Christmas Fig Ring (Buccellato)
Pastries filled with ground figs, nuts and spices are traditional Christmas sweets found all over Sicily. Sometimes they are formed into ring-shaped cakes, and other times they are made into individual pastries or smaller cookies. During the holiday season, Sicilian women get together to bake, sharing the preparation and vying to see who can make the most elaborate-looking desserts, forming them into flowers, birds or other fanciful creations.
For the pastry:
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 6 Tbs. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into bits
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
For the filling:
- 2 cups dried figs, stemmed
- 1/2 cup walnuts, lightly toasted
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
- 1 tsp. grated orange zest
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
For the decoration:
- 1 egg white, beaten
- Colored candy sprinkles (optional)
To make the pastry, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. With the mixer set on medium speed, beat in the butter. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla until blended. Pour it over the flour mixture and beat until blended. Gather the dough into a ball, place on a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten into a disk. Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to overnight.
To make the filling, in a food processor, combine the figs and walnuts and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the honey, orange juice, orange zest, cinnamon and cloves and process until blended.
Preheat an oven to 375°F. Butter a large baking sheet.
On a lightly floured work surface, shape the dough with your hands into a thick rectangle. Roll out into an 18-by-9-inch rectangle. Using a sharp paring knife or a pastry wheel, trim the edges so they are straight, reserving the scraps. Spoon the filling into an even strip 2 inches wide lengthwise down the center of the rectangle. Lift one long side of the dough over the filling, then fold the other side over the top and press to seal. Carefully slide the log, seam side down, onto the prepared baking sheet. Bring the ends together to form a ring and pinch together to seal.
Reroll the scraps. With a paring knife or cookie cutters, cut out flowers, vines and leaves. Brush the top and sides of the ring with some of the egg white. Arrange the cutouts on top of the ring. Brush the ring and decorations with egg white. Sprinkle with the colored candies.
Bake until the cake is golden brown, about 40 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Slide the cake onto the rack and let cool completely.
Serve at room temperature, cut into thin slices. To store, wrap tightly and keep at room temperature for up to 3 days. Serves 16.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Savoring Series, Savoring Italy, by Michele Scicolone (Time-Life Books, 1999).