Monday, December 27, 2010

One More (Christmas) Thing…

The presents are opened…

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…but before we say goodbye to Christmas 2010, there’s one more holiday recipe I’d like to share … our traditional Christmas morning breakfast: Chocolate Chip Holiday Muffins!

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An old Hershey Foods recipe (when the company was still called Hershey Foods), these muffins are best served with whipped cream cheese on top.

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You can wait a year to try them for breakfast one morning next  holiday season … or you can try them sooner. It really doesn’t matter – they are festive any old day of the year! Here’s hoping your holiday weekend was just splendido!

(Click here to print and view recipe)

Chocolate Chip Holiday Muffins on Foodista

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Favorite Day of the Year!

The Baby Jesus has been placed in the manger, and Santa is on his way. As promised earlier in the week, here’s a quick peek at our Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes.

We started our day with cheese and olives…

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…then prepped for the meal ahead. (You will recognize my mom in the bottom right, but that handsome guy up top in the middle is making his first appearance here on Mangia, Figlie. Welcome my nephew, Marc. We heart him so much!)

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Ralph roasted chestnuts on the grill. (They were a tender treat!)

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And then we sat down for our 7 fishes (top row, l-r: She-Crab Soup, Mom’s Hot Baked Stuffed Clams, Calamari Salad; bottom row, l-r: Fried Oysters, Broiled Salmon and Codfish [with a caper sauce on the side], Shrimp and Grits). Uh … YUM!

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Finally, we opened presents. Look at this wonderful gift from my brother and sister-in-law. Perfect, right?

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I can’t speak for anyone else, but I loved sharing this special day and this special feast with my family. But alas, it is past midnight and I can hear Santa on the roof. Must go help out! Until next week, my friends:

Buon Natale!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Beautiful World

Editor’s Note: This post was written before our trip to New York last week, but I was waiting to hear back from my aunt before posting it. I’ve just heard back from her tonight. Though I’ve already talked a bit about our trip to my uncle’s funeral, here’s what was on my mind on December 12, the day before we headed northeast to our family.

This past week was one of those weeks that offers more than one person should be asked to handle, culminating with sad news on Friday that my Uncle Sam in New York has joined my father and other family members now “bowling in Heaven.”

You met Aunt Barbara, my father’s younger sister, the week I blogged about Mom’s 80th birthday party. Aunt Barb and Uncle Sam married on June 16, 1963 – forty-seven-and-a-half years ago – and they parented two beautiful girls, my cousins Anamarie and Sandra.

Uncle Sam had been ill for a number of years, and in the past few months things had taken a turn for the worse. Nobody was surprised by the news, I don’t think, but that doesn’t take away one ounce of ache, especially for Aunt Barb, my cousins, and their families. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers in the weeks and months ahead as they work through this difficult time.

Thinking about Uncle Sam most certainly brings a smile to my face. He was exactly what you think of when you think of an Italian uncle. He wasn’t a tall man, and he did gray nicely with a good head of thick hair. He was a wonderful gardener and most importantly a hard samworker. But it was his broken English that stands out most in my mind. I’d be lying if I said I understood everything he said to me over the years. Though he came with his family to America while still a young man, they all continued to speak the “language of music” at home.

It’s difficult to describe the way Uncle Sam pronounced the word beautiful – the “beau” was more of a “boo” … boo-tiful. Nah, that doesn’t do it justice – but it was a word he used often, and in my head I will hear him saying it till the end of time. It was, after all, a testament to the beauty he saw in his wife, in his daughters, in his grandchildren … in all of us.

Italian grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles are known for slipping a few bucks in your hand when you hug them goodbye prior to a long journey. Aunt Barb would hand me a couple bucks, saying “Shh, don’t tell anyone.” Then Uncle Sam would turn around and hand me a couple more. Sometimes it was the other way around. Either way, I usually protested – I may well be the only niece who would say, “But Aunt Barb already….” “No, no, no,” was the response. They were just that generous; that was just how it was done.

Rest in peace, Uncle Sam. Ti vogliamo bene. Oh, and here’s a few bucks for your journey… Shh….

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lucky Number 7

Christmas Week is well upon us and my heart is beginning to pound. Of all the traditions of my ancestors and my childhood, my favorite without doubt is celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.

As I’ve noted before, I am not necessarily a fan of Wikipedia – I never rely on it for anything work related – but when it comes to certain topics related to this blog, I find its explanations concise and accurate. So, with props to Wikipedia, here’s what you need to know about the Feast of the Seven Fishes:

The Feast of the Seven Fishes … is believed to have originated in Southern Italy and is not a known tradition in many parts of Italy. Today, it is a completely Italian-American feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. Some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with 9, 11, or 13 different seafood dishes. This celebration is a commemoration of the wait, Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.

The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence — in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products — on Fridays and specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.

There are many hypotheses for what the number "7" relates to, one being the number of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Another theory is that seven is a number representing perfection: the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ.

The most famous dish Southern Italians are known for is Baccalà (salted cod fish) … Celebrating with such a simple fish as Baccalà is attributed to the greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy. Fried smelts, calamari, and other types of seafood have [also] been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.

In our tradition that celebrated annually by my husband, my children, my mother, and me, generally at my house (with a nice fire in the wood-burning fireplace, and a walk around our neighborhood Methodist church, which lines its four square blocks with luminaries) – the fishes and dishes change from year to year. Some years we create seven different fish dishes; other years we make cioppino, a fish and seafood stew that we serve over spaghetti.

This year for Christmas Eve we’re changing the venue and celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes with my brother Ralph, my sister-in-law Vicki, and their family. I can’t wait! I am slated to make shrimp and grits and she-crab soup, and to help my mom with a calamari salad.  My mother’s other contribution is her baked clams, and my brother and his wife are making whitefish and salmon, and frying up oysters. (Oh, and I’m bringing the pignoli cookies, too! Yay.)

Ralph, my techie brother, has suggested we try to video blog on Friday. We’re just off the phone, undecided if that would detract from our enjoyment of being together or add to it. At very least, I’ll take lots of photos, so that either way, you can check back here Christmas Eve night for a peek at our authentic Italian-American tradition.

In the meantime, to get your taste buds going, click here to view and print my mom’s recipe for Hot Baked Stuffed Clams, which she brings to the table every year. And if you’d like to read more about the Feast of the Seven Fishes and baccalà, might I suggest this very informative book:

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It’s one of our Christmas favorites!! (Simply click on the book cover above for more information from Amazon.com.)

In closing, I wish you all a safe and productive week ahead. And to quote a good friend and a follower here at Mangia, Figlie who, earlier this week, sent these words to my email Inbox: “Have a joyous holiday filled with love….”

Buona Vigilia di Natale!

Hot Baked Stuffed Clams on Foodista

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Playing Catch-Up

Things most certainly didn’t go as I had hoped the past two weeks, which is why I completely missed week 2 of holiday cookies. I guess that’s what I get for promising.

But life is back in full swing after visiting la famiglia in New York for the most solemn of occasions. If a burial service can be lovely, it was, and though it was a freezing day at the cemetery, the sun did manage to peek through the clouds, assuring my uncle’s safe journey up to our family of bowlers in Heaven. May you rest in peace, Uncle Sam. Please tell my dad I miss him.

The visit was a whirlwind – we were there just over 24 hours total – and I always leave wishing we’d had more time to visit.

So, now you are asking yourself: “But, Maria, what does this have to do with the cookie recipes you promised?” Well, as I’m sure you know by now, any gathering with my family always promises good Italian food … and lots of it. For instance, just look what Aunt Ann put on the table for dessert after breakfast:

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It’s true. When was the last time you were offered dessert after bacon and eggs? More importantly, see those cookies? Those are homemade toralle! My week 2 cookie!!

Though Aunt Ann created this very festive batch, the recipe in my recipe box originates with my Aunt Santa – appropriate for the season, wouldn’t you say? She was married to Uncle Joe, my mother’s oldest (and only) brother. Aunt Santa and Uncle Joe spent their life together in the lovely town of Port Chester, New York, raising three beautiful daughters. Though older than I, my cousins were always kind to that little brat (that would be me, of course) that visited from Pennsylvania.

My memories of sitting around Uncle Joe and Aunt Santa’s dining room table, cracking nuts, drinking coffee (the adults) and milk (me), and eating cookies – those are as vivid as if they happened yesterday. I remember plastic covers on white sofas at their house … and being allowed to swim in their new pool when the water temperature was much too cold for any sane human. They had the coolest laundry shoot ever – my Barbie could fall two stories into a basket of laundry without any limb damage! And since Aunt Santa worked for Avon, headquartered just down the road from them, there were also free samples of new Avon products. I’m a sucker for Avon, even to this day, thanks to Aunt Santa.

But that was a long time ago. The little things remain in my memory, but much has happened since that time and that house. Uncle Joe died in 1983, just a few weeks before my dad. Thankfully, their widows continue to grace us with their presence in our lives. My mom, of course … you know what she’s been up to. As for Aunt Santa, she’s now in her 90s, doing the best she can with a fading memory. Sadly, I haven’t seen her in years, but thanks to Facebook, my cousins and I are in better touch than we have been in quite some time.

Coincidentally, my week 3 cookie recipe also originated with Aunt Santa. If I could make just one cookie for Christmas every year (and there are years I have), what would it be? Pecan tassies, of course!

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Aunt Santa’s Pecan Tassies
(Click here to view and print recipe)

 

 

 


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When I pull out that recipe and the one for “Aunt Santa’s Sugar Cookies (Toralle)”…

(Click here to view and print recipe)

…I feel a rush of comfort in my heart for the good old days, when my dad and uncles were still with us, and we could all gather at a table loaded with food … loaded with love.

Uncle Joe and Daddy, I trust you’ve ushered Uncle Sam into the great bowling alley in the sky with open arms. Next time it lightning and thunders, I’ll be looking up with a smile on my face … knowing full well you are all  having the time of your afterlives. Vi vogliamo bene.

Toralle on Foodista

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I Surrender

Fight it as I may, the holidays are again upon us. The two trees at Walmart have turned into 222 trees, and the three channels of music on TV have multiplied to 11 (at last count). That can only mean one thing: it’s time for me to surrender … to the festivities we call “The Holidays.”

I already have friends baking cookies and freezing them, to be taken out in a couple of weeks and enjoyed in the latter part of the month. Not me, though. I’m not that … organized? … adventurous?

Actually, as you may have heard, I can be a bit picky when it comes to the freshness of food. That’s why I wait until the week of Christmas to start my baking. Well, that and the fact that if I start now, the cookies wouldn’t even make it into the freezer. They’d be in my belly, and I’d be baking again in two weeks anyway.

For the sake of this blog, though, it is time to delve into my holiday baking. You’ve heard of Food Network’s “12 Days” of cookies? Well, I am happy to bring you my “3 Weeks” of cookies! Let’s begin … Cominciamo.

I bet I wouldn’t be very far off if I said, most of us have good memories of holiday cookie baking from our childhoods. Sand tarts, gingerbread men, peanut butter blossoms… In an Italian family, these are not holiday staples, however. We make pizzelle.

I know you’ve heard of them, but just in case you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about, I will defer to Wikipedia, which – though it isn’t the best source of anything on the Web – did offer a seemingly accurate and succinct explanation in this case:

Pizzelle (pronounced with ts sound, like “pizza”) (singular pizzella) are traditional Italian waffle cookies made from flour, eggs, sugar, butter or vegetable oil, and flavoringpizzelles (often vanilla, anise, or lemon zest). Pizzelle can be hard and crisp or soft and chewy depending on the ingredients and method of preparation.

Pizzelle were originally made in the Abruzzo region of south-central Italy. The name comes from the Italian word for “round” and “flat” (pizze); this is also the meaning of the word pizza…

The cookie dough or batter is put into a pizzelle iron, which resembles a waffle iron. The pizzelle iron is held by hand over a hot burner on the stovetop, although some models are electric and require no stove. Typically, the iron stamps a snowflake pattern onto both sides of the thin golden-brown cookie, which has a crisp texture once it is cooled. There are also several brands of ready-made pizzelle available in stores.

Pizzelle are popular during Christmas and Easter, [and] they are often found at Italian weddings, alongside other traditional pastries [and] cookies.

You will need just two items-in-hand to make pizzelle:

  1. my mom’s recipe and baking notes (click here to view and print), and
  2. a pizzelle iron.

I don’t think Williams Sonoma will mind that I “borrowed” the photo below from their website, since you can simply click on it to order your own pizzelle iron directly from their online catalog.

iron

What I like most about this iron, besides it being electric and non-stick, is the lock in the front. Using a pizzelle iron with a lock is not only easier on your arm (as you don’t have to hold the iron shut manually for an hour or two … or three), but it creates a thin and even cookie – and with the pizzelle, the thinner and crispier, the better.

When I was a young girl, I remember the making of the pizzelle as an all-day family affair. My mother would make the batter (a double batch), and my father would do the baking. He would scoop a nice teaspoonful of batter onto each pattern of the pizzelle iron, and then he would watch the second hand on his watch, meticulously timing each baking. Since one batch of batter makes about 60 cookies, and you can only make two cookies at a time taking 30-45 seconds to bake, it was a good two- or three-hour exercise in cookie making. As I got older, I was allowed to help time and then eventually bake the cookies myself.

Most years nowadays, Mom and I gather at her house for pizzelle making. In fact, we share a pizzelle iron, since it’s unusual for either of us to bake pizzelle without the other. Mom still makes the batter (we’re down to one batch a year), and I’ve come into my own as chief baker and timer.

As technology has changed, so has my method of timing. We went from the second hand on Dad’s watch, to the second hand on the wall clock, to the timer on the microwave, to most recently, the timer on my iPod. What hasn’t changed, though, is the smell that lingers in the house after a good afternoon of pizzelle baking, the crunch of a perfectly baked waffle cookie, and the satisfaction that comes from spending an afternoon in the kitchen with the people you love most in the world. That, MasterCard, is priceless.

Traditional Italian Pizzelles on Foodista