I walked in for a morning cannolo (or, as the Sicilians would say, cannolu). There was nothing special about this particular pastry shop, and it was a bit early to be actively seeking out such indulgences, but this was my last day in Sicily. I had a vital list of almond-and-ricotta-infused goodbyes to make and no time for playing games. I tried to keep my eye on the prize, but something else was calling in my glass-cased periphery.
As I waited for the man in the kitchen to fill my cannolo, I shifted to get a better look at this milky mystery. Rows of small cups held a yogurty substance, some white, some brown, strewn with…were those chickpeas? “Che cosa è questo?” I’d asked “What is this?” enough to sound like I could really speak Italian, though I rarely understood the answers with such fluency. “Oggi, è Santa Lucia.” In my pre-espresso haze, I understood her answer to imply that this dessert’s rotating name honored local celebrities. Today, it was the Santa Lucia special. A woman came in and ordered twelve cups of the darker one, il cioccolato. My hands were full with my cannolo, but my interest was piqued.
An arancino con ragù, gelato, marzipan and second cannolo later, I returned to Nonna’s apartment. (You may be thinking two cannoli in one day is unnecessary, overboard, gluttonous in the bad, Jerry Springer Show with a crane intervention kind of way, but hear me out. I stumbled upon Fratelli Rosciglione, a cannoli factory. What was I supposed to do – walk away? There were people rolling pastry shells by hand right before my eyes! Sadly, I had a camera battery fail, so no photos…this time. This guy, on the other hand, remembered his.)
This was my second time crashing at Nonna’s. The mother of my WWOOF host, she lived a minute’s walk from the train station and opened her home to me to make it easier to catch my early airport shuttle. A sweet scent seeped out in to the hallway. As Nonna opened the door, she asked if I wanted to try something special. Something Sicilians made just once a year, to celebrate Santa Lucia’s Day. Aha. Today, it is Santa Lucia!
Needless to say, my answer was “Sì.” Nonna set a tray in front of me with a slice of panettone (good for dipping) and a generous bowl of what appeared to be the light-colored, thin pudding I’d seen that morning, only four times the size, dotted with bright pieces of candied fruit and topped with chocolate sprinkles.
I tried a spoonful. It was milky; strangely delicious. The pieces of grain added a depth of texture to the sugary liquid, creating a subtly addictive sweetness akin to that of tapioca or bubble tea latte. Every bite in a while, I’d sink my teeth into a piece of candied fruit. Normally, gelified fruit doesn’t do it for me, but the liquid cut the cloying out of the sweet, like vanilla ice cream on pecan pie. What was this odd enchantment, and why eat it only once a year? It was cuccìa.
Nonna, Luigi and Mimma each told me some version of the same legend: During the great Sicilian famine of 1582, the residents of Palermo prayed to Santa Lucia to end their hunger. As they prayed, a ship full of grains miraculously appeared in the harbor on December 13. (Many sources tell of this miracle occurring in Palermo; others claim it was in Siracusa.) Too ravenous to bother grinding the grains into flour, they ate them as they had arrived (most say they at least boiled them first). Since then, Sicilians commemorate Santa Lucia on December 13 by abstaining from eating any source of wheat other than boiled wheat…and maybe panettone. These grains, and the dishes made from them, are called cuccìa. Sicily’s history of Arab rule is manifest in many aspects of Sicilian culture, not least of them its cuisine. The word “cuccìa” was derived from the Arabic kiskiya, meaning both grain and the earthenware that holds the grain.
Over time, the Sicilians devised numerous savory and sweet recipes that transform bland wheat berries into flavorful treats. Of the many sweet cuccìa recipes, some have a chocolate or honey base, and most, like Nonna’s cool dessert soup, contain a ricotta as a star ingredient.
Once aptly bloated, I asked Nonna for the recipe. Looking back at my notes, all I jotted down was “ricotta, sugar, milk, candied cherries, grain and 3 1/2″ hours boil.” Upon searching for cuccìa recipes that fit this bill, I kept coming across ones that were either ricotta based with a more solid finished product, or cream based but ricotta-free. Finally, I decided to combine a few recipes that seemed just about right, relying primarily on one from Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy.
I believe the milk-ricotta combination was Nonna’s personal touch. If, after following the recipe below and if you’d like it to be a bit less thick and more soupy alla Nonna, stir in milk until the consistency is to your liking.
Cuccìa alla Ricotta
Makes 10-12 servings
1 pound 2 ounces (500 grams) of soft white wheat berries
Pinch of salt
1 cup (200 gr) sugar
2 lbs 2 ounces (1 kg) of fresh whole milk ricotta, made without gelatin or stabilizers
1 package/50g of candied cherries, candied pumpkin, candied orange or citron peel or combination of your choice, cut into small pieces
Handful of dark chocolate chips, pieces or sprinkles
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
1-2 cups milk (optional)
Place grains in a bowl, cover them with water and leave to soak for about three days. Change water twice a day. On fourth day, drain the grains. Set grains in a large pot and cover with lightly salted water. Bring to boil and simmer for 3 ½ hours or until wheat is nearly bursting and soft, but still chewy. Let stand at room temperature for 6-8 hours.
Meanwhile, press ricotta through sieve into a mixing bowl and stir it well. Add sugar and vanilla, if using, and beat until creamy. Let ricotta cream sit for at least 2 hours and press through sieve a second time. Drain berries well and stir into ricotta cream along with candied fruit. Serve in small cups or bowls and garnish with chocolate chips, pieces or sprinkles.
Don’t be afraid to tweak it to your liking. Want more chocolate in every bite? Mix in a cup of chocolate chips alongside the grains and candied fruit. Chocolate cream? Melt the chocolate before mixing. A hint of spice? Top with cinnamon.
Can’t wait until December to celebrate Santa Lucia? I’m sure she won’t mind if you have an unseasonal bowl of cuccìa in her (and Nonna’s) honor.