Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sicilian Easter Cookie

Here's a recipe for a Sicilian Easter cookie. Well, I hesitate to call it a cookie - it's more like a sweet biscuit. I don't know the name for this thing - anyone who does, feel free to comment.

This version is from my Great Aunt Mary who passed away last year but would be 96 this year. Aunt Mary made her living as a baker and was accustomed to baking by the ton, so the quantities are huge. Feel free to proportion them down.

3 lb all-purpose flour (4 cups to the pound)
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 T vanilla extract
3 3/4 T baking powder
1 1/4 c. milk (or more if needed to fully moisten the dough)
1 1/4 c. shortening (Editor's comment: the secret to good cookies of any kind is to use shortening instead of butter.)
1/2 cup anise seed. (I like to bruise up the anise seed a little in a mortar and pestle to really bring out the flavor. If you are in Cleveland, get your anise seed from Gust Galucci's. It'll cost you about a quarter of what you'll pay at the grocery store.)

Cream shortening, eggs and sugar with an electric mixer, whisk dry ingredients together, then combine everything in a big bowl and work with your hands until smooth. Don't knead it, just get everything together.

Shape as discussed below and bake in preheated 375 degree F oven until lightly browned on top.

Traditionally these are baked around a colored, hard-boiled Easter egg in the shape shown below. The cross over the egg is interesting. Everyone knows the egg is a symbol of fertility and goes back to the pre-Christian spring holiday of the Romans and earlier. Then the Christian cross goes over top of it. It's syncretism, straight from your oven.

Now...Aunt Mary's recipe makes the old-school version of the Easter cookie, which is very dry and not very sweet. They are hard to eat without coffee or milk. To make a modernized version, increase the sugar to 2 cups and the eggs from 5 to 6.  You shouldn't need to increase the milk. Then, glaze them with any kind of simple sugar glaze. Vanilla and lemon are good flavors for the glaze. Colored sprinkles are optional. I usually don't make more than 3 or 4 of the "egg-basket" versions because they're so huge. I make lozenge-shaped cookies out of the rest of the dough - you can see these at the upper right corner of the picture below. If you do the eggs, shave 3-4 minutes off the boiling time or else by the time they get out of the oven they'll be rubbery.

Here they are. The cookie sticks to the egg, and I have many Easter memories of trying to gnaw the old-fashioned, hard cookie from around the egg without cracking the shell. If you can get into the Easter spirit without anise, well then you're not really Sicilian!

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