Aunt Lena’s Cucidati (Sicilian Fig Cookies)

I have, what I'd consider, a pretty small family. When I think of Italian families, I think of far, far more than thirteen people. I don't think I'm just stereotyping either; Italian families (like many Mediterranean peoples and more) tend to be huge! Cousins upon cousins upon cousins; it's the kind of family my mother grew up in. For us, though, it's just my grandmother, her four children, and their spouses and children: one grandmother, one mother and father, two aunts, three uncles, a brother, and three cousins.

When my mother was young, their family gatherings were clearly incredible. As cliché as this sounds, the women would make enough food to feed an army. What's funny is that our small family cooks in a very similar way, though we have much fewer to feed. Growing up, we always ended up with dozens of cookies or pastries, some of which would be served at a party, some divided up between each nuclear family, and most layered into plastic bags to keep in the freezer. My bragging about our feasts is neverending; I take pride in how many desserts you can find at our table!

You'd think we'd simply cut the recipes in half too, but we don't! We always make each dessert or meal full-size, try to eat a little bit of everything, and always end up with plenty of leftovers. It's just in our nature. Really thinking about it, though, this process almost works in our favor because most of the dessert can be frozen, which means we can enjoy them for so much longer than one gathering. The food can be used throughout the week for leftovers, making our lives easier at least for a short period of time. Perhaps it would be more logical to only make as much food as can be eaten, but it just wouldn't be right. I imagine that, even if it were just me, my husband, and two children, I'd make a feast for every special occasion. I mean...why not? Losing that would be the saddest thing in the world to me.

I grew up with so much great food because of my family, especially because of my grandmother and especially concerning dessert, which was always my favorite--sesame cookies, butter cookies, biscotti, tiramisu, cassata cake, cannolis, pignolata, angel wings and bow ties. As I've become more involved with cooking, I've wanted to learn to make all the favorites from my childhood that have been traditionally made by my Grandma Pizzo. I'm slowly trying to master each item, which brings us to this recipe (courtesy of my grandma's sister) for cucidati or fig cookies. Anyone who likes Fig Newtons would love these, though they're worlds tastier. The filling is made up of several different dried and candied fruits, nuts, and chocolate, while the outer layer is a pastry, much like pie crust. You're left with a tender, yet flaky crust and an incredibly moist, sweet filling with little bits of soft, milky chocolate and hints of crunchy pine nuts (my favorite!). Of course, every recipe you see will likely vary somewhat, even on the shape (sometimes they're just little logs, sometimes cut into the shape of X's), but they're all equally delectable :) 

I got together last week with my mom and grandma to make them; I'd made them with my grandma once before, about three years ago, but I couldn't remember how to form the cookies whatsoever. As usual, we made the full recipe, which means I'm left with three plastic containers filled with multiple layers of cookies; I'm guessing the recipe yields about four dozen or so...and these are not small cookies. About one quarter to one half of a single cookie would probably equal a single Fig Newton! Unless you plan to feed a crowd or have enough room in your freezer to keep a large stash, I highly recommend reducing the recipe by at least half. 

I also must warn that there are several steps to this recipe, though each is actually very easy. It took maybe an hour or so to make the dough and filling, then another hour or two forming them (alone!), which I didn't do until the next day. For one person shaping four dozen cookies by hand, I'd say that's pretty good! It's quite fun, though, a feat to be proud of, and definitely worth the effort. You'll never go near the store-bought version again, I promise.


Childhood Memories & Love for Some Good Old Peanut Butter

I am eating the most delicious panini! Bet you've never thought of this combination, let alone pressing it in a panini-maker...It's peanut butter...on Wonderbread...double decker! Yummm :)

Yes, I know, you're thinking that I'm the type of person who loves to eat things like paninis made with chicken, freshly roasted red peppers, pesto, pine nuts, and fontina cheese...or coq au vin...or roasted garlic and tomato pasta with ooey-gooey fresh mozzarella...so what on earth am I doing eating a peanut butter sandwich? Well, I'm low on groceries!

It takes me back too, though. I think what's gotten me so far from everyday sweets like peanut butter, Little Debbie snacks, and candy is probably the fact that I ate these things every...single...day since I was probably physically able to! No exaggeration, every year since elementary school, my lunch consisted of at least a peanut butter sandwich and a package of swiss cake rolls (eaten in the intricate manner of first peeling off the outer layer of chocolate, then unrolling the entire treat, scraping off and eating the frosting, and finally eating the sheet of chocolate cake. It's the only way!). My body clearly could only tolerate so many hundreds of pounds of sugar before deciding our relationship had to end, haha.

A peanut butter sandwich on white bread, though, was really my favorite meal. In third grade, I discovered the best way to eat it too. My favorite teacher of all time, Mr. Noble, would walk around the cafeteria, jokingly harassing us about eating our sandwiches before our dessert. I usually went for my dessert first (of course!), so one day, when he got to my table before I'd started my sandwich, I quickly hid it (inside the sealed plastic sandwich bag, I promise) beneath me. Yes...I sat on it. And when I finally ate that sandwich...oh...my god! It was so much better than ever before! Something about the pressed white bread just took it to a new level. Obviously I was onto something considering the common use of panini makers today!

At home, when I was much younger, we had a sandwich maker, which is a lot like a panini maker, but I think, when the lid was lowered, it cut the sandwich in half (into triangles) and the border sealed. Then, when you bit into your sandwich, the flattened border was super crisp and the melted filling oozed out all over the place. It was my absolute favorite, possibly my brother's too. I mean, how can you top a freshly pressed, warm, peanut butter sandwich?

I haven't eaten anything like that in years, though! Since, like I said, we're running low on groceries, I figured I'd just have myself a peanut butter sandwich (double decker, since I can fit a bit more in than I used to), but then I thought "Ooooh, grilled peanut butter," which lead to "Oooooooh, PRESSED peanut butter!" It really did take me back. I should have taken a photo of the oozy warm peanut butter, but I devoured it too quickly. Next is dessert: sesame cookies with dark chocolate spread :) Which reminds me that I have yet to post the cookie recipe and promise to do it this weekend!


Special Breakfasts

Right now, I'm standing in the kitchen, waiting for the chocolate croissants and brown sugar bacon to finish baking. I wish I could say that the croissants were homemade, but they're not; they're from Trader Joe's freezer :) My mom bought them and said they're wonderful. You just proof the croissants overnight and then bake them in the oven first thing in the morning! I can't wait...chocolate croissants are one of my most beloved pastries (yes, beloved!), especially with bits of crisp chocolate inside.

I can't even begin to describe the achingly delectable scent that has taken over my kitchen. It actually makes me feel like it's Christmas morning even though it's Halloween! I just can't think of anything more comforting than the smell of a freshly baked breakfast...sweets mixed with savory. Creamy scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, hash browns, pastries fresh from the oven (croissants, chocolate chip muffins, cinnamon rolls), and a hot pot of coffee laced with the scent of vanilla, hazelnut, caramel or kahlua.

I think breakfast must be my favorite meal; the morning is when I feel the most starved that I do all day! Most mornings, I wake up with the sensation that there's a hole burning in my stomach--it can actually be painful, as if I haven't eaten in two weeks.

I've always believed that breakfast is an important meal to jumpstart metabolism, but, all my life, I generally had cereal for breakfast, which probably isn't bad, but it's not the best. Recently, I started having an egg every morning, no matter what--hard boiled, over-medium, scrambled--however I can get it, I have an egg and I eat it as soon after waking up as possible. It's really perfect; because eggs cook so quickly, I don't spend a lot of time on breakfast when I'm rushing to get to work. With my unending hunger, I think it's extra important that I do this to help ensure I don't gain 500 lbs from snacking, literally, all day long.

I also believe, however, that indulging yourself once in a while is important! In my family, we always had a tradition of eating pancakes on Sunday. For me, that meant pancakes with chocolate chips, Hershey's chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. It makes me so hungry just thinking about those. Though I stopped eating pancakes like that long ago, I did try to carry the tradition into my home life with Billy. Since he often works weekend mornings, it's not a regular occurrence, but when he is home, we definitely eat well! That's how I believe it should be done. If you eat healthy every day of the work week, don't you deserve a little something terrible at the end of it all? I'm not saying to spend a full day devouring chips, cookies, and pizza, but maybe indulge yourself for a meal or two!

Making this breakfast, I realized how much I enjoy eating sweets as an uncommon indulgence rather than something I consume on a regular basis. When you eat a certain type of food really often, it looses its sparkle. Sure, you probably crave it all the time, so it is satisfying when you eat it, but it's not the same as eating something you barely ever have. I never eat chocolate croissants, so you can bet that if I make three of them one random Saturday morning, I'm eating at least two! We also never have bacon, let alone brown sugar bacon, so you can bet that gets devoured (especially by Billy). If we ate these things on a regular basis, though, they wouldn't be nearly as exciting and I love excitement. What's fun about eating the same thing over and over and over?

I've been working in this way on my own eating habits--trying to take the bad food that I crave most and turning it into a happy indulgence that I reward myself with once in a while--but I really want to get Billy...and other people...to learn to do the same. It's really difficult to give up the food you crave the most, but your body actually tends to crave what it's used to consuming. So, once you've gone without pop or chips or cookies long enough, your body stops caring. Likewise, when you start eating healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, on a regular basis, your body starts to crave those instead! Then, for some special occasion like a party, a holiday, or just a random weekend morning/night, you can allow yourself something your body used to crave...devour it...and not feel guilty about it later! At least, you shouldn't, because an indulgence here and there is nothing to feel bad about.

My policy is to bring only "healthy" food to work for snacking (since I spend most of my day at the office)--bags of all natural chips (and the like) that are low fat and low calorie (based on the ingredients and cooking method, not that they're 'reduced fat' which is just absurd), for when I crave something salty...a bag of dark chocolate covered almonds, for the few times I crave chocolate...and raw vegetables, fruit, and nuts for when I'm just hungry and need to eat something. For instance, at my desk all this past week, I had out a bottle of water, two small apples, and a big container of grapes. I like to keep something handy that's really easy to snack on, like the grapes, because then I can just consistently grab one to pop into my mouth without disturbing my work, but while also not allowing myself to get too hungry. I do the same by keeping a container of cut up vegetables like carrots and celery. Aside from that, I have a small drawer with snacks. So, I'm set all day! Obviously, my lunch is on the healthier side, as well as my dinner.

Because I behave so well ninety percent of the day, five days a week, I think I'm entitled to a slice of cake, a thin stack of chocolate chip pancakes, or (sometimes) a plate of eggs, brown sugar bacon, toast with butter, and a pastry. If I didn't allow myself these indulgences, who knows...I may have such a powerful craving for something sweet one day that I go way overboard and consume, let's say, a five pound bag of candy! Or a whole batch of cookies...maybe half a chocolate cake ;)

Learn to reward yourself once in a while and do it at breakfast! At least you can spend the rest of the day burning those calories.
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