‘Celebration’ cookies: a memory

Many moons ago, in another life and after something of a rough patch, I rang the doorbell of a modest, flat style home to present myself to a prospective landlady. I’d just seen the listing for a three-bedroom apartment in a solid city neighborhood, with church and school and people I knew all within a few blocks.

I was greeted by one of those smiling “map of Italy” faces so common in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She invited me in and excused her appearance—she’d been baking. Noting that the upstairs apartment was identical in layout, with a flourish she pointed me to the living room. I almost said yes on the spot, not because of the apartment or the affordable rent, but because on literally every surface in front of me were lined cookie sheets and platters full of gianette, the Italian anise cookies that in my family always signaled a celebration, always in the spring. They were iced in a rainbow of pastel colors, and the unmistakable perfume of anisette was everywhere.

Of course, my future landlady offered me a cookie. Of course, I accepted. That sealed the deal. True confession: I never told Mom that my landlady’s gianette were just as good as her own.

I remember that day, that experience, as a “Godwink“—a little message from heaven that this was a good fit, and that everything would work out just fine. When I shared the tale of the gianette with my parents, who lived several hours away, I could almost hear them trading worry for delight.

We lived there for five years before I bought a house a few miles away. There was a lot of up and down the stairs—sharing food, recipes, stories, landmark moments for the kids, the ups and downs of jobs and relationships, and a penetrating, real-life sadness when our landlord became very ill and passed away. I was glad we could be there for them then, and that my children had this valuable, if painful, life lesson. My landlady is gone now, too, but her darling daughter is raising her beautiful family in that same house.

Last week, I spent most of a day making two big batches of gianette for a family First Communion. They’re shaped like tiny doughnuts or little knots, then lightly iced with an anise-flavored glaze (I opted for anise oil instead of anisette—anisette is more authentic, of course). My mother often added colored sugar or sprinkles, but I’m all about not gilding the lily. In some Italian-American communities, they’re called Nonnie cookies, by the way. That’s pretty precious.

I packed the lion’s share of the two batches for the luncheon and most of the remainder into goodie bags, which I delivered to some of our neighbors early Sunday morning as a Mother’s Day treat. A dozen or so went into the freezer, to be tapped one-at-a-time to quiet the occasional craving. Giving most of the bounty away assures me the pleasure of baking without the danger that Hubby and I will consume all of that sugar and butter on our own.

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Alas, you won’t find a recipe, or even a link to one, in this post. There are several different gianette recipes in my collection, but I’m still not sure on which, if any, my mother relied. Although the cookies I made this time were delicious, I’m still not entirely satisfied that I’ve absolutely duplicated Mom’s texture—or my landlady’s. When I find the right one, I will be sure to share it with you.

By the way, if you like to give away the goodies you make, consider signing up for King Arthur Flour’s Bake for Good initiative. For everyone who pledges to bake something to give away, King Arthur will donate the cost of a meal to the Feeding America organization. Funding for more than 41,000 meals have been provided since KAF started this program. Just another reason to love King Arthur Flour

 

 

On meatloaf… yes, meatloaf

Truthfully, of my 100+-volume cookbook collection, there are only a few I actually use with regularity, primarily for baking.  I’m not precise or patient enough to use recipes for everyday cooking.  But one that I do use is The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook. I love this modest but mighty cookbook, last mentioned in my Easter bread post,  for more reasons than I can count.

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Today, it’s all about the meatloaf. I realize that the weather is getting warmer at last, and that heartier fare is not on our minds so much this time of year. But meatloaf is a great thing to throw in the oven while you laze on the porch with an apero, as the Italians call it. Plus, it makes fabulous sandwiches, hot or cold.

My mother’s meatloaf was beef and pork, two eggs, a splash each of milk and Worcestershire sauce, about two tablespoons of ketchup, salt , and, of course, breadcrumbs (the kind you make from the ends of bread,  left to dry out on the counter for a day or so), salt and just a pinch of pepper. She glazed the top with stripes of ketchup, which caramelized nicely to add a slightly sweet tang.

Over the years I’ve tried a few meatloaf recipes which, at the time, I thought might be more interest.  72 Market Street Meatloaf, named for the Venice, California, restaurant where it was a staple, is a much more refined meatloaf worthy of a special dinner; but the ingredient list is as long as your arm and you won’t put it, or the wine-and-shallots sauce designed to accompany it, together in five minutes. Ina Garten’s meatloaf isn’t bad either. It reminds me more of the meatloaf I grew up with.

Given the choice, however, my favorite meatloaf in recent years is the Italian-style Polpettone**, in the The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook.

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This recipe is close to perfect as is, but I understand that some of you may not eat veal or pork. You can skip either or both, but make sure that the fat content of your ground beef is generous. Italian-style chicken sausage might be a reasonable substitute; turkey sausage would probably be too dry. If you eat only ground turkey or ground chicken, my advice is to find a recipe designed for those products.

As you will see, the instructions say to mix everything together on a platter. I tried that, thinking it might be easier; but in the end found my giant stainless steel bowl works better. Wash up well—you absolutely MUST mix meat loaf with your hands.

Just as an aside, Roseto is in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Adriana Trigiani has written about the town where her grandparents lived in several books. It is also the home of Ruggiero’s Market, where you can find Anna Marie Ruggiero’s marvelous cookbook. Or purchase it online here.

*Excepting Mom’s because to do otherwise would be heresy.

**Another version of Polpettone, a stuffed one, from Memorie de Angelina, an Italian food blog that I love (you will, too!), can be found here.

Easter bread woes

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For all but a few of the last 20 or so years, I have faithfully used the same recipe for Easter bread, from my beloved Roseto Cookbook,* Anna Marie Ruggiero’s culinary homage to the life and times of the Italian immigrants, their children, and their children’s children, in a tiny town in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Read Adriana Trigiani’s Queen of the Big Time and you will understand the community and the culture; use the cookbook and you will eat not lavishly but very well. Peasant food, la cucina povera, is always the best.

The Roseto Cookbook contains two recipes for Easter bread, or pane di Pasqua**.  I chose the second, because it seemed more direct. Recipe #2 always gave me great results, and even though it called for loaf pans, I was able to braid the loaves and insert the colored eggs for a more festive presentation. Recipe #1 always seemed too involved; it starts with a sponge that requires proofing time and three subsequent rises—one after kneading, one after the “punch down,” and the final for the formed loaves. In other words, an all day adventure.

This year, however, I wanted a bigger yield. Forgetting the lesson of roughly five years ago when I defected to a disappointing recipe on a popular Italian cooking website, I decided to try Recipe #1. Let me just say, to begin with, that it was no mean task to isolate four pounds of flour without having to weigh it all out on my teeny tiny kitchen scale. Flour, flour everywhere, and I hadn’t even gotten started yet.

The sponge frothed up nicely, but despite all the flour, the dough was very wet. Sweet dough is sticky, but this dough was trickier and wetter than I was accustomed to with good old reliable Recipe #2. It was also a LOT of dough to manage, and my awkwardness made me feel like a rank amateur. Eventually, though, it came together and successfully went through the next two rises. When it came time to shape the loaves, I worried that the dough would be too sticky and wet to shape the braids. But as the gluten developed it became a bit easier to work with. As long as I gave the dough a rest now and then, I was able to create the ropes and braid them, and to nestle the colored eggs in between.

One more rise and a few hours later, the loaves came out of the oven. They are BIG. No, they are HUGE. They are CLUNKY. They are too BROWN. There is nothing delicately pastel and Easter-y looking about them. There’s a split in one of the bigger loaves, and that egg I dipped in juice from a can of Wyman’s Wild Blueberries basically sank***. Although I’ve never been a picture-perfect baker, this is definitely not my best work.

Hubby graciously said he thought the four loaves looked great. When I grimaced, he said, “How do you want them to look?” “Not like that,” I muttered. This conversation was not unlike one we might have had if I’d come home from the salon unhappy with a haircut I’d just paid through the nose for. “But I think it looks great,” he would say, ostensibly trying to make me feel better but with a tentative quality in his voice, as if he were about to walk on hot coals.

There’s nothing really wrong with Recipe #1—this was a matter of my lack of skill in handling a huge quantity of sticky dough. Next year, please remind me that change for the sake of change isn’t always a good idea. In the time I spent today, I could easily have managed two batches of good old reliable Recipe #2. I might have ended up with less of mess, a better looking product, and some spare energy to make the cake I promised. All these things considered, though, it will taste fine.

I know that many of you wonder why I would go to so much trouble. I could certainly buy a picture-perfect loaf of Easter bread at the grocery store and no one around the table tomorrow would be likely to care, or even notice. But, of course, it’s not about the bread at all. As I made those not-so-perfect-looking loaves of Easter bread today, my mother, my grandmother, my Auntie Teresa, and my Auntie Anna were all right there with me. This is a tie that binds.

Wishing you and yours a blessed Easter… or a blessed Pesach. Easter bread, it turns out, is a lot like Challah.

* You can purchase this gem of a cookbook from Ruggiero’s Market in Roseto, PA. Anna Maria Ruggiero did the painting on the cover, too. http://www.ruggierosmarket.com/the-roseto-cuisine-cookbook.html

**  Easter bread is called by many other names from region to region—for example, in Calabrai, cuculi.

*** Nor were my “natural” dyes a huge success this year.  

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The way it used to be

Over-idealizing the past definitely guarantees you a berth on what my witty brother-in-law calls the “bullet train to Geezerville.” Still, there’s no denying the natural human tendency for nostalgia, which, since it’s pretty selective, is always fun, especially at Christmas. The Hallmark Channel, as we all know, makes a mint on it.

Except for the reliable constants of church, tree, cards, and presents, the middle-of-the-middle class Christmases of my childhood were dramatically different from anything that kids today experience. All trees were real. Nattily dressed shoppers crammed the stores, which were open two nights a week. The big treat was a night-time trip to town to visit Santa and see the animated department store windows—different every year, and always enchanting. Mail arrived twice a day, and there were so many cards that we lined the entire bannister with them, straight up to the second floor. Kids asked Santa for one special gift, just like Ralphie. While the stockings may have been stuffed with candy or tiny books or trinkets, and other family members may have provided more useful but modest gifts, that one present from Santa was what most children were thrilled and grateful to find under the tree. Christmas carols* and the secular holidays songs were on all of the radio stations, almost all of the time.

But above all,  in our big, noisy Italian-American family, Christmas was about being together. The celebration started with Midnight Mass, and, once Christmas dinner was over, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was spent visiting. We’d crowd around the table on one night at our house, on others at the homes of aunts, uncles, and cousins, where we were amply supplied with whatever leftovers were on hand and tray after tray of cookies. The grown-ups had a beer or two, or coffee and anisette, while we kids played with each other’s toys. We laughed and sang, disagreements were friendly and without repercussion, and no one felt left out. That’s one of our Christmas get-togethers in the photo above, at our house. That’s my mother, in the center, with the dark dress and pearls, and my father, on the right, in front of the china cabinet.

Our once-huge extended family has dwindled, and family members, with a few exceptions, aren’t close. Over the years, as children left the steel mill behind and began to make their way in the world, they lost interest in family celebrations, even disdaining them as quaint and unsophisticiated. The Christmas I knew as a child became little more than a hazy, idealized memory.  Still, I am so glad to have it.

I confess to a trace of envy when I hear of a family large enough, energetic enough, and committed enough, to celebrate in the noisy, crowded, overstuffed old-fashioned way. My own family, whom I love dearly and appreciate every single minute of every single day, is small; our Christmases are quiet but precious nonetheless.

Whatever you make of Christmas, may your day be filled with joy and gratitude for the blessings around your table, and may you have good health and prosperity in the year to come!

*Hear this, Hallmark Channel, although you know I love you, please stop the dancing to “Silent Night.” It just isn’t done.

 

 

The jars on the shelf

Update. Yet another Bonne Maman jar has been welcomed into the family. If you read my previous post from months ago, you’ll recall my homage to these marvelous little jars and the preserves they hold—the “gift that keeps on giving,” just as Cousin Eddie observed in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. By the way, Bonne Maman products are made only with good stuff, as the website attests.

I’ve been transitioning gradually to glass food storage containers over the last five years. The plastic ones I still have, while advertised as “BPA free,” will eventually go, too. My plan is to follow my daughter’s lead and use space-saving canning jars for everything I freeze . That will happen in good time.

Meanwhile, as I use up each little taste of France that Bonne Maman preserves provide, I add another perfectly sized glass storage container to my collection. This year, I’ve used them for the herbs I’ve dried from the garden  They find their way to the pantry shelf, too—for the last small quantities of rice, pasta, or dried beans. And with just the two of us, they are exactly “right-sized” for leftovers and for storing prepped ingredients till it’s time to put the dish together. Mirepoix and other basic flavor bases at the ready when you need them? That’s convenience! With the ready-cut veggies at the grocery store so expensive, it’s economical, too.

By the way, as long as we’re talking economy, bell peppers are always inexpensive at our farm markets this time of year. Yesterday, I bought a bunch, cut them into strips, cooked them till almost soft in olive oil, added some balsamic for zest, and popped them into the freezer to enjoy when peppers are $4 a pound. Today, I’ll be heading back to the market for another batch—this time to roast, peel, and freeze. By the way, fresh sliced peppers, gently sautéed with or without garlic and seasoned with a bit of sea salt, are wonderful (and colorful!) tossed with spaghetti. The oil they exude on their own is just delicious. And you can store the leftovers in your Bonne Maman jars.

Wishing you all a bon weekend!

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Once, under the Tuscan sun…

I am in an almost perennial state of longing for Italy. Hubby has Italy on his mind as well. The fervor is fueled constantly as we watch our current favorite Italian TV series.  Una pallottola nel cuoro—the English title,  Bulletproof Heart. We watch Euro TV almost every night, thanks to MHZ Choice, which we began streaming several years ago. Every time we do, we are transported. In the case of Bulletproof Heart, it’s to Rome. Tonight, however, I’m recalling a trip from Florence through the Tuscan countryside. And if you haven’t read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, please do. It’s a delight—and SO much better than the movie!