December is buccellato time. In times past, dried fruits signalled
the preparation of winter delights like fruit cake and plum pudding. Sicily's
version is buccellato, a combination of figs, raisins,
dates, nuts (usually almonds) and candied citrus
like fruits like citron - all local Sicilian products
- baked in a round cookie shell or as small pastries. But buccellato is
much more than a simple fruit cake or fig pie.
Like many pastries, buccellato's origins are obscured by the mists of
time. Nobody knows exactly when Sicilians began making it. In centuries
past, honey was the sweetener, but the Arabs brought the cultivation of
sugar cane to Sicily. But every part of Europe has some kind of winter pastry
made from dried fruits.
While it is associated with the harvest and cooler months, nowadays some
pastry chefs make buccellato all year round. Well, if you can have strawberries
in January, why not buccellato in June?
By tradition, buccellato was associated with family milestones. Godparents
might give one to the parents of their godchild, or a marriage witness (best
man or maid of honour) might give one to the parents of the bride. The point
is that buccellato not only represented the good fortune and prosperity
of the harvest, it was a very "rich" food in itself.
Today buccellato is most often associated with the Christmas holidays.
The more common "national" Italian pastry of the Holiday season
- which originated with Lombard and Piedmontese pastry makers "up north"
- is panettone, a sweet but very plain, spongy bread cake made industrially
and sold in cardboard cartons. There is no such thing as "assembly
line" buccellato. It is still made by hand.
There is no single recipe for buccellato. Some versions call for jam,
others for the addition of marsala
or moscato wine, itself a winter favourite in Sicily. Almost any kind of nut can be
used - almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts or even pine nuts. The cake can be frosted
or simply glazed and decorated with candied fruits like the one shown here.
One thing is certain. Buccellato is the timeless, quintessential Sicilian holiday cake.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.