The Search for Vacata Recipe Finally Found
When I was a kid there were three things that were always consistent at Christmas time: an Advent calendar, my dad bringing home a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and making cookies. But these weren’t just any cookies, the recipe for these cookies came all the way from Sicily and they were called vacata.
The baby scale on the kitchen table signaled the ceremonial mixing of Christmas vacata. My mom would weigh out the ingredients and mix by hand the large batch of cookie dough. Then we’d roll out cookies: Some in the shape of our initials, others hand cut Christmas trees or candy canes. We’d roll our masterpieces in sesame seeds or dust with red or green sugar sprinkles. Once they emerged from the oven we’d tie ribbons around them and hang them on the tree. Theses cookies were always better on the tree or dunked in milk since they were hard and not too sweet.
Alas, we haven’t made these cookies in decades. Yet for the last ten years I have been looking for my mom’s Christmas cookie recipe. Each year I’d unsuccessfully comb her kitchen looking for that sacred piece of paper that would reveal the secrets of vacata. The first place I looked, of course was where her Betty Crocker Cookbook stood for some 40 years. No book. No luck.
The vacata cookie recipe became my holy grail.
On my last visit to New Jersey I once again scoured my mom’s house for the recipe. As luck would have it, I was looking for something in the back room, or as we like to call it “the black hole” and came upon an old index card box. I opened the lid. The box was filled with every recipe my mom had collected over the years. I plucked through the cards I couldn’t believe my eyes for, there amongst the browned aged index cards was her recipe.
My mom’s not one to throw things away, she saved the original paper that held the recipe but wisely wrote out the recipe on a “newer” index card. My heart sang as I jumped for joy! My quest was over. There it was in all its glory the vacata recipe…but wait it’s spelled vicata. What?
My mom has until this day called the cookies vacata, but when I looked at the card, both old and new she wrote vicata. Something in my brain said that these cookies had another name. And just like that another mystery had to be solved.My mom’s grand parents came from Sicily and Naples in the late 1800s. They spoke little English. I’m pretty sure that my mom’s father could speak and understand Italian. But my mom wasn’t taught Italian and only knew a few words: Mangia (eat), Statazit (shut up) and maybe a few more. But when I looked up statazit it turned out to be stai zitto. So maybe ‘vicata’ was what my mom ‘heard’ but might actually be another word.
A new search began, this time on the internet. I looked up ‘vicata’. Nothing but last names. I looked up Sicilian Christmas cookies and only came up with recipes for fig cookies. Undeterred, I searched the one ingredient that made the cookies stand out—sesame seeds. And somewhere round page three of my Google search I found this site Ciao Italia. And in the last line of the paragraph explaining the history of the cookie my new search was completed.
“Biscotti regina are an example of an Italian cookie which is not sliced and re baked, since biscotti in Italian just means cookies.”
Somewhere along the line “biscotta” morphed into ‘vicata’ and then ‘vacata’ which simply means cookies. A sugar cookie by any name is still a sugar cookie. Enjoy this recipe. I have all my life.
Sicilian Christmas Cookies–Vacata, Vicati, Biscotti
- 3 1/2 cups flour
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 T baking powder
- 1/4 lbs. butter cut into cubes
- 3 eggs
- 1/4 t vanilla
- Add dry ingredients into a food processor and pulse until mixed.
- Add butter to processor and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse corn meal.
- In a separate bowl beat eggs and vanilla until mixed.
- Turn processor on and add eggs. Mix just until blended. Remove the dough from processor and knead until flour is incorporated. Don't over work dough.
- Roll to your favorite shape, coat with egg wash and sprinkle with colored sugar or sesame seeds.
- Bake in 350 oven for about 12-15 minutes.
FBLA 2013 Cookie Exchange Recipes
- Chai Tea Cookies — Cathy Arkle of She Paused 4 Thought (She also got tired of rolling the dough and refashioned the rest into Baby Hedgehog cookies.)
- Butter Pecan Fudge — Dorothy Reinhold (me!) from Shockingly Delicious.
- Antioxidant Chocolate Bark — Erika Kerekes (our hostess) of In Erika’s Kitchen.
- Sweet Potato Marshmallow Bars with White Chocolate Chips — Jennifer Richmond of Kitchy Cooking.
- Chocolate Chip and Apricot Walnut Rugelach and Vegan Chocolate Mini Cupcakes (“Naughty & Nice Cookies”) — Dana of Foodie Goes Healthy
- Vintage Sponge Drops with Double Fudge Filling — Leslie Macchiarella of Bake This Cake.
- Sicilian Christmas cookies — Judy Lyness of Two Broads Abroad.
- Cranberry Orange Walnut Sugar Cookies — Patricia Rose of Fresh Food in a Flash.
- Brown Butter Praline Chocolate Chip Cookies — Valentina Wein of Cooking On The Weekends.
- Mini Chocolate Nut Sandwich Cookies — Kelly Page of Tasting Page.
- Rosemary Raisin Cocktail Shortbread — Sharon Graves of Cheesy Pennies.
- Saketini Christmas Balls, Chocolate Macarons with Japanese Wine Cream Centers, and Matcha Green Tea Cookies with Chocolate Centers & Espresso Cookies with Caramel Fillings — Kim Watkinson of Ninja Baking.
- Blueberry Coconut Mini Cupcakes, Rainbow Chocolate Bark, and Vegan Gingersnaps — Judy Weintraub of Bumbleberry Breeze.
- Chocolate-Dipped Apricots with Pistachios — Adair Seldon of Lentil Breakdown.
- Spumoni Shortbread — Nancy Rose Eisman of Adventures with Nancy Rose.
- Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies and Cardamom Gingersnap Cookies — Alison Ashton of Nourish Network .
- Gluten-Free Pumpkin Oat Bars — Alanna Waldron of Eats Real Food.
- Red Velvet Gooey Butter Cookies — Tanaya Ghosh of Tanaya’s Table. (Tanaya’s Table, the blog, will launch in 2014.)
- Black and White Cookies — Tina Kil. (Her blog isn’t up yet, but watch for her contributions in the future!)
- Chiang Mai Chicken in Endive Spears — Cathy Arkle of She Paused 4 Thought.
- Seasonal salad — Nancy Rose Eisman of Adventures with Nancy Rose.
- Barrel-Aged Sazerac — Jennifer Richmond of Kitchy Cooking.
You are a beautiful writer Judy! I love how you are preserving our family’s history.
Mama's Gotta Bake says
Judy, that’s a lovely story. These cookies look just like the ones many friends made when I grew up in Philadelphia. I will give your mom’s recipe a try!
Cathy @ She Paused 4 Thought says
This historical journey of a cookie recipe captivated my heart. I have my Grandmothers recipe box and it looks just like your photo. Many gems from my childhood are stored in there as is yours.
And really, what more do we need to know other than “eat” & “shut up”… and probably not in that order! 🙂
Thank you for sharing such a great recipe & memory with us.
Beatrice Lyness says
It is so nice to keep the family tradition, I have been making my moms cookies for years. I used to help her bake. Than started baking for myself. Now I bake for everyone.
Dorothy at Shockingly Delicious says
Yes! Just yes.
Dana @ Foodie Goes Healthy says
Judy, this is a beautiful family story. I love the mystery of finding the recipe and the meaning of the name. I can relate to your quest. So satisfying to finally solve the mystery. Enjoy making new memories with your family recipe. Best, Dana
Rolling a semi sweet cookie in sesame seeds reminds me of a Sephardic Jewish breakfast “cookie” called biscochos. Sorry I missed these. GREG
PS That “scrap” of a recipe is priceless.
What a nice story. Ciao Italia (Mary Esposito) is a wonderful resource.
Alison Ashton @ nourishnetwork.com says
Loved these — great story, too!
The story is priceless.
I love culinary history and I love this story. You tell it beautifully in person and in writing. So glad I got to taste these. Particularly loved the vacata rolled in sesame seeds. Thanks for sharing.
Leslie Macchiarella says
These are SO delish! And you know I love the history of it all! Your family photos are absolutely precious and the recipe card box — what a treasure! A family history moving forward. Absolutely wonderful! Great seeing you at the FBLA cookie exchange and happy holidays to you! Leslie
Leslie, thanks so much for stopping by. So glad you liked the story. To me it’s better than the cookies. Have a great holiday.
Marie Guarino Osterman says
Judy, sweet story and great detective work. My mom makes the same cookies using a very similar recipe. She learned how to make them at Christmas time in 1953 (when she was pregnant with me) from a family friend named Mrs Russo, who was about 70 years old and from Sicily of course. Mrs Russo’s recipe called for about 5 lbs of flour, measured with a generic oversized ceramic coffee cup. The rest of the ingredients followed in proportion, measured with the same coffee cup. After Mrs Russo showed my mom how to make the cookies, she gave my mother the coffee cup so she would be able to measure accurately when she made them at home. To this day every Christmas my mom makes those cookies,which we still call Mrs Russo’s biscotti, using the very same coffee cup. The coffee cup occupies a sacred place in my mother’s breakfront among her silver and fine china.
Judy Lyness says
Marie thanks so much. Food is about the stories that are attached. I think that’s why I love cooking and baking.
Trish DiMaggio says
These actually are called Viscotta or some Sicilians refer to them as Viscotti. I am a first generation American and my father’s family is from Palermo. My Nonna and he used to make them every Christmas. Your mother was correct. Below is a link to the Viscotta spelling.
Judy Lyness says
Thanks so much for this information. I looked all over to find their origin. Have a wonderful Christmas.
Mike Ruggeri says
Thank you for the recipe..my mom made these when I was young and it was always a part of our family christmas.That recipe was passed down from our grandma whom was from palermo sicily.when my mom passed the recipe went who knows where.
Jeanne @JollyTomato says
Such a beautiful story – and the family photos are the “icing on the cake”! Thank you for sharing these! xo Jeanne
Judy Lyness says
Jeanne thanks for stopping by my site. I think the best food is filled with memories.
eve stephens says
My grandmother from Sicily use to make what I think is this recipe when I was a kid. I have searched high and low and I am hoping this is it. She has log since passed and my mother didn’t know the recipe. I cannot wait to try it out.
Judy Lyness says
Hope this is the one you were searching for. Thanks for stopping by.