Yesterday I had a day off of work and I dedicated the afternoon to Christmas baking. Tutti sanno mi piacciono i dolci. My broken Italian translates to: “Everyone knows I like sweets!” However, my family (to my great dismay) doesn’t have my same unbridled love for desserts, so I had to think carefully about what I would make. I already had a batch of peppermint bark ready to go, which my family really likes, and I wanted to make rum balls, which I really like. I decided the third and final sweet would definitely have to be some kind of Sicilian cookie.
Initially I planned on making chewy pistachio cookies (fior di pistacchio), but some of my family members aren’t crazy about nuts and the cookies were also quite similar to the chewy almond cookies I made this summer, which came out terribly. I jokingly refer to them as my “almond failure cookies,” but truthfully I was pretty disappointed with the lackluster results. I had spent considerable time making almond paste from scratch (which is delicious, by the way!) and baking the cookies, only to find they’d spread into a sticky, chewy, half-burnt mess. Nick and I ate whichever ones were palatable and the rest sadly went into the trash bin. Witness their beauty before their demise below.
So, in order to keep myself from Christmas-cookie-craziness, I opted for spicchiteddi, Sicilian spice cookies traditionally made at Christmastime. They are similar to gingerbread cookies in taste and texture, though typically made with vino cotto (cooked grape must syrup). I probably could’ve found vino cotto at a local specialty grocer but I already had molasses, which makes a perfect substitute.
The recipe was simple and the dough was easy to work with; just give yourself plenty of time to roll the swirl-shaped cookies before baking.
Spicchiteddi (Sicilian spice cookies)
Adapted from Victoria Granof’s Sweet Sicily: The Story of an Island and Her Pastries
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses or vino cotto (cooked grape must syrup)
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup blanched whole almonds*
Makes about 2 dozen large cookies
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease two large baking sheets.
In a small saucepan, combine the butter, honey, molasses, and sugar over medium heat until the butter has melted and the sauce is smooth. Add the lemon zest and vanilla, remove from the heat, and cool to lukewarm.
Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Add the cooled butter mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until thoroughly combined and the dough comes together in a ball; it will be soft. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently for a couple minutes until supple.
Pinch off a tablespoonful of dough at a time and roll into a rope about 8 inches long. Coil the ends of the rope inward to meet at the center, or twist them in opposite directions to form a coiled S shape. Then put two shapes together, pinch in the middle, and add an almond or two. Be creative with your designs. As long as your cookies are roughly the same size, they’ll bake evenly.
Place cookies 2-3 inches apart on the greased baking sheets and bake for 9 minutes (original recipe says 10-15, but I have a fast-cooking oven), or until browned at the edges and springy in the center; they will firm up as they cool. Remove from the baking sheet immediately and cool on a wire rack.
*blanched almonds are really easy (and cheaper!) to make yourself. Here’s a great tutorial.
I’ve only tasted one cookie so far, but it was great! Crispy edges, slightly softer interior, with subtle spice and richness. A great cookie to serve with coffee after dinner. Enjoy and Buon Natale! Merry (almost) Christmas! Best wishes to you and your family for a holiday filled with love, laughter, and good food!