Jam- and nut-filled cookies are a traditional Christmas treat in Abruzzo and other parts of Italy. In our house, these cookies took the form of my mother’s calcionelli ~ fried half-moon pillows of sweet dough filled with ground nuts and honey and flavored with citrus zest. She fried them on Christmas morning and we ate them, still warm, as we opened our gifts. I wasn’t especially fond of them when I was little, but eventually my palate got a clue and now it’s not Christmas without them.
As with so many recipes in Italy, calcionelli come in countless variations and are known by many names–“calzoncelli” (meaning little socks), “calcionetti,” and “canciuni” among them. Some are filled with a chocolate-chickpea puree, others with chestnut puree. Last summer while I was in Abruzzo, I learned how to make a wonderful baked version called “celli ripieni.” The cookies are filled with homemade grape jam, cocoa and nuts. The pastry enclosing the filling is made with olive oil, wine and eggs; it’s tender and delicate and all but melts in your mouth when you take a bite.
Here I must give a hat tip to my friend Fabrizio Lucci, who introduced me to celli ripieni. Fabrizio gives culinary tours of Abruzzo. I’ve written previously about the day that my family and I spent with him last summer, touring the coast and hills around Vasto. At the end of that memorable day, Fabrizio’s mother gave us an impromptu lesson on how to make celli ripieni.
The name, Fabrizio says, is short for ‘uccelli ripieni,’ which means ‘stuffed birds.’ Traditionally, the cookies were shaped to resemble passerotti (sparrows), and you will still find these whimsical bird-shaped cookies in pasticcerie in Abruzzo:
It’s hard to truly replicate celli ripieni unless you have something called scrucchjata–a rustic jam that is made during the fall harvest from the pulp and skins of Montepulciano grapes. It is thick in texture and deep, jewel-like purple in color and is about as far from supermarket grape jam as you can get. If you come across a jar in a well-stocked Italian deli, grab it. Otherwise, you can use a good quality, artisan grape jam or even good blackberry jam.
The other thing you should keep in mind when making celli ripieni is that the dough is soft and oily and, frankly, not the easiest dough to work with. I hope this won’t deter you because, as with any recipe with a degree of difficulty, the more you do it the better you get. When you’re rolling out the dough to make your celli, you will be tempted to add more flour to the dough or to your work surface. A tiny bit is OK, but try to hold off because too much flour will toughen the dough and your cookies will lose that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Here’s a collage I put together of the process:
What’s your favorite cookie to bake during the holidays? Please share in the comments section below.
NOTE: Speaking of my friend Fabrizio, I just learned he has a fun contest happening on his website, Italia Sweet Italia, open to people of Abruzzese heritage. He’s compiling a cookbook of Abruzzo family recipes and is asking people to submit their favorite recipes for a chance to win three-day cookery tour in Abruzzo, plus an assortment of other prizes. Hop on over to Italia Sweet Italia to learn more.
These old-fashioned jam-filled pockets that are a specialty of Italy’s Abruzzo region. This recipe was given to me by Fabrizio Lucci, who hosts tours of the beautiful area around the coastal city of Vasto. It’s a specialty of his mother, Anna Maria, and I have her to thank for showing me how to mix and roll out the delicate dough and shape the cookies into fat rings. The traditional filling to use for these cookies is a rustic grape jam known as 'scrucchjata,' made from Montepulciano grapes. It's not easy to find outside of Abruzzo, so just substitute a good quality artisan grape or blackberry jam ~ or your own homemade.
- 1/2 cup finely chopped toasted almonds
- 1 cup good-quality thick grape jam or blackberry jam
- 1/2 ounce bittersweet chocolate, grated
- 1 1/2 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups ‘00’ flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two 11- by 17-inch rimmed baking sheets with parchment and set aside.
Make the filling: In a small bowl, combine the almonds, jam, grated chocolate, cocoa powder and espresso powder. Fold everything together gently but thoroughly. Set aside.
Make the dough: In a large bowl, stir together the olive oil and wine. Sprinkle in the flour a little at a time, stirring constantly with a fork to incorporate the ingredients. Continue to add flour and stir until you have a dough that is shiny, soft and sticky, and just firm enough to handle. Turn the dough out onto a lightly dusted work surface and knead until smooth and shiny, about 3 minutes.
Fill and shape the cookies: Pinch off a small piece of dough—about the size of a walnut—and pat it into a small disk. Using a rolling pin, gently roll out the disk into an oval about 5 in/13 cm long and 3 in/9 cm wide. The dough will be sticky, but avoid adding too much additional flour, as it will toughen the dough. The best technique is to be confident and use a light touch so as not to tear the dough (if you tear the dough, press it back together; you don’t want the filling to leak out).
Spread a thin layer of filling—less than a teaspoon—along the center of the piece of dough, leaving a border all around. Fold the long top edge over the filling to meet the bottom edge, and press gently but firmly to seal and to remove any air bubbles. With a fluted pastry wheel, trim excess dough around the perimeter, leaving a thin border. Bring the two ends of the dough together to form a ring. Press the ends to seal. Set the cookie on a prepared baking sheet. Continue to fill and shape the cookies and arrange them on the baking sheets, 15 per sheet. You should end up with 30 cookies. (You may not use all the filling; store any that is leftover in the refrigerator.)
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cookies are pale golden and just set. Transfer the baking sheets to racks to cool for 5 minutes. Use an angled metal spatula to gently transfer the cookies from the baking sheets to the cooling racks. To serve arrange the cookies on a decorative platter and sprinkle generously with confectioners’ sugar. Serve the cookies slightly warm or at room temperature.