I grew up with an Italian/Sicilian mother and a German/English/French/Welsh father, but the Italian traditions were front and center for the Christmas holidays. Every year we would go to Dad's parents, Gramma Marge and Grandpa Louie's, for Thanksgiving. Gramma Marge is still alive and kicking it in Arizona with my Aunt Peg and her family, has been since 1993, but Grandpa Louie passed in December 1990. I remember vividly the delicious Thanksgiving stuffing my Gramma Marge would make each year. It seemed no one could get enough. I have tried for 17 years to duplicate it, but can't seem to get it exactly right. Close, but not exactly. Bells seasoning is the key, but how much? I can never seem to get it exactly right, but I keep trying!
I remember one year when Grandpa Louie insisted on a goose instead of turkey. I don't think my Gramma knew how to cook goose, probably because she didn't do it very often (like, ummm....NEVER! LOL!) and it didn't turn out very good and I don't remember ever having goose again, for any reason.
Ah, but at Christmas we would start the day early at Mom's parents, Grandma Jo and Grandpa Angelo. It would be small gathering, just us 4, mom's brother and mom's sister and her husband and son. We'd have your basic, ordinary meal of spaghetti and meatballs, maybe a little roasted leg of lamb or a beef roast and then load up and head over as a group to Grandma Bea's and Grandpa Frank's for the BIG celebration. Grandma Jo had 3 sisters and they would all be there with their spouses and children, and in some cases their grandchildren. It was a tiny apartment, only a living room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms, but we all fit in somehow. Sicilian pizza, meatballs, sausages, Christmas gravy and goodness only knows what else would magically appear on the tables and consumed. Later, after every dish had been cleared and the tablecloths changed, Grandpa Frank would assume his place at the head of the table and pass out juice glasses with a taste of his homemade wine. Everyone over the age of 5 got one. It today's world you may find that quite shocking, but in his world it was common. Besides, the wine wasn't very good and none of us really drank it. I vividly remember my Great-Grandmother Bea adding Orange Crush to her's before drinking it. Great-Grandpa Frank didn't speak or understand much English, but he smiled at us, so proud of his wine. It makes me cry just remembering it.
After the wine and espresso had been passed around out came the lupini beans in small dishes around the tables, and then the nuts. Whole roasted nuts of all kinds: almonds hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans. Everyone dug in, armed with a nutcracker and a picker to get out the nutmeats. Great-Grandma Bea and the 4 sisters would station themselves at a long table at the head of the tables (imagine a giant "T") and they would fill the homemade cannoli shells with ricotta filling that had been laced with shaved chocolate and maraschino cherries. Once the cannolis had been passed around, out came the cookies. It seemed as if there hundreds and hundreds of cookies, and their probably were. Anise toast (now called biscotti), Deadman bones, Chocolate Italian cookies, Cuicidadies (Italian fig cookies) and Sesame cookies. I loved them all and when Grandma Jo and Great-Grandma Bea passed away suddenly in 1983, they took the recipes with them.
Not until years later when I was married and had a family of my own did I find the desire to seek out those recipes and recreate the cookies myself. I've tweaked them over the years to make them more like Grandma Bea's, but they have taken on much of my personality, too. I like tradition, but I also need a few shortcuts to even come close to making 10 or 12 dozen cookies for the holidays.
The first on my list to share this Holiday season are Sesame Cookies. These are not a sweet cookie, and they are best served with a sweet cup of tea or coffee. They are delicious, and brought back wonderful memories when I made them.
There are more cookie recipes to come, not all of them Italian. I hope your family enjoys them as much as we do!
Until next time, I am frugally yours! Rachael Monaco