Opening and Closing Ceremonies

And they were prepared as it was written. He looked, took a bite, and was pleased. It was good. 

by Sanford D’Amato | Photography by Dominic Perri

In my pre-pubescent world, there was not-a-morning-person—and then there was my mother. For her, the only appropriate first salutation of the day was, “good afternoon.” This put a damper on breakfast at our house. My sister and I would self-prepare our morning meals. I learned to open a box and pour milk over Sugar Pops or Kix from a very early age. 

I was always amazed, and a bit jealous, when I went over to my friend Rick’s house before school. Uncommon smells emanated from his kitchen: ham, bacon, or sausage accompanied by sizzling eggs, pancakes, waffles, or French toast. An ever-present sticky bottle of Log Cabin syrup was a beacon in the center of the table. This was another world to me as Mrs. Sheridan, with help from her kids, would put out this full-scale spread every morning. 

Christmas Day was the only day of the year that my dad closed his grocery store and didn’t work. My sister and I would rush down to the presents and right after the “grand opening,” the unmistakable smell of bacon would start to roll in from the kitchen. Was Mrs. Sheridan here? No, my mother had the Sunbeam electric skillet out. As the bacon would start to get crispy, she broke eggs right over the top and covered the skillet. Aroma-filled steam wisped and rattled out of the tiny vent on the cover. Within seconds, a divine combo emerged—eggs slightly crisp at the edges and totally infused with the flavor of bacon fat. 

As she sat at the table with only a cup of coffee in front of her, my mother murmured under her breath, “Country eggs and bacon.” They were porky, crisp, and creamy at the same time. What followed was the breakfast I was always waiting for: all of us together, happy, joking, and completely satisfied. With a start like that, the closer better be good. 

Later, after Christmas dinner at his house, my grandfather opened a large round tin and motioned for me to take my pick—light, dark, colorful cookies. How could I choose? Then I saw this shiny mini-log that had at least 3,000 colorful candy sprinkles jutting out at different angles. I went for it and took a bite. The sugar-glazed cookie coating, crisp and molten at the same time, encased a brown, sweet, savory, sticky filling. I was halfway through the first bite and I knew I loved it. It was a fig-filled cuccidato, a traditional Sicilian Christmas cookie. That was certainly not my last, as every year’s Christmas after brought a new covered plate of fig cookies. They ranged from sublimely succulent to a tad dry and dusty, but all evoked the emotion that it was Christmas and that this was the only present of love and caring that I needed.

It’s tough when you get into making classic recipes, especially holiday cookies. They have such intense memories for people as one of the first bites of food that are filed away, keepers, never to be messed around with. It’s like cooking for some sort of all-knowing Supreme Being that we seem to become.

But that is not going to stop me. For the Cuccidati that I make today, I mix the figs with enough dried cherries to enhance but not intrude. Then I bathe them in some fresh orange, lemon, and dry Marsala and reduce to a moist filling. The dough is where I may part ways with many traditionalists. It’s a simple cream cheese dough that yields an extremely crisp, flaky cloak for the rich filling. And glazing while still warm makes for a tasty balance of crunchy, rich, savory, and sweet that brings you back for a second and third cookie.

This opening and closing may not be your tradition, but I guarantee it will bring a smile to your face. I’m sure you’ll take a bite and later concur that, from the beginning to the end, it was good.