Italian Fig Cookie Day & A Very Happy New Year

Let me start by saying: 2011 was a fabulous year! It was full of family, food, travels, love and happiness. We got to go to New York, Connecticut, San Diego, Northern California on two occasions, Venice, Florence, Verona, Tuscany and Paris.  I acquired my first crock pot, pasta and ice cream maker in 2011, along with a wide range of smaller, nifty appliances. We moved into a bigger apartment with a bigger kitchen!  And there was generally a lot of cooking, new experiences, traveling, restaurants and fun. I hope 2012 treats us even half as well.

I hope you all had a wonderful and tasty December. I ate so many rich and delicious things. I’m definitely ready to shift to the obligatory post-New Year’s healthy eating and Weight Watchers counting. But for now, let’s reminisce:

 

Last month I did a lot of cooking for the end of the year celebrations: I made a nifty beef stew, my first calzone, lots of cookies, lemon bars, crepes among other things. In the middle of the month I went to my Aunt Marie’s in Huntington Beach, to join her, my Nana, Papa, Uncle Ron and cousin Keith in making our families’  annual fig cookies, also known as cuccidati. Growing up I remember my Nana making these every year! I didn’t like them as a kid (how many kids truly love dried figs?) but now I love them and the nostalgia they conjure up. The fig filling, which consists of nuts, spices and dried figs (or apricots in some cases), is made well in advance- I remember my Nana making it in November long before Christmas. This is not a “I-feel-like-a-cookie-in-30-minutes” kind of cookie.

My Aunt Marie gave me the recipe but insisted that I keep it secret. Normally I would go ahead and share any recipe I stumble upon on here, but I’m going to honor her wish and keep it in the family.

A simple google search led me to quite a few good recipes that are pretty similar though, just in case one of you wants to try them:

Food Network’s Recipe

Anna Maria Volpi’s Recipe

My Nana and Aunt Marie both made their own dough and filling, and in the spirit of friendly competition they kept their ingredients and tools segregated. Aunt Marie’s filling was denser, less sweet and chunkier, but her dough was a little easier to work with. Nana’s filling was sweeter (and thus, as a sugar addict I liked it more), but the dough was a little heartier and tougher to roll.

Both of their cookies turned out fabulous though and nearly indistinguishable.

Me, Papa and my mom’s cousin, Keith, joined in and helped roll, fill and sprinkle  (and of course, we ate a few cookies in the process). Aunt Marie also made a big spread for us, consisting of a pomegranate and persimmon salad, some pizzas and an eggplant and zucchini caponata. You gotta be well fed before working a cookie assembly line.

They blasted Frank Sinatra for a while and we had a great time. This will definitely be a tradition I pass down to my kids and grandchildren someday, and these photos and memories will be cherished for a long time! Next year I am going to start ahead of time and make my own batch to bring to the party!

What I personally love about assembling these is the creativity you can employ! You can make them bite-sized, larger, and roll them into different shapes and styles. Some people also drizzle icing on theirs, which I plan to do next year with mine. 

Aunt Marie & Nana

Hope you all had a very happy December, a Merry Christmas and a beautiful New Year!

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Eating Out @ Claro’s Italian Market

A couple of the families I teach for live close to Claro’s Italian Market in Tustin. This means that once a week on my route, I am consumed with one thought:

Italian cookies.

We don’t really have many options here in Orange County when it comes to good, authentic Italian bakeries and stores. Growing up in Arcadia & Monrovia, CA I was lucky enough to live close to another Claro’s and I have tons of nostalgic memories of going there with my Nana on her trips to get fresh deli meat, cheeses and of course, cookies.

So, once in a while I cave in and make a pit stop for some of my favs. I really want to master some Italian cookie and pastry recipes (namely, the chocolate buttons, rainbow cookies, shells with cream, plain anisette cookies, Mom’s chocolate chip biscotti, fig cookies and sfogliatelle, which you can’t find in So Cal). My Nana is the person to go to for that Italian fig cookie recipe. Every year she makes them around Christmas and I hope to have her teach me this year so I can continue the tradition in my own home.

[gasp: stolen photo from the internet #1]

Anyhow, I went to Claro’s a few weeks ago to garner all of the ingredients for tiramisu which I brought to Dhi’s family reunion in Cayucos. The tiramisu turned out “ok.” You definitely need to soak the ladyfingers in authentic espresso and a liquer to give it any sort of oomph. Mine was only soaked in (dare I confess it) instant espresso. It was an Italian brand, but it was on a pinch since I was sans espresso maker at the time. The actual dessert is REALLY expensive to make though! I mean, for the sweet marsala and marscapone alone, you’re looking at a $15 cake.’

Anyhow, sweet dreams of cookies.

[gasp: stolen photo from the internet #2]

(PS: Despite having a crazy birthday week including a 6-course French meal, lots of cupcakes, sweets galore and many splurges, I lost 2lbs at my weigh-in today! How cool is that? The pilates, walking and counting points paid off for the rest of the week. I’m officially down 4.6lbs on Weight Watchers, and loving it. I’ll post more about it when I hit my 10% loss and have something substantial to boast about.)

Healing Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies (& Milk)

So the story goes like this: Dhiren was sick yesterday with the “flu.” (I personally think he had mild alcohol poisoning [read: hangover] from last night’s lemon drop, wheat beer and glass of wine he ordered while out at tapas, but he insisted he had the flu…)

After pampering Dhiren with some Thai soup, liquids, a salad, coconut water and a couple thermometer readings, I decided to try something else: cherry chocolate chip cookies. I know what you’re thinking: “Cookies and illness shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Sugar and flour are inflammatory, etc.” But when I asked him if some freshly-baked cookies would make him feel better, he lit up like a four year-old and it was too late to turn back.

I made my normal chocolate chip cookie recipe, and just added a cup of reconstituted dried cherries. Cookies and milk  have always been an all-time favorite dessert of mine. While I love tiramisu, crème brûlée and elaborate pastries and cakes, nothing is quite as nostalgic as a freshly baked cookie dunked in a neon plastic Ikea cup full of milk and a twisty straw. Plus, I LOVE summer produce. Plums, cherries and nectarines are some of my favorite fruits and we live right around the corner from two of the best farmer’s markets in Orange County. I eat them all summer long and have them constantly in the fridge and counter. I’m always looking for new ways and uses for seasonal produce (even if it is dried, seasonal produce), particularly if they involve butter.

Well, these were amazing.

Needless to say, Dhiren felt better.

I’m willing to admit that I think his miraculous recovery had more to do with the liters of liquids, coconut water and rest he got, but I think the cookies mended his spirit.