I’ve been passionate about baking since I was four years old. I had reason to think about my first baking experience the other day when I burned myself pulling a tray of sugar cookies from the oven. My first batch of cookies and my first burn happened with my grandmother. I had become bored of my Easy-bake oven and dreamed of grander things, and so my grandmother suggested we bake real cookies. I don’t remember what type of cookies they were because the thrill of the moment was overshadowed by the pain of the dime-sized burn on my inner wrist that came as I helped pull the steaming hot cookies from the oven. She immediately slathered the burn with butter, which didn’t seem to help much. I had the faint reminder on my wrist for many years to come.
Over the years, I’ve perfected my cookie-making technique as well becoming pretty adept at baking bread, cakes, and pizza. The smell of something baking in the oven is a simple pleasure but one that has come to mean so many things to me. It’s the memory of childhood, a shared secret between my mom and my grandmother. It’s a passion and a comfort, and during the holidays, it’s a way of giving back to my friends. And each year it is usually accompanied, like this one, by a burn on one of my hands. I don’t slather butter on it like my grandmother did, but the small reminder always makes me think of her.
This year, feeling a bit lonely and wanting to have something of my mom and grandmother with me, I determined to expand my repertoire of the eight or nine types of cookies that I make each holiday season, to include my grandmother’s fig cookies.
The process of making these fig cookies can be daunting, but this is what makes them special. The cookies themselves, while tasty, are not pretty and sometimes even downright ugly. But that’s okay, it’s tradition. The origin of these cookies is Sicily where they are called Buccellati. Each family has a special recipe for the filling, but it is essentially figs, nuts, and love! The love part is really important because is you do these cookies in the way that my grandmother always did, it means shoving handfuls of honey-laden, sticky filling through a meat grinder. Twice. The last time I made the cookies with my mom we used the grinder attachment of her Kitchenaid mixer and it was much simpler. And admittedly if my own beautiful Kitchenaid had made the trip with me, I probably would have done the same thing. But not having a stand mixer or even a decent food processor, I decided to do things the old fashioned way. So after finding out that a grinder/mincer is a tritacarne in Italian, I asked around to see who had one that I could borrow. As it turns out, not too many people are still fond of screwing a grinder to the edge of their table and doing things manually. I had lots of offers of electric ones, but I didn’t want that. In the end my friend Janet unearthed one that had been her mother’s.
And so it began. My grandmother’s recipe makes a heck of a lot of cookies, so the first thing I did was cut it in half (which made about 5 dozen). Then I sought out figs from Sicily at the mercato. Even the lemon and oranges that I zested were from Sicilian trees. I couldn’t get more authentic that that. As I started doing the filling, I dashed off an email to my mom to check on a couple of things. Like most of the Italians that I know here, my grandmother never really had a recipe with weights and measurements. It was all eyeballed and just knowing. One of my favorite expressions here is q.b. Quanto basta. This basically means until it’s enough or to taste. For baking this can prove problematic, so my mom and I had meticulously written down amounts so that each year’s adventures in fig cookie making wouldn’t prove so difficult. It took a try or two before we achieved the same consistency and flavor of my grandmother’s. What we achieved quite easily, however, was the swearing that accompanied the grinder. Yesterday, I made the filling on my own, remembering my grandmother sitting at our kitchen table while someone continually shoveled in more filling. It was a bit harder on my own and I had more than a little drop on the floor, but in the end I succeeded. I was tempted to tweak a few things in the recipe, but then decided that for this first time tradition was more important. But if I make them again next year, perhaps a wee bit of marsala in the filling!
This morning I made the dough. Buying the ingredients for these cookies earns you some looks at the Conad check out lane, especially the three packs of Strutto or lard that I shoved in my cart. Thank goodness I hadn’t made the whole recipe. I made a huge flour well and then began mixing everything by hand. The rest of the morning was spent rolling and cutting pieces of dough and putting a thin rope of the filling in each. We always called these turds for what they resembled. We are nothing if not classy!
The test came in the sampling. The dough was light and flaky and the fig filling to my mind pretty damn close to my grandmother’s. When I was taking pictures of my handiwork I got a little choked up. My kitchen smelled like my childhood. I hope my mom and I will have an opportunity to make the fig cookies together again one Christmas. As for my grandmother, I am sure she is smiling at my efforts.