This post is about my favorite recipe and why it is special to me. I have two, but they are part of the same christmasy story – very appropriate. My favorites are Apfel Kuchen and Cuccidratti (aka "The Fig Cookies)
I graduated from college in 1998. Let’s just say the last couple of years in school were really awful (lots of debt and an abusive ex who turned into a psycho-stalker) so I came home for a year after college to live, work, pay off above mentioned debt and basically learn to be a human again. Christmas came a knocking and I had no money to speak of and no credit rating worth anything. I was stuck. Working in retail (Barnes & Noble), you can become really overwhelmed at the holidays. Too many grumpy people, spending extreme amounts of money and no one having any fun. Christmas starts to lose its meaning. No tradition, just spending! Yuck!
So, my idea for Christmas was this: I was going to recreate a lost
recipe for each of my parents which they remembered from their
childhood. Something they always thought they’d never have again. All
of my grandparents are dead and there wasn’t much of a cooking legacy
in my house so there were no recipes left behind to go from. I just
had to ask questions. Now it gets interesting!
Mom first. She said that her mother used to make Apfel Kuchen (apple cake) when she was younger. OK, easy enough, right? No! There was more to it than that. It was made with a "baking mix" base and she remembered it being very "springy". Also, all of the apple had to be peeled and sliced and lined up in compact rows completely covering the dough. It was also "very cinnamon-y and sticky". Well through trial and error, I came up with a light yeast dough that is basically this:
1/4 cup warm water with 2 TBP sugar dissolved in it
add 1 tsp yeast. let activate (it gets bubbly)
Add enough Jiffy Baking Mix to make a soft dough
add 1/2 stick melted butter
add more baking mix until a just barely firm dough ball is formed.
But how to make it springy? Easy, through trial and error I discovered that 2 rises made a really springy, elastic dough.
Put dough ball in a buttered bowl. Cover with a damp towel.
Turn your oven to the LOWEST setting, let pre-heat, then shut off.
Put bowl in now warm oven for 60-90 minutes.
Punch down (should be 50-80% larger than it was)
Do it again
Put in a 13X9 pan (I like glass b/c you can check the bottom for brownness). You might have to fight to get it to fit, but keep at it. It will.
Now for the topping. It was sticky and full of cinnamon. This is a bit tougher. I discovered that it was best to use McIntosh apples. And I think the stickiness from dark brown sugar would be perfect!
Core, peel and thinly slice the apples (yes, this is a lot of work)
Line up the apples on top of the dough so they are standing on their thin ends like this:
See how the apples are all lined up? Now we’re in the home stretch! Dust all of the apple with a lot of cinnamon. Almost too much (that’s how mom likes it). Now pack the whole pan with dark brown sugar until just the tops of the apples are showing. Then thinly slice the remaining 1/2 stick of butter and lay the slices evenly all over the surface (maybe 5 pats per row). Bake at 325 until the bottom is brown (about 35-45 minutes, give or take).
Now Dad. He was really hard, and as his recipe takes me a few days to make, I will not post it, but give you the general idea. What he remembered most about Christmas as a kid were these tiny cookies. He said they were stuffed with figs, they were glazed and they had sprinkles. They were only out at Christmas. Now as you can guess from above, my mom is German. My dad is Italian. That’s where I began.
I found a great book called Mangia Little Italy. In it, I found a recipe for Cuccidratti, or Christmas fig cookies. They are constructed like basic ravioli with the dough being a cross b/w a sugar cookie and a shortbread. The filling is figs and its glazed. This recipe was my base.
The dough was good. My father approved, but the filling was lacking. Too Fig Newton-y. So, I added and subtracted. I ended up with a filling consisting of figs, toasted almonds, golden raisins and a hefty dose of chocolate (I use Cadbury’s fruit and nut bars) all run through a meat grinder. This mixture gets combined with a small tin of crushed pineapple (for consistency only), tangerine and lemon zests diced fine and a jigger of liquor (I use KoKoa Mit Nuss, chocolate with nuts, from Germany but you could even use whiskey or brandy). Taste for sweetness. If its still too meaty, add a bit of honey. Stick this in Tupperware and let it rest for at least 2 days in the back of your fridge. Mixture should be very sticky.
Then make ravioli! Roll the dough like you would for ravioli and stuff with your filling. crimp the edges and slash the tops. Bake until barely golden on the edges but not brown all around. Ice the tops with confectioner’s sugar icing (making sure to fully get the icing into all of the slashes so it drips down into the filling) and sprinkle with non-parrels.
By the end of that Christmas, I had almost made my parents cry with what they tasted. I resurrected recipes they hadn’t tasted in 40 years. I made them supremely happy with their gifts, not just because of the taste or the history, but because I took the time to do this just for them. So, we not only recreated history, but we started new traditions. Every Christmas I make Apfel Kuchen and "The Fig Cookies" and I have taught my youngest brother how to make them as well. This time these special recipes won’t be lost. Not in my family, not for my future children. We have tradition again.