Our Italy – How to Celebrate “The Day of the Dead” in Sicily, by Ettore Grillo

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Since 2020, I have been posting the series of blogs, “Our Italy.” In this series, I share bloggers’ experiences of Italy, a country whose culture has captivated the world for thousands of years. I think now is the time to share these memories, especially since now some of us have started to return, inspired anew by the Italian people and their land.

Today I am happy to share a guest blog entitled: Bones of the Dead, Typical Sicilian Cookies by Ettore Grillo. Learn a bit about how “The Day of the Dead” is celebrated in Sicily on November 2 in his blog and about how bakeries make the special holiday cookies that are shared when remembering loved ones. Grillo even explains this holiday in more detail in his book, which you can find on Amazon.                       

Ettore Grillo's Blog

November 2 is drawing near and in all bakeries in Sicily it is possible to buy the typical cookies for this day, “the bones of the dead.” They look like human bones, are hollow and hard to eat.

Today, after buying some, I asked the baker to tell me the secret to making them so hard and hollow. He said that he leavens dough for two days on a canvas to make it lose its moisture, and then he bakes them at a low temperature, about 140 degrees. During the process, they lose sugar and become hollow.

On November 2, children receive gifts from the dead. Obviously, this is a fiction, for parents actually buy the gifts and pretend that the dead brought them. This way, children are taught to respect and love the souls of those who are no longer with us.

November 2nd is a day of celebration…

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Cuccidati – My Family’s Christmas Cookie

Sicilian Christmas Cookie Cuccidati

Kathryn for learntravelitalian.com
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel Italian.com

Last December, I attended an event called La Festa dei Cuccidati for lovers of the Sicilian Christmas cookies called “cuccidati.”   It was organized by Salvatore Sciacca, director of the Chicagoland Italian American Professionals,

The event took place at Casa Italia in Stone Park,  the cultural center and central meeting place for Italian-Americans in the Chicagoland area for many decades.  There was a wonderful turnout that day for this event, and there were many, many varieties of cuccidati, all beautifully presented and available to taste.

We had dozens and dozens of cuccidati to sample – all donated for benefit of Casa Italia – from local bakeries and also from individual families.  The family recipes had, of course, been handed down through the generations, and many recipes were proudly displayed along with their cookies. There were more than 20  different varieties!  There was a contest for the best bakery cookie and also the best homemade cookie.  There was a demonstration as well.

All this is to say that I was really looking forward to this event, and it did not disappoint in the number and variety of cuccidati available.  Making this cookie with my mother, aunts, and now my children, has always been a highlight of the Christmas season for me.  I was looking forward to sharing this tradition with members of the community that I have come to know in Chicagoland, and so excited that they, too, shared special memories of the same Christmas treats that I loved.

Although, a funny thing happened.  I found out that the cookies that my family makes and calls “cuccidati,” are not exactly what were made that day.  In fact, all of the varieties that day used a fig filling, while my family recipe uses a combination of raisins, almonds, and citrus.  So, I did a bit of research, and although I have not found the exact recipe for my family’s cookie online, I have found many similar recipes.  I have an idea that it is just one of many similar “types” of Sicilian Christmas cookies that have developed over the years.

Visit the recent Learn Italian!blog post from December 1, 2017, to read about my family’s cuccidati method if you like.  An excerpt is below.

I’d love to hear from anyone who makes a cookie with similar shapes or a similar filling!  And, whatever your family traditions this holiday season, I wish everyone, ” Auguri di buone feste natalizie!”

 

Cuccidati: Traditional Sicilian Christmas Cookies 

Italian Christmas traditions are unique to each region of the Italy and have been lovingly handed down within families through the generations. Cuccidati – a version of Christmas cookie that probably originated after the Arabs introduced oranges and almonds to Sicily centuries ago – play an important part in the Christmas celebration in Sicily even today.

All Sicilian cuccidati, or any Italian cookie for that matter, are unlike what Americans think of when they think of cookies. Most Italian cookies are made from dough that cooks up drier than American cookies and there is much more variation in the presentation.  Sicilian cookies come in a multitude of different shapes and sizes and fruit fillings are often enclosed in the cookies as a special treat.

The recipe given below is for a Sicilian Christmas cookie—my family calls them “cuccidati,” although they are not identical to most of the cookies found online under this name.  The cookies in this recipe start out as the “typical” cuccidati: one long “tube” of sweet, Italian pie-crust-like dough, which contains a dried fruit and nut center. (No figs in our version, by the way.) But, instead of then cutting the tube into bite-sized pieces that are finished with icing, my family cuts larger pieces, which are then formed into different shapes, and finishes the cuccidati with a sprinkle of powdered sugar.  Whatever the name, this is just one version out of many dried, fruit-filed cookies still made in Sicilian bakeries today to celebrate the Christmas season.

When I was a child, my family always gathered the weekend before Christmas to share our creativity while we formed our cuccidati into wreaths, ribbons, or candy cane-like forms.  They could be completely covered in dough, which would allow for a creative, fringe-like covering, or left open.  The sides could be pinched for decoration if like, similar to how Americans form a pie crust along the rim of their pies. If you would like to see how the various shapes of these cookies are made, visit the Stella Lucente Italian Pinterest site.

The ingredients for the cuccidati filling are considered easy to come by today, but remember that dried fruit, including raisins and oranges and spices like cinnamon were considered special when the cookies originated.  These filling ingredients were only found only in well-off households. Since the filling ingredients are difficult to chop and mix together, in some Sicilian towns “back in the day,” people would bring their filling to the butcher to mix together for them in his meat grinder, which had been newly cleaned for the season for this purpose.

Despite the few ingredients in traditional cuccidati, and the difficulty of making the filling with them, the dried fruit has a rich sweetness, the roasted almonds a robust flavor, and the cinnamon, orange, and citron add a complexity of flavor that goes beyond its simple ingredients. Try our recipe this Christmas season for a taste of Sicilian tradition!
—Kathryn Occhipinti

Click here for the recipe and method to make cuccidati.

Visit www.learntravelitalian.com for more of my Italian and Italian-American recipes, cultural notes and  advanced Italian language blog posts updated monthly. Click on the link “our blog” in the upper right hand corner to reach blog.Learn Travel Italian.com.