‘To eat in Sicily is also to feel that one is tasting the very beginnings of Italian food history. The island has been conquered by virtually every dominant Mediterranean power of the last two or three thousand years’.¹
Inspired by two recent purchases of Sicilian cookbooks, I began to peruse the others in my collection with renewed interest. I have these books strewn about, moving from one to the other, excited by the differences and similarities and the historical references in each, some attributing Turkish and Greek influence to a style of biscuit, others noting the strong Arabic and North African legacy. So while the search is on for a make-ahead biscuit or bread for Christmas, I subject myself to a wonderful distraction as I travel back through that perfumed land of orange blossom and jasmine, the land of ancient Greek monuments, where the sea is never far away from where you are, that land of robust and exotic flavours: Sicily. I hear the words of the 12th century traveller, geographer and cartographer, the Muslim scholar al-Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi Hasani al-Sabti, or simply al Idrisi of Palermo, who was employed by King Roger 11 of Sicily. For 15 years, al Idrisi studied and journeyed, consulting other travellers to produce his great geography book, A Diversion for the Man Longing to Travel to Far off Places. The Sicily that al Idrisi recorded was an island of “carefully watered orchards and gardens where generations of Muslim technical expertise and commercial know-how had bequeathed a rich agriculture of lemons, almonds, pistachio nuts, cane sugar, dates, figs, carobs and more.”² I am there, back in that royal 12th Century court, where “Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and the dialects of Northern France could all be heard.”³ Did they also eat these delicately spiced Cuddureddi biscuits as they discussed the wonders of the world? One will never know. But as King Roger employed Muslim chefs, I have a fair idea that they did. Cooking can be so distracting for a time traveller like me.
One of the recent purchases, Sicilian Food, Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle by Mary Taylor Simeti, 1999, was introduced to me by Debi, at My Kitchen Witch whose recommendations I always trust and inevitably enjoy reading. They are books about cooking, but never contain glossy photographs. Simetti’s book is well researched, documented and timeless. The other, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, an Australian author with Sicilian heritage, came via a reminder from Roger ( not the Norman King of Sicily) at Food Photography and France whose blog is amusing and often outrageously so. I thank both of you for adding to my divertimento.
This recipe for Cuddureddi Siciliani biscuits comes from My Taste of Sicily by Dominique Rizzo, another Italo-Australiana, and was the most appealing of all the versions in my collection. Dominique learnt it from her Zia Nunzia. The biscuits contain all the essence of Sicily in one Christmassy filling: almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, figs, sultanas and currants, orange peel and marmalade, cinnamon and cloves, dark chocolate and vanilla, with a pastry moistened with Marsala. Eaten without savouring, they do resemble an English mince-pie, but are far more subtle and less cloying.
Cuddureddi Siciliani; makes 20 biscuits
- 260 g plain flour
- 70 g caster sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 125 g unsalted butter, chopped
- 1 tablespoon Marsala
- 18o ml milk
- 40 g icing sugar ( for dusting cooked biscuits )
- 150 g dried figs
- 35 g slivered almonds
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
- 100 g currants
- 50 g sultanas
- 3 teaspoons orange marmalade
- finely grated zest of 1 orange
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla paste
- 45 g dark couverture chocolate (70 %), chopped or sliced finely.
- Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then transfer to a food processor. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles course breadcrumbs. Add the Marsala to the milk, then with the motor running, add a little of the milk mixture to the flour at a time, processing until it forms a soft dough. Knead the dough on a floured board for 2 minutes, working as quickly as possible to prevent the dough from softening. Roll the dough into a ball, cover with plastic film and leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
2. Cover the figs with boiling water and let them soak for 15 minutes. Drain, remove and discard the stalks. Finely chop the figs.
3. Preheat oven to 200c.
4. Place the almonds, pine nuts and walnuts on a baking tray and roast for a few minutes, and watch that they don’t colour too much. Remove and set aside.
5. Mix the figs, almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, currants, sultanas, marmalade, orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and chocolate in a bowl. Transfer half of the mixture to a food processor and process for 3 seconds or until it comes together to form a rough paste. Return to the bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.
6. Reduce the temperature to 180c. Lightly grease ( or paper) two baking trays. Briefly knead the dough, then roll it out on a floured work surface until 2 mm thick. Cut the dough into 7 cm rounds with a pastry cutter, then place 1 tablespoon of filling in the centre of each round. Top with another round and brush the edge with a little milk. Press the edges together to form a round pillow.
7. Place the filled biscuits on the baking tray and bake for 2o minutes. Dust immediately with icing sugar and leave to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. These biscuits will keep in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
- I found 1 tablespoon of filling too much for the size of these biscuits and recommend that you lessen the quantity to fill the biscuits without splitting the pastry. Be guided by your intuition here.
- You will probably not use very much of the Marsala/milk mixture to bring together the pastry. I suggest keeping the Marsala and lessening the amount of milk.
- As the recipe is a long one, I suggest making the filling ahead, covering and storing it, then making the pastry and baking on a later day.
- These are very rewarding biscuits to make. Other versions include honey, Vincotto and use durum wheat in the pastry. Other shapes are formed too, which I may explore in a future post.
Although not a book about Sicilan cookery, I drew heavily on the opening chapters of John Dickie’s book, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, Free Press, New York, 2008 which is still my favourite book about Italian food and doesn’t contain a single recipe.
¹ John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, p 15
2 John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. p.19
3 John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. P 23