December is buccellato time. In times past, dried fruits signalled the preparation of winter delights like fruit cake and plum pudding.
Sicily’s version is buccellato, a combination of figs, raisins, dates, nuts (usually almonds) and candied citrus like fruits like citron – all local Sicilian products – baked in a round cookie shell or as small pastries.
But buccellato is much more than a simple fruit cake or fig pie.
Like many pastries, buccellato’s origins are obscured by the mists of time.
Nobody knows exactly when Sicilians began making it.
In centuries past, honey was the sweetener, but the Arabs brought the cultivation of sugar cane to Sicily.
But every part of Europe has some kind of winter pastry made from dried fruits.
While it is associated with the harvest and cooler months, nowadays some pastry chefs make buccellato all year round.
Well, if you can have strawberries in January, why not buccellato in June?
By tradition, buccellato was associated with family milestones.
Godparents might give one to the parents of their godchild, or a marriage witness (best man or maid of honour) might give one to the parents of the bride.
The point is that buccellato not only represented the good fortune and prosperity of the harvest, it was a very “rich” food in itself.
Today buccellato is most often associated with the Christmas holidays.
The more common “national” Italian pastry of the Holiday season – which originated with Lombard and Piemontese pastry makers “up north” – is panettone, a sweet but very plain, spongy bread cake made industrially and sold in cardboard cartons.
There is no such thing as “assembly line” buccellato. It is still made by hand.
There is no single recipe for buccellato.
Some versions call for jam, others for the addition of marsala or moscato wine, itself a winter favourite in Sicily.
Almost any kind of nut can be used – almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts or even pine nuts.
The cake can be frosted or simply glazed and decorated with candied fruits like the one shown here.
One thing is certain.
Buccellato is the timeless, quintessential Sicilian holiday cake.
For the Filling
peels of 2 fresh oranges
1 lb. of dry figs stemmed and cut into 6 to 8 pieces
½ lb. raisins
¼ cup of bitter cocoa or equivalent bitter or semisweet chocolate
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of ground cloves
1 cup of sugar
red wine to cover ( over a pint)
1 cup coarsely chopped almonds (use a blender to chop)
1 teaspoons vanilla
For the Crust
1 cup of milk
1 ½ cups of lard or vegetable shortening, or 3 sticks of unsalted butter
1 cup of sugar
2 tablespoons of honey
8 cups of all purpose flour
8 level teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
cold water if needed
Egg wash, (beat 2 eggs with 3 tablespoons of water)
Small confection of Nonpareils (tiny multicolored sugar balls)
To ready the orange peels for the filling, rinse with cold water, dry and bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. When cooled, cut them with scissors into very thin strips to resemble “angel’s hair”-capelli d’angelo.
In a large pot without a cover, at a medium heat place the figs, raisins, almonds, cocoa, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, 1 cup of sugar, orange peels and the red wine to cover the ingredients. Simmer at a very low heat, stirring often. Do not cover!
After 20 minutes stir in the vanilla and continue simmering until the wine is absorbed into the filling. It takes about 45 minutes. Mixture should be chunky.
Transfer into a large bowl to cool, cover tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator, up to 3 days until ready to use.
Place in a pot the milk, sugar, honey and lard, shortening or butter and at a low heat warm the mixture, until the fat is melted. Cool it off.
Use a mixer or on a flat surface, mound the flour, mix in the baking powder and form a well.
Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and using your hands, start to blend the flour from the inside of the well and keep incorporating the flour into theliquid mixture. Mix thoroughly and bring the dough together to form a ball. If the dough is to dry, add a few drops of water to moisten.
Fold and press with the palm of your hands; if dough is sticky, add some more flour. Do not over mix.
When dough forms into a single mass, cover with a kitchen rag or plastic wrap, set aside, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Discard scraps and wash your hands and working surface.
Prepare some cookie sheets by lightly greasing and pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
Retrieve dough from refrigerator, divide dough in 8 pieces (cut into 4 pieces and each piece in half); work one piece at a time, leaving remaining dough covered with a kitchen rag or plastic wrap.
Dust working surface with flour and place one piece of dough in center; fold and press with the palm of your hands a few times and roll it out into a cylinder shape (like a sausage) 15 inches in length. Than with the help of a rolling pin, flatten the pastry dough into about a 15 inch rectangle, 4 to 5 inches wide and about 1/8 of an inch thick.
Spoon out and place some filling in the center of the strip, leaving clear 1 inch on each side. Lift one side over the top of the filling, moisten the other side with water and roll over to completely enclose the fig mixture; if it opens, pinch dough to seal the roll.
Gently roll the bucceddatu back and forth to round it and place the sealed part on the bottom.
If pastry dough is too fragile spread it on parchment paper, so it will be easer to handle.
Prepare the bucciddatu roll as per above instructions. Make sure that the seam is located at the bottom of the roll, cut on a 45 degree angle into 1 ½ inch wide pieces and place on the cookie sheet, at 2 inches apart.
Make a series of riddles with a fork, “the buccetta”, on the top of each cookie to allow the vapor to escape.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes; than brush the buccellati with egg wash and to give them a festive look, sprinkle on top some of the nonpareil candies (tiny multicolored sugar balls). Bake for an additional 15 minutes or until lightly golden.
Transfer to a cooling rack.
To make the classic round bucciddatu you need to shape one of the stuffed strips into a ring cake.
After the bucceddatu is rolled so that the sealed part is placed at the bottom, shape into a round and seal the ends. With the help of a spatula transfer the cake onto a cookie sheet and using a sharp knife, make little cuts on the outside of the ring at one inch intervals.
Make a series of riddles with the prongs of a fork at half inch intervals on top of the buccellato to allow the vapor to escape.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes; than brush the buccellati with egg wash and to give them a festive look, sprinkle on top some of the nonpareil candies (tiny multicolored sugar balls). Bake for additional an 15 minutes or until lightly golden.
Transfer to a cooling rack
In Palermo the baked buccellati also are garnished using apricot marmalade diluted with a little water and melted over a low flame, so it can be used to glaze.
The top and side of the buccellato is washed with the apricot glaze, sprinkled with roasted and coarsely chopped pistachio nuts and decorated with candied fruits.