them referred to as Italian Fig Cookies, Sicilian Dried Fruit and Nut Cookies, and I've even seen versions called Fruit and Walnut Pillows. But these delectable little treats are authentically known as cuccidati. I couldn't find the origin of the word, and not being a speaker of Italian I can barely pronounce it. So let's just go with this ... they're basically Italian Fig Newtons, frosted. And they're amazing.

I don't know why I didn't remember these cookies, because according to my mom, my grandma made them often. I turned to The Google to jog my memory (which was quite a feat - I had no idea how to spell cuccidati and my mom was pronouncing it like the Italian she is). When I finally figured it out and stumbled across a photo, it started coming back to me. Those multi-colored sprinkles are immediately recognizable and should be unforgettable. But it wasn't until I finally bit into one that I remembered them from Christmas' past.

There really is no better way to describe them than as frosted Fig Newtons. There are some slight differences ... where the Fig Newton's filling is very sweet, this is a bit tart, and where the Fig Newton's cookie is super soft, this crust is a bit flaky. But now that I've made these, even given how time-consuming they are, I'll never go back to the packaged variety.

Cuccidati (Italian Fig Cookies)
For the Filling
1 cup dried figs
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup orange juice
1/3 cup slivered almonds
1/3 cup walnut halves
1/4 cup corn syrup
Zest of 1 lemon

For the Dough
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour

For the Icing
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
Multi-colored sprinkles

Make filling by pulsing all filling ingredients in a food processor until nearly smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove filling to a small bowl and set aside. Clean food processor bowl.

Make dough by mixing butter and sugar in food processor until smooth. Add egg, vanilla, and milk. Add salt, baking powder, and flour and pulse until dough comes together in a ball. Dough will be soft.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll dough between two pieces of parchment paper. Freeze until dough is firm enough to handle, about 10 minutes.

Roll dough to about 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 2x3-inch squares. Place a scant tablespoon of filling in center of each square and fold the right edge, then left edge over filling (like you're folding a letter). Transfer to ungreased baking sheets, setting slightly apart.

Bake until cookies are lightly browned, about 25 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking time. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Make icing by stirring confectioners' sugar with lemon juice, adding a bit of water to adjust consistency if necessary (it should be a bit more paste-like than glaze-like, but not as thick as a frosting). When cookies are cooled completely, spoon icing over each and decorate with multi-colored sprinkles (and yes, they must be multi-colored otherwise they're not authentic cuccidati).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can't Stop Christmas Cookies

In my house, baking is a year-round activity, certainly not reserved for Christmastime. But there are a couple tools in my kitchen that aren't broken out quite as often in other months as they are in December ... the rolling pin and cookie cutters!

It's not that cut-out cookies can't or shouldn't be made outside of Christmas. In fact, one of the best gifts my BFF ever gave me was a shoebox filled with a dozen cookies cutters, one themed around each month of the year. But those dozen assorted cutters are trumped by the nearly two dozen Christmas cutters I've collected, which definitely make cut-out cookies more tempting at this time of year.

Surprisingly enough, cut-out cookies aren't part of my typical holiday repertoire and don't show up in my treat tins consistently. There are simply too many other items on the list. But when I stumbled across this recipe, I decided it was about time to put the cookie cutters back in rotation.

Not only were these cookies so pretty, but they were also so tasty :) The filling needed a bit more peppermint (two drops just weren't peppermint-y enough for me), but the cookies were buttery, flaky, and rich. I guarantee you won't be able to stop eating them!

Oh, and also worthy of note, I've finally found a recipe that stands up perfectly to baking - they didn't spread in the oven at all, which is a problem I've had with similar doughs in the past. I'm not sure if the trick was the temperature of the butter, the stiffness of the cream cheese, or the length of time the dough spent in the fridge, but whatever it was, it worked!

Butter Cookies with Peppermint Filling
For Cookies
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
Red decorators' sugar

For Filling
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 or 2 drops peppermint extract
1 or 2 drops green food coloring

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make cookies, cream butter, cream cheese, and sugar using a handheld mixer in a medium bowl until smooth. Add flour slowly, mixing on low, until incorporated. Scoop dough into a ball, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate until dough has firmed slightly, about 30 minutes.

On a floured surface, roll dough about 1/8-inch thick. Cut out as many shapes (I used snowflakes and stars) as possible with a small cookie cutter and transfer to ungreased baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between each cookie. Re-roll dough scraps and repeat until all dough is used. Sprinkle cookies with sugar, pressing very lightly to adhere.

Bake until cookies are golden around edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool 5 minutes on baking sheets and then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

To make filling, place sugar, butter, peppermint extract, food coloring and 1/2 teaspoon water in a medium bowl and beat on medium speed until well combined and fluffy. Spread a thin layer of filling on half of cookies and place remaining cookies on top to make sandwiches.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Apple Pie, Two Ways

In my two week absence, I am sad to report that I didn't do much cooking. My trip to San Francisco was a whirlwind and didn't involve as many homecooked meals as I would have liked, and in the time since I've returned I didn't really get back into the kitchen until this weekend.

Luckily, the short time I have spent in the kitchen lately yielded a couple of outraegeously delicious desserts! My number one contribution to Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house was a beautiful, tender and tart apple pie. And since Bill was craving an apple treat post-Thanksgiving, I put a new twist on apple pie with some super yummy apple pie bars this weekend.

My apple pie was inspired by (but not quite copied from) Wolfgang Puck's Christmas Apple Pie. And when I say "inspired by," I mean that I used his crust and winged the rest. Fortunately, that crust went over really well. Also fortunately, my improvised filling went over just as well! In fact, my dad called it "stupendous." And thus, I've coined this recipe "Jen's Thanksgiving Apple Pie."

As delish (and pretty!) as my apple pie was, I have to admit that my after Thanksgiving apple pie bars were even better. I have a serious thing for crumble toppings, so as much as I enjoyed Wolfgang's shortbread-like crust, I have to give it to the oat-y, sugar-y, cinnamon-y crumbs that topped these bars (plus, the caramelized apple filling takes it to a whole other level of deliciousness!). I highly recommend that both of these apple desserts make an appearance on your holiday, table ... but if you have to pick just one, go for the bars!

Thanksgiving Apple Pie
For the Crust
2 1/3 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
2 egg yolks
1 or 2 tablespoons milk

For the Filling
6 to 8 (depending on their size) Granny Smith apples
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg white, lightly whisked

In food processor fitted with steel blade, combine flour and sugar. Add butter and process until texture resembles fine meal.

In a small bowl, whisk together yolks and 1 tablespoon milk. Scrape into machine and process until a ball begins to form, using additional tablespoon milk, if necessary. Remove dough from machine, and on a lightly floured surface, press into a circle. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Divide pastry into 2 parts, one a little larger than the other. On a lightly floured surface, roll smaller piece into a round, 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick. Arrange in pie plate, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang. (Reserve trimmings.) Tuck overhang under, making a slightly thicker edge. Chill 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Peel, core, and slice apples. Place apples in a large bowl, sprinkle with 1/2 cup sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in lemon juice. Spoon filling into the prepared, chilled crust. 

On a lightly floured surface, roll out reserved dough, about 1/4-inch thick. Carefully place dough over filling and trim edges (again, reserve trimmings, adding to scraps reserved from bottom crust). Press edges together to seal pie (this doesn't haven't to look professional, but to make pretty, fluted edges, see America's Test Kitchen's tips here). Roll out trimmings and use a sharp knife or small cookie cutter to cut decorative leaves. Adhere leaves to top crust (in any pattern you like!) using a little beaten egg white. Cut 4 slits into top of pie to allow steam to escape while cooking.

Brush top crust with remaining egg white and sprinkle with remaining sugar. Bake 30 minutes, turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake 35 to 40 minutes longer, until crust is golden brown. Cool on wire rack.

Apple Pie Bars
For the Crust
3/4 cups butter ( 1 1/2 sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Filling
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
6 Honeycrisp apples (or any variety you like), peeled, cored, and sliced
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

For the Topping
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make crust, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in flour and salt until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out into a parchment-lined 9x13-inch baking dish. Press dough over bottom and up edges of dish in an even layer. Bake 20 minutes or until golden and set. Set aside.

To make filling, melt butter and brown sugar in large skillet. Add apples and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Stir in cinnamon and nutmeg. Continue cooking until apples are caramelized and very tender and liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes longer. (Add a few tablespoons water to pan to prevent scorching, if necessary.) Remove from heat and let cool.

To make topping, mix oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Using a pastry cutter, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Press mixture into clumps.

Spread apple filling over crust. Scatter crumbs on top. Bake 1 hour, or until topping is golden, rotating dish halfway through cooking time. Cool completely (or mostly) on a wire rack before cutting into 2-inch bars.