The Cuccia Connection: How a Sicilian Dessert Spans Generations

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I'd just about had it with Google. It was 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, and I was desperately trying to figure out how to get the three-story elevator running in the $200 Barbie Dreamhouse my daughter, Keira, was due to unwrap in a matter of hours. I was tired. I still had a bike to build. As I pounded the keys on my laptop, hoping some compassionate YouTube parent out there was ready to help me out, it occurred to me just how different my daughter's childhood is from my own.

My parents immigrated to the United States from economically depressed Sicily decades ago, moving from Brooklyn to Queens before settling on Long Island. My sisters and I were Sicilians before we were Americans, or even Italians—a far cry from that romantic immigrant story in which a family struggles to fit in and gradually adopts the rituals of their new home country. My mom moved to the States to marry my dad, who had arrived a few years earlier. And, in true Sicilian fashion, their parents and siblings came along, too—by the time I was born, most of my aunts and uncles and nearly 30 first cousins lived within five miles of our house.

While we were Sicilians who ate Sicilian food, that didn't mean I dismissed the American foods that surrounded me, especially at school. One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing a biscuit for the first time in fifth grade, after a classmate pulled one from a box of leftover KFC. I remember almost drooling over its buttery aroma, wanting more than anything to bite into one of my own. I also wanted slabs of pink Oscar Mayer bologna sandwiched between slices of soft white bread. I begged my mom to stop whenever we strolled past the Lunchables display at King Kullen, hoping she would pack them into my brown bag along with a Devil Dog or a Twinkie. What I got instead was a heel of crusty semolina bread, split down the middle and stuffed with mortadella, salami, or ricotta salata. If I was lucky, the bread was filled with Nutella—long before others caught on to just how good a chocolate sandwich could be.

We celebrated our holidays with a hybrid of American and Sicilian cuisines. Yes, we would gather for turkey on Thanksgiving—but only after we'd feasted on a traditional lasagna or pasta al forno course, so the bird was never really the star. On Independence Day, we cooked burgers, hot dogs, and sausage wheels, but regardless of how loud Mister Softee's bell rang, we ignored it in favor of brioche con gelato. That said, a Friendly's sherbet Wattamelon Roll was seen as a good stand-in for the granita my parents grew up with back home. There were other, more obscure old-world holidays that we observed, too—ones that few other kids on my school playground had ever heard of. I felt bad for those classmates who were denied the pleasures of such underappreciated Italian festivities as St. Joseph's Day, when my cousins and I would feast on deep-fried zeppoli, stuffed with cream or sweetened cheese.

But of all the Italian holidays we celebrated, the best by far was the Feast of Santa Lucia, which takes place on December 13. That's when my mother would make my favorite dessert, cuccia—a porridge of boiled wheatberries, mixed with sweetened ricotta cheese and topped with a dusting of cinnamon and shaved chocolate. It's meant to honor Saint Lucy, a fourth-century martyr credited with ending a famine in Sicily by bringing a ship full of wheat into Syracuse. The city was so starved that families quickly boiled and ate the grains rather than taking the time to grind them into flour for bread or pasta. Sicilians observe the holiday by abstaining from refined flour, so, in addition to cuccia, we also filled up on panelle (fritters made from chickpea flour) and arancini (rice balls). But cuccia was always my favorite, partly because, unlike those other delicacies, my mom refused to make it at any other time of year.

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As a kid, I never paid much attention to the actual date of Santa Lucia. The only clue that it was coming was the large, beige ceramic bowl my mom would ceremoniously place on our laminate countertop. When making cuccia, you treat the wheatberries more like a bean than a grain, so she'd soak them overnight. The next day, she would boil them while I was at school, and when I got home, she'd serve the cuccia to me in a small bowl, topped with tiny chocolate chips and a dash of cinnamon. It tasted a little bit like rice pudding, but far more complex. It was thicker, thanks to the ricotta, with an almost al dente pasta–like chew. Then there was the crunch of the chocolate chips, the warmth of the cinnamon.

As I grew older and started cooking for myself, my preferences started leaning more toward American pulled-pork sandwiches and slow-cooked brisket than the lasagna and arancini I grew up with—though I still enjoyed those foods during my frequent visits to my parents' house. Eventually I got married and moved to another town. And those visits to my parents' house to indulge in my mother's cooking became less frequent as we devoted more of our time to raising our young daughter, and fixing up our old house. By the time I'd reached my early 30s, our visits had dwindled to weekends, and then, within a two-year span, they were over, forever—both of my parents passed away right around Christmas: my mother on January 1, 2013; Dad on January 2, 2015.

And so I was left with a toddler who had never had a chance to form lasting memories of my parents. Sure, we have photos and iPhone videos of her playing with Nonna and Nonno. But, like most of our digital lives, those memories sit silently on a hard drive—the modern-day equivalent of a shoebox full of five-by-eights.

I tell Keira stories. I tell her about the Sunday mornings I spent with my mom making sauce, or setting up an assembly line of pans filled with eggs, bread crumbs, and paper towels so she could efficiently dip, sheathe, and dry her batches of delicious chicken rollatini. And, someday, I'll be sure to tell her about working summers at my dad's pizzeria in Jamaica, Queens, where he'd occasionally steal naps on the 100-pound sacks of flour in back, as I, his 11-year-old son, slung pies in and out of an 800°F oven before cooling myself off with a freezer full of rainbow Italian ice.

Those stories are fine. They're fun to tell. But I know that the best way for me to connect my daughter to my parents is by cooking her the foods they once cooked for me. And so, last year, about a week before Santa Lucia, I decided to make her cuccia. I wanted to make for her what my mom made for me, and what my own nonna made before that. So I asked aunts and family friends for the recipe, and got to work making a batch of my own.

I learned a few things along the way—the first being that, despite my mother's practice of soaking the wheatberries overnight, they really don't need any soaking at all. They do, however, need about an hour's worth of simmering to soften. Whipping the ricotta smooth helps beat out the grainy texture. And, while it's not traditional, I prefer to top my cuccia with the mini semisweet chocolate chips my mom used, instead of shaved chocolate.

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As Keira and I made our first few batches of cuccia together, I explained who Santa Lucia was, where the dish came from, and how her nonna made it. Did it sink in? I have no idea. She soundly rejected our first few attempts. The grain was too hard; it wasn't sweet enough; there wasn't enough cheese; the chocolate was too bitter. To most kids, there's no such thing as bad chocolate. But to a girl who was still working her way through her trove of super-sweet Halloween candy, she found the semisweet stuff I used almost unpalatable. I can't say I blame her.

After figuring out the right amount of sugar, though, and the addition of some vanilla paste, I nailed it. Suddenly, cuccia was sharing space at the Saturday morning breakfast spread next to Keira's perennial favorite, pancakes. I made sure she had her fill of it, because I knew that after December 13, the cuccia bowl, the same one my mom used back when I was a kid, would go back on the shelf. I hope that Keira will love this year's cuccia as much as she did last's. I sure hope that she'll love it more than that Barbie Dreamhouse, which is now sitting in our basement, gathering dust.