Originating from Sicily, these unique “S” shaped cookies are sure to impress guests and gift recipients during the holidays, but you’ll probably want to make them throughout the year. Dipped in red or dessert wine, in coffee, or eaten as is, nucatoli cookies are addictive. They are that good! I never did find out the story behind the “S” design, so regardless of whether it means Sicily, or saint, or something like that, try these out for your next cookie bake.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 oz. butter
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons water
8 oz. dried figs (one heaping cup, packed)
8 oz. shelled walnuts (2 1/2 cups halved or broken pieces)
8 oz. ground almond meal (2 1/2 cups)
1 cup runny honey
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
grated zest of half an orange or 2 teaspoons orange blossom water
Tip: make this recipe even better by using the utmost best (your favorite) dried figs that you can find. They need to be moist and flavorful. I can’t say who puts out the very best on the market, but if it works for you, fine. I used Fichi della Nonna (Grandmother’s Figs) made by Marano in Calabria. I’m not sure what’s the process, but the figs were sticky as if they had been baked in syrup and they had extra flavorings – aromatizzati – that tasted like nutmeg and cloves.
Here in Italy, I’ve grown accustomed to weighing ingredients but still practice the habit of cups and measuring spoons. Eight ounces of dried figs is a heaping cup as mentioned in the recipe, but a few extra won’t hurt. In a food processor fitted with a blade, pulse or process the figs until a coarse paste is formed. Scoop out the fig paste and set aside.
Add the walnuts to the processor and blend until it resembles coarse meal. You can try to blend it to a finer texture but avoid overprocessing to the point where it begins to get oily. Place the figs, ground walnuts, almond meal, honey and cinnamon in a large saucepan. Cook on the lowest flame, stirring carefully until the honey has heated up and ingredients are thoroughly combined. Do not burn. Stir in the orange zest or orange water. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
Make the outer crust: combine the flour and sugar. Add the butter and rub together with your fingers to obtain a coarse meal. Add 1/2 cup of water and work together to form a medium-compact ball. An additional 1 or 2 tbsps of water may be necessary, depending on the humidity of the flour used. On a lightly floured surface, gently knead the dough for a few seconds until smooth. Cover with a dish towel or plastic wrap; let rest for atleast 30 minutes. After the dough has rested, divide in two and roll out one half to a rectangle approximately 17 x 12 inches. Using a scalloped pastry cutter, neatly trim the edges, cutting off as little as possible. Cut the dough horizontally into 8 strips (see photo).
Preheat oven to 375°F. Working with walnut-size pieces, roll the fig-nut filling into logs about 1/2-inch in diameter, placing them down the center of the dough strip as you go. The next step is bringing up the edges of the dough around the filling and I tried 2 methods. The first (photo #2) was done by bringing up the edges at the same time. The second method (photos 3 to 5) is achieved by rolling the entire log towards the top edge of the dough strip. Then, gently using your fingertips, grasp the edge of the strip and roll it towards the bottom. Give a light tap along the whole length of the roll (photo #5) to adhere dough to filling.
Cut the roll into 5 pieces and bend into an S-shape. Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom. Repeat with remaining half of dough and filling. Makes 80 nucatoli. Cool and store in covered containers.