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Baking holiday cookies keeps memories of dad alive

I thought that my duties as the family’s fig cookie baker were over. I thought the search for the funny little brown fruit and the special raisins, dates and perfect oranges to mix in the filling was a thing of the past. Gone when I buried my dad, this fall. Those cookies were a recipe from his family. He would not be here to enjoy them and so I wiped them off of my holiday “to do” list. I reasoned that they were so much work and such a huge expense. They should go the way of putting up the Christmas tree. That tradition ended when my mother died 14 years ago.

And then my son, who is his grandfather’s namesake and resembles him a great deal said it. “So when do we make the cuccidata?”

It was only two weeks before Christmas. He assumed I had already shopped for the huge list of ingredients. When I told him I was not planning on it this year his great big brown eyes welled up. I told him they were only cookies and since his grandfather, “Papa” was not here to supervise, I was not going to go through the process.

He told me that it was not allowed. He told me he loved the cookies, too. But better yet, he agreed to help. So we agreed on a weekend to work.

We unwrapped the ancient food grinder. It is always oiled and wrapped in cloth and stored until the following year. It is used only for fig cookies. My father passed it to me after my mother died. He handled it like a family trophy.

The recipe was hand written in a book my mother created. My son calls it “The Book of Secrets.” The pages are brown and fragile.

I assembled the ingredients and we started grinding the fruit filling. It seemed like with each turn of the handle my son remembered another story. At 25 years old he wanted to remember all he could about the two grandparents he remembered and cherished. He talked about the times my mother would bake. She made hundreds of cookies.

I told him about the time when I was a teenager and I woke up one December day to the smell of cookies baking. My mom could not sleep, so she started making cookies. The dining room and kitchen were covered with frosted cookies. My mom never wasted time. To this day, the smell of cookies baking reminds me of her.

My son asked about the figs and their special place with my family. I never scolded him when he ate a few of them before they met their fate in the grinder. I told him about his great-grandfather and his disappointment when he tried and tried to grow a fig tree here in Western New York. He sheltered it and covered it, but winters were too harsh. Grandfather’s home in Sicily had fig and lemon trees in the backyard. Here, he settled for grapes.

The fig filling recipe requires it to marinate. So after an overnight, “rest,” we continued with the baking and rolling on the second day. The stories continued. The year after my mother died, my father was anxious for me to continue the traditional cookies and I agreed. The day I was set to start baking he called me early in the morning. He had to be at my house when the process started and my father said something I never thought I would hear. “Your mother made them wrong,” he said.

I was shocked. My mother was the master. Everything she baked was perfect. When I asked how they were wrong, he admitted they were too small. “It’s supposed to be a big cookie. Enough to let you know you ate one. Her cookies were so small they couldn’t fill a cavity,” he said.

And he sheepishly admitted he would never correct her. “Me either,” I said. So the cookies became large. The batch for 2014 is large, too. More than enough to fill your cavity. Probably enough calories for a day – but dad would be proud.

I am so glad I didn’t stop the tradition. Cookies keep memories alive.