Saturday, December 1, 2007

In Search of a Cookie (Part Two): Cuccidati Revealed

A week after John and I discover pastry bliss at Bruno's, I find myself thinking about his cemetery visit and the direction it is taking both of us. Determined, bleary-eyed and under-caffeinated, I enter Antoinette’s Patisserie in search of a drink dubbed the Euro; a magnificent beverage based upon cappuccino served in Italy. The Euro is smaller than its American cousin and the milk is steamed to scalding, breaking down the sugars and eliminating any need for sweetener.

Chef Antoinette Beham and I have become good friends over the years as we share a mutual love of artisanal baking. When I enter the patisserie, she calls me into the back of the kitchen and I accept her invitation with anticipation. I greet Antoinette, a petite woman with soft brown eyes and a large cake knife in her hands, and am requested to taste two cuttings of cake she has designed for a wedding. I am not told what I will taste with purpose; Antoinette is using my skills as a professional “nose” and gourmand to evaluate the creations. Since I am a sucker for dessert and she has a knife, I willingly oblige.

The first cake is positively decadent—three layers of syrup-infused sponge dressed in white chocolate mousse. I enjoy the textures and mouth feel, but there is not enough contrast in the arrangement of flavors. The next cake looks similar, but the taste is out of this world. It is a refreshing lemon mousse layer cake that is built upon the same structure as the previous cake, but the contrast of refreshing lemon, cream and cake is the equivalent of shiatsu on my taste buds. Three bites and I am invigorated with sugar joy.

“I am not particularly fond of the white mousse cake and I’ve tried to tell the customer that white chocolate mousse is better with something strong, like dark chocolate cake,” says Antoinette. I agree, adding that white chocolate is not true chocolate, a subject for future culinary debate. I begin to tell her about John’s cookie quest and her eyes light up. She calls for her sister, Tina, who also works in the store. “You’re friend is Sicilian, isn’t he?” Antoinette asks, her intonation indicating that she already knows the answer, being half Italian herself. “Yes he is,” I reply. “We went to Rocco’s and Bruno’s in the city and couldn’t find the cookie.” Antoinette looks at Tina and smiles. It is evident that they have had this cookie or at the very least, are familiar with its spirit.

Antoinette, a former pastry chef at Le Cirque, stops to think and says “I know that cookie. It’s probably one of those cookies that someone’s grandmother made in Sicily, maybe a holiday cookie with Italian mincemeat, like a pierogi that has been sliced. It’s not mustazzouli, but I’m not sure what it is called. Those kinds of cookies don’t get into bakeries like canoli. It’s funny. I have been thinking about them for the past week and want to make them myself.” The next day I return for coffee and strike up another conversation with Antoinette. She reflects on her days as a student at The Culinary Institute of America and a research assignment she had to do on the subject of walnuts. “You know, you discover all kinds of interesting and odd facts when you go to the library to do food research.” That evening I raid Google with the resolve of a bloodhound. “Okay, think. Search smarter,” I tell myself. Then I type the magic words, “Sicilian baking.” Jackpot.

Anna Maria Volpe is an Italian chef with Roman and Sicilian roots. Her website has a variety of recipes and in the dessert section there is a Sicilian fig cookie called cuccidati (also known as buccellati). She has taken Chef Nick Malgieri’s recipe for cuccidati and adapted it to suit her taste, (I have done the same with ma’amoul, adding homemade Tahitian vanilla extract and China cassia cinnamon to the date paste mixture). I call John at 9:30 p.m. “I think I found your cookie, but I’m not sure.” I do my best to pronounce the names in Italian, reading the filling ingredients one by one. “So what do you think?” I ask him. “It sure sounds like it, especially the spicy part,” he says, his smile evident over the phone line. We decide to see if De Robertis Caffe in the East Village sells cuccidati.

It’s a strange autumn day in October. Rain showers drift in and out like cranky baby tears, pealing with sunshine one moment and bawling rain the next. John and I are walking east on 14th Street, towards the café. As we pass Veniero’s, John tells me that the De Robertis Caffe's history spans four generations and that many of the Italian bakeries in the area are now run by families of Arabic descent. Opened in 1904, De Robertis occupies the same New York City block that it did at its inception. John’s mother grew up in the area and it is one of the reasons we have decided to explore its desserts. It turns out that De Robertis doesn’t sell cuccidati, but Joseph, one of the managers, tells us that the cookie is sold in December. We’re so close, but will be required to cultivate patience for at least two months.

The following week I meet with Antoinette and she suggests I look for a more authentic recipe than the one Volpe has re-orchestrated. That evening I find a cuccidati recipe by Marianne Esposito which appears to be genuine, but there is no “ah-hah” moment. Volpe’s recipe stands out as it resonates strongly with John’s memory of what he tasted. I’ve seen Ms. Esposito’s programs on public television and she eagerly seeks Sicilian recipes that are faithful to tradition. I come to the conclusion that John’s cuccidati is slightly Americanized. The pursuit of the cookie is put on hold as I prepare to fly to Chicago the next day. Unbeknownst to me, the spirit of Beppina is getting restless.

While in Chicago I have the luxury of spending two hours alone on Michigan Avenue, following a day of tedious business meetings. After a bit of window shopping I find myself craving coffee, but refuse to find solace in a plethora of Starbuck’s that populate the neighborhood. I was about to give up and go back to the Westin Hotel when I passed by the John Hancock building and discovered a food court on the lower level.

I venture inside L’Appetito, an Italian café and deli, and stand on the coffee queue. When I get to the cashier I notice a pastry case and am immediately struck by a tray of cookies that look like the cuccidati on Anna Marie Volpe’s website (the sprinkles were a dead giveaway). I ask for a half dozen and head for my hotel room. Once inside, I sit at a desk and carefully remove two cookies which are wrapped in a piece of transparent waxed paper inside the bag. The gustative recognition is instant; every taste that John had described is inside these cookies; the small bits of chocolate, orange peel, traces of clove, fig paste, and hints of an espresso effect.

I call John and tell him what I’ve found. It isn’t even December, but there are cuccidati in Chicago. The other four cookies never make it back to New York. I eat them on the plane ride home, 20,000 feet above the ground, winking at Beppina in the clouds…


Anna Marie Volpe’s recipe for cuccidati (complete with demonstration photos) can be found here. Her recipe is a dead ringer for the cuccidati at L’Appetito. I’ve made these a few times and prefer to omit the sprinkles.

Antoinette's Patisserie is located in Hastings on Hudson, a quaint village in Westchester. A 40 minute ride on the Metro North (Hudson line) will take you from Grand Central Terminal into the village of Hastings. The ride is extraordinarily scenic with impressive views of the Palisades on the western side of the river. The patisserie is a ten minute walk from the station.

Part one of this story can be found here

Photo of cuccidati from Baking Delights.