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Uncle Chick

11 Feb

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I had many fathers growing up. Four, to be sure.

There was, albeit briefly, the man whose name that I carry. Then, and in some ways even more importantly, there were my mother’s brothers. Throughout my formative years three of these men lived steps away from my mother and brothers and me.

Honorable, hard-working and very decent men all, none were aligned with the warm & fuzzy school of male role modeling.

Least of all Uncle Chick.

Chick made his living delivering home heating oil and servicing the furnaces that burned it, demanding work considering that his street route literally spanned the whole of Brooklyn. His actual birth name is John, though nobody ever called him that.

As a very young boy I was certain that Uncle Chick didn’t much care for me. If he cared for me at all. Of all the uncles in my closely knit universe Chick seemed the hardest-edged and, frankly, the least interested in being a role model to the likes of me. Besides, he and his wife Frances had four of my cousins to raise.

A few hours after my father died Chick came up beside me. There were tears in both of our eyes.

“C’mon,” he said putting an arm around me, for the first time ever I am pretty certain. “Let’s go for a ride.”

And that is the moment when I realized how wrong I had been about my very dear uncle.

Chick passed away yesterday afternoon. We haven’t lived next door to each other in a lot of years now and so I was unable to visit with him in his final hours.

The last time Chick and I spent any quality time together was a couple summers ago, in the backyard of his home in Long Island. He proudly showed me the hundreds of tomatoes ripening in his garden, and a fig tree with more fruit on it than seemed plausible. Though no longer able to operate his small powerboat it nonetheless sat berthed at a dock where he could put eyes on it whenever he pleased.

For a couple hours that day it was only the two of us, just like on the ride we had taken in his black and white DeSoto so many years ago. Approaching 90 at the time Chick seemed much quicker to emotion than I was accustomed to witnessing. He surprised and delighted me by freely reminiscing about his elder brother Joe, the revered patriarch of our entire family.

When he finished telling a particularly heartwrenching story about his brother, one that I had never heard before and have not repeated, both of us were in tears.

Again.

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Rest easy, uncle.

And thanks for the ride.

The eggplant that saved Christmas

19 Dec

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Christmas Eve is spent with my extended family in New York, but Christmas Day is for my wife Joan’s outside of Boston. Only three of us are in attendance, and so we’re talking about a much, much quieter affair.

Two Christmases ago my mother-in-law Gin shocked us by announcing that Christmas dinner would be supplied not by her but by a nearby Chinese restaurant known as Su Chang’s. I was informed of this well before the Christmas-morning drive from New York to Massachusetts, allowing ample time to brood over so enormous a break in holiday protocol.

Never had I eaten a Christmas dinner that wasn’t prepared by someone I loved and who loved me. Ms. Chang, if such a person exists, could not possibly be included in this group.

At around 4 pm Gin asked me to call over to the restaurant and place our order. The line, however, was busy. Very busy.

One hundred seventy redials on multiple phones and several other attempts at reaching the restaurant later it became apparent that Ms. Chang would not be providing our Christmas dinner after all. 

“I don’t think this is gonna work,” I announced finally, aware that Gin’s infrequently used kitchen housed none of the provisions required to prepare a meal, let alone one suited to a holiday.

The three of us just sat there in silence.

After a few uncomfortable moments I went to the kitchen and had a look around. There was milk, butter, a few other odds and ends in the fridge; the cupboards were pretty much bare. Alone in a small clay bowl next to a pristine toaster oven were three garlic cloves.

That’s when it hit me.

“I can make an aglio e olio,” I announced. “There’s plenty of pasta out in the car.”

There was indeed. No visit to New York at Christmastime (or most any other time, for that matter) does not include a food run to D. Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn, and so the trunk of our car was overflowing with staples of all types. These included (but by no means were limited to) dried pastas, some lovely anchovies, and several tins of fine olive oils, all that was necessary to make an aglio e olio.

Not exactly a Christmas feast, I know.

“Well, actually,” I heard my wife say, to my ear rather tentatively. “Hm, I wonder…”

I poked my head out from the kitchen.

“You wonder what?”

She smiled.

“We’ve got Anna’s Christmas gifts in the freezer, remember?”

And out of nowhere a peaceful calm came to me. Someone that I love very dearly, and who loves me, would be providing this holiday’s meal after all.

Christmas had been saved!

Inside Gin’s freezer, you see, were the Christmas presents Aunt Anna had given to us only the night before. One was a whole stuffed chicken that she had stewed in tomato sauce, the other a tray of her fantabulous eggplant parm.

“I’m tired of running around trying to buy you two presents,” Anna sighed, fetching the unwrapped gifts from her freezer. “So I decided to give you what i know you really like.”

Both the chicken and the eggplant were frozen when Anna gave them to us, and our intention was to keep them that way until we were ready to devour them. Gin’s freezer was merely a place to store the gifts before returning home to Maine the following day.

However, and as they say, desperate times…

“I’ll run out to the car and get what I need for the pasta,” I said putting on my hat and coat. “You guys can decide what else you want to eat.”

My money was on them choosing the stuffed chicken but when I returned the bird was still cooped up in the Frigidaire. Anna’s eggplant parm was in the microwave defrosting.

I have never known my aunt’s eggplant to garner tepid reviews and this time was no different. Gin liked it quite a lot; she even kept the leftovers. Dammit!

Still, she was far more amused by the eggplant’s mere presence in her freezer—and on her dinner table.

“We’re eating Christmas dinner from the trunk of a car,” she laughed. And laughed. And then laughed some more.

After we’d finished eating I called Anna to tell her what had happened and to thank her for saving our holiday. As is so often the case our conversation was brief but very much to the point.

“You’re not supposed to eat Chinese on Christmas anyway,” she scolded me. “What’s wrong with you? Sei pazzo?

“I love you too, Anna,” I told my aunt before the line went dead and she was gone.

Merry Christmas everybody!

The measure of a man

11 Dec

Note: The following is a feel good Holiday story (well, kind of—okay, not really) that has nothing whatever to do with food.

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My friend Joe has been trying to size me up for more than 30 years.

Often unsuccessfully.

Joe first formed an (incorrect) opinion of my character before we had ever met, or even heard of each other.

My new wife and I had just returned home from a hastily planned elopement only to be met by an endless string of urgent messages on my answering machine. All the calls originated from a magazine that I worked with at the time, but the man on the tape was a stranger to me.

His first message was plain enough. The man introduced himself as a new editor on staff. His name was Joe and, he said, I should call him at my earliest convenience regarding a freelance assignment that was already on my docket for a later date.

By the eleventh and final message his demeanor had substantially darkened.

“If I don’t hear back from you by end of business TODAY then don’t bother calling me back at all,” the man huffed. “You can also forget about ever working here again.”

I noted that the threat had been made a full two days earlier. The angry new editor’s hard deadline had long since passed.

When we finally did catch up, three days after “end of business TODAY,” neither the man nor I showed the slightest interest in civility.

“You’ve got some nerve calling me back now,” he growled as I introduced myself.

The man had remained as pissed off with me as I had gradually come to be with him.

“Maybe you should get your facts straight before going off on somebody,” I charged back. “I was on vacation. Getting married, in fact. I told everybody at the magazine that I’d be gone and when I’d be back in my office. Multiple times. So do me a favor and break somebody else’s balls, not mine.”

Several additional volleys, and no small number of colorful expletives later, Joe and I settled down and accepted that we had each been victim to a miscommunication that was neither of our doing. Still, there was no taking back the viciousness with which a couple of hard-headed Brooklyn street guys had attacked one another.

We have been very good friends ever since.

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That’s Joe right there, in the bathrobe that he wears with far greater frequency and zeal than is reasonable for a man not confined to a hospital or a nursing home. The photo was taken during a recent (and annual) Holiday visit to the home Joe shares with his wife Joel in the Hudson Valley.

He is in the process of trying to size me up. Yet again.

This time my friend is using an actual tool to get the measure of me. It is called a Brannock Device, and Joe has wanted to use it on me for some time. His motives are anything but pure, however. All my friend really wants to do is to prove me wrong.

For decades I have worn a size 13 shoe. There’s no reason why anybody but me should care about this. Joe, apparently, cares. Deeply.

“You’re not a thirteen, you should be wearing a twelve,” he lectured me at some length and some time ago, studying my shoes from a distance of many yards, mind you. “I’ll measure you next time you’re at the house and you’ll see that I’m right.”

Joe likes to be right. Even when he isn’t.

I should probably mention that my friend grew up working in his father’s shoe store in Brooklyn. The Brannock Device that he is using on my feet (above) is the very same tool that his father used on his customers, decades ago now. It happens to also be a treasured family heirloom that helps to define the man that Joe has become.

Which is the only reason why I finally allowed him the pleasure of using it on me this time.

What can I say? I tend to get pretty soft around the Holidays—and not just in the waistline.

As it turns out we were both right about me this time.

Just as Joe had predicted his father’s measuring device did indeed slot me closer to the size 12 range that to 13. But, Joe informed me, a EEE width is the reason that a size larger provides greater comfort. And so, he allowed, I have indeed been wise when choosing the larger-sized shoes lo these many years.

To celebrate our rarely achieved consensus I decided to take my friend out to the nearest bar and buy him a couple of drinks for the Holidays.

But he was still in his bathrobe and so we just stayed in.

Fig cookies revisited

8 Dec

These cookies got me in a lot of trouble last year. For a while it was touch and go whether Cousin Josephine would ever speak to me again.

We had just finished our Christmas Eve dinner and the desserts were coming out, the most crucial, as always, being Jo’s outstanding cookies and biscotti. As my cousin began to uncover one particular tray of baked goods I noticed her eyeing me with purpose and more than a little wariness.

“We’ve NEVER put frosting on our fig cookies,” she announced to me and to no one else.

My cousin was referring to a recipe for fig cookies (aka cuccidati) that I had earlier posted right here on this blog. In it I accused Jo, her mother Anna, our Aunt Laura, and even My Sainted Mother of topping the traditional Christmas cookies with sweet white frosting and colorful rainbow non pareils, not a simple dusting of confectioners sugar, as I prefer and as my recipe suggested.

“Honestly,” Jo added with a look of disappointment that still cuts me a year later, “I don’t know where you get your ideas sometimes.”

This is not how Christmas Eve is supposed to end.

Josephine is more a sister to me than a cousin, and I love her very much. The idea that I would accuse her and all the other bakers in our family of sweet white frosticide on so important a Christmas tradition is not an excusable offense. Not where I come from it isn’t.

I won’t defend myself here. Despite a clear, though evidently flawed memory to the contrary, if Josephine says that she has never used frosting on her Christmas fig cookies then she has never used frosting on her Christmas fig cookies.

I cannot be more sorry for suggesting otherwise.

And wish to dedicate this recipe to my beloved cousin.

For starters, this recipe will make around 5 dozen cookies. Mix together 4 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add two sticks of cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes) and work the butter into the flour mixture using your hands.

After a couple minutes the flour and butter will kind of clump together, like so.

Add 2 extra large eggs (beaten), 1/2 cup milk, and 2 tablespoons Anisette. Mix together thoroughly by hand until a dough forms.

The dough will be on the moist side, which is okay, that’s what you want. Wrap it in plastic and chill in the fridge for a good couple hours or more before making the cookies. (I actually kept the dough chilling overnight and made the cookies the following day.)

For the filling we’ve got one ring of dried figs (pinch off the hard ends), 1/4 pound pitted dates, 1/2 cup raisins, 1 cup pecans, 2/3 cup walnuts, 1/2 cup candied orange peel, 1/2 cup honey, 1/3 cup whiskey (I went with Jack Daniel’s), 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Put them all together in a food processor and mix into a paste.

Like so.

Cut the dough ball into quarters (put the dough you aren’t working with back in the fridge until ready to use, so it keeps cold). On a well-floured surface roll out one of the pieces of dough until it’s roughly 4 inches wide by maybe 18 or 20 inches long. The rolled dough should be around 1/8-inch thick, give or take. Take a quarter of the filling and roll it along the center of the dough.

Brush the dough with an egg wash and then roll it from one side to the other.

Make sure to pinch along the seam when you’re done rolling.

Making sure that the seam is on the bottom, brush more egg wash along the entire roll.

With a pastry cutter or sharp knife cut the roll into pieces that are around an inch and a half wide. At this point all that’s left to do is put them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The cookies should bake in a 350 degree F oven for around 20 minutes, give or take. At the halfway mark rotate the baking sheet so the cookies cook evenly. Allow to cool thoroughly.

Then you can sprinkle some confectioners sugar on top before serving. Or not.

Just don’t be pouring no thick white frosting on top of them.

Right, Jo?

Wishing and hoping

8 Nov

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If you are a follower of this blog’s Facebook page then it comes as no surprise that I have just returned home from a two-plus-week journey to Japan.

And I’ve got the (already posted) food pics to prove it.

What you don’t know is that a rather serious ailment came close to ruining things. Not mine, but my companion’s, who in this case happens to be the woman that I am married to. Every day of the trip required a Herculean effort on her part to keep going. I know for a fact that a lesser malady would have sidelined me.

The truly unfortunate thing is that traveling to Japan was her dream adventure, not mine. She had literally been planning this trip ever since she was a girl. To see her fall ill at such a moment wasn’t merely heart wrenching, it was crushing.

Not long before leaving for home we took a short stroll through the grounds of a Buddhist temple nearby our hotel in Kyoto. Housed in an open-air pavilion was a large gold-colored ball known as a “wishing precious stone.” You’re invited to write a wish on one of the many round cards provided and hang it on a kind of trellis along with all the other wishes. But first you’re to put a hand on the giant ball and circle around it three times, keeping contact with the ball’s surface at all times.

Trust me when I say this: I am not the kind of man who pays any attention to this kind of thing. And yet, there I found myself scribbling down a wish that she would be well again and walking around a big gold ball three times—in broad daylight and for all to see.

As I circled the ball I told myself not to be greedy. If there actually was something to this wishing thing, my bet was that it couldn’t be an immediate fix kind of arrangement. And so I found myself thinking that I’d settle for a more reasonable, gradual recovery, say 24 hours for every time I walked around the ball.

That was around three days ago. This morning I learned that a great deal of the ailment has passed.

I’m only hoping that the precious stone understands that when I asked for my wife to be well again, I meant for it to be permanent.

On penance & pork ribs

12 Oct

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Recently I got to spend a couple of hours with a very dear childhood friend, one that I have seen only three times in forty years. Before boarding a flight from Maine back to their home in Memphis my friend and his wife stopped by for lunch at our house just outside of Portland.

I served a traditional Sunday meal, including my meatballs.

The Memphis pork ribs you see here are from Charlie Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis. They are a gift from my friend John and his lovely wife Gina, overnighted shortly after our visit together, and I enjoyed them quite a lot. Another rack is in the freezer, but probably won’t be for very long.

From the time we were infants until the day he moved away to college John and I lived half a block from each other in Brooklyn. We went to the same elementary school, played on the same baseball and basketball teams, hung with the same friends, even dated some of the same girls. My father’s sister and her family lived in an apartment just below John and his. John is also distantly related to my Aunt Rita, though I do not recall precisely in what way.

It was good to see my friend again. I only wish there had been time to apologize to him.

I have been meaning to for a very long time. And just never have found the opportunity—or the nerve.

The incident occurred somewhere between third and fifth grades. John and I were sitting next to each other in class, as often we did, when the teacher, a nun most probably, began an exercise unrelated to the standard curriculum. She would ask us general questions about all kinds of topics that children might be aware of and all we had to do was call out an answer. Things like “What’s your favorite team, Mets or Yankees?” or “Who’s the best character on TV?” It was simple stuff, really. No books, no note taking, no homework to fret over.

It was all very harmless.

Mostly.

But then the teacher committed what I now believe to have been a terrible error in judgment. In a neighborhood built and still occupied by hard-working immigrants with little education and a deep reliance on manual labor skills, she asked something along the lines of “What’s the dirtiest, worst job that you would never want to do?”

This in a classroom filled with the children and grandchildren of men who laid sewer pipe and poured concrete and rolled asphalt and put down train track to feed their families.

When I blurted out—innocently, I assure you—the words “garbage man” John’s sharp elbow crashed into my rib cage with such force that I could barely catch my breath for a while. When I asked my friend what made him do such a thing he remained silent.

I can still see the anger—but, more likely, hurt—in his face.

Some time later I learned that John’s father Tulio, a strong and decent man, made his living as a New York City sanitation worker.

I don’t know exactly when or how this knowledge came to me. I only know that John and I have never discussed the incident. Not once.

All these years later I’m still haunted by the cruelty that I showed to my friend.

It was only when my wife and I were enjoying John’s generous gift of Memphis pork ribs that our teacher’s role first entered my mind. What was she thinking, I wonder. Most if not all of the kids in her classroom lived in modest apartments headed by men who held “dirty” jobs. Not one of my friends’ fathers wore a white collar to work. And so John could not have been the only child who heard his father’s profession called out by one of their friends that day.

I just hope that the others had better friends than John had, friends who apologized for their stupidity a lot sooner than I have.

The house we lived in

3 Oct

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This is my parents’ wedding day, back in the fall of 1955. The elderly man in the black tuxedo escorting my mother to a hired car is her father, Giovanni Giamundo. His wife Ursula, my grandmother, did not live to see her eldest daughter marry.

The solid green awning just to my grandfather’s right obscures the family’s candy store/fountain service at 753 Liberty Avenue, in the neighborhood of Brooklyn known (oddly, I always have thought) as East New York. An adjacent building, at 751 Liberty, was also my grandfather’s. At the time it housed a fish market on the ground level, but the space later became a cluttered office for my Uncle Joe’s small general contracting business.

There were three “railroad” apartments in each of my grandfather’s two buildings, or six altogether.

Each of them was occupied by one of his grown children, as well as their young and growing families.

And so when I speak of my family’s closeness, as often I do here, well, I ain’t kidding around.

I will understand if you cannot in any way relate to the clan-like architecture of my upbringing. Few people could. The woman I am married to, an only child to educated, affluent professionals, has long been wary of my history. How, she wonders, can so many blood kin live under the same roof, gather in the same backyard, attend the same church and school, eat at the same table without, sooner or later, wanting to slaughter one another?

You may be wondering the same thing.

Remarkably, I never have.

And naive is not a word that often is used to describe me, so far as I am aware.

But for a few brief periods my position has been pretty much unwavering: I am a very lucky man to have been reared not by one but by six loving mothers (my own, plus Aunts Anna, Laura, Rita, Frances and Marie) and a bunch of devoted fathers (dad, along with Uncles Joe, Dominic, Chick and Casey). I may have shared an apartment (and bedroom) with my brothers Joe and Mike, but there were many other siblings around to rely upon. In no particular order these included Big John, Josephine, Vito, Bobo, Joseph, Big Ursula and Little Ursula, James, John and Rocco.

The house that we lived in was a full one.

My mother and brother Joe were the last to leave Liberty Avenue. The fountain service had long ago been shuttered, so had Uncle Joe’s old office. It was a sad but long overdue goodbye to a special place in all of our lives.

After mom died my brothers and I had the funeral procession drive around the old neighborhood and make a brief but very deliberate stop in front of 751-753 Liberty.

It was the only moment in the entire day’s events when nobody, not one soul in a very large group of mourners, had a single word to say.

King of hearts

7 Aug

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One of the most solemn men that I have ever known is also responsible for possibly the greatest belly laugh of my entire life.

The man, chief of cardiac surgery at a renowned New York medical insitution, had one day earlier spent eight hours performing an open-heart procedure on a 42-year-old patient named Joe.

“So,” said the man, sounding uncharacteristically warm as he took a seat on his patient’s hospital bed, “how are you feeling today?”

“Okay,” Joe whispered unconvincingly. “How are you feeling today?”

The surgeon smiled briefly and reported that he was doing just fine, then moved closer to his patient.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said sounding genuinely concerned.

Struggling with discomfort all Joe could manage was a head nod.

“What I’m wondering, see, I mean considering your history, as well as your family’s, of course, which we’ve discussed…”

For a chief surgeon the man was coming awfully close to stammering, which raised the anxiety level in the room considerably. After all, this was not the first but the second time he had performed surgery on this patient in just five years. How could a professional possessing such skill and confidence behave so tentatively? What awful news was he attempting to deliver?

“Would you ever, just possibly, well…” He paused and straightened himself, as if readying for confession, then blurted out, but ever so softly, “consider the idea of becoming a vegetarian?”

The words hovered above the men for what felt like several moments of electrified silence. In reality it took but a few seconds for Joe to summon what little strength he could muster and answer the man.

“Fuck. No.”

The surgeon and I collapsed into such prolonged laughter that two nurses and as many aides appeared at the doorway to see what the fuss was about.

I probably should have mentioned my presence in the room earlier. Joe is my brother, you see, and I love him very, very much. Where else in the world could I possibly have been at that moment?

Today is his 58th birthday. More important, sixteen years have passed since the last time he was wheeled into an operating room. So this is a good day, one that is worth celebrating.

Joe takes much better care of himself these days. He doesn’t smoke anymore, goes to the gym every morning before work, golfs most every weekend from April through November, and moved to a much nicer neighborhood than he had grown accustomed to for more years than was wise or necessary.

I wish I could say that he eats as well as he should. Joe was diligent about keeping a healthful diet for a few years after his surgeries, but as time has lapsed so too has his discipline.

A heart-healthful vegetarian he is not.

Like me my brother is a product of a very particular culinary heritage: Italian American. More to the point, we each stubbornly embrace this heritage, no matter how many annual physicals we put behind us.

Joe is also a bachelor who works long hours, which presents its own set of menu challenges. His refrigerator is often stocked with prepared foods, many from the Italian grocery/deli a few blocks from his apartment in Queens. There are often balls of fresh mozzarella, arancini stuffed with ground beef and peas, chicken and/or eggplant parm, sausages with broccoli rabe; you get the idea.

I visit Joe a few times a year, always staying in his apartment, usually just the two of us. For a while there I tried being a good brother, suggesting going out for sushi when I really wanted a burger and a beer, or Chinese when our favorite old-school Italian Don Peppe was what I desired. I cannot tell you how many times I have sneaked away alone to a White Castle in order to protect my brother from an unhealthful craving that we both share.

Lately when Joe and I spend a couple days together we eat and drink what we want, without regard to his or our family’s unpleasant coronary history. Recently we were sitting at the bar at his favorite Italian spot in the new neighborhood. About midway into a bottle of red I stopped and surveyed the landscape before us: manicotti, meatballs, lasagne, baked clams, pizza topped with burrata and prosciutto di parma.

I thought about how the surgeon had once tried—and failed—to move my brother in a new direction, but kept it to myself. We were enjoying our evening out together and I wasn’t about to ruin things by being a nag. Besides, I don’t exactly have the cred to lecture anybody about responsible eating.

Maybe it’s time I started working on becoming a better brother.

Happy Birthday Joe!

Christmas struffoli recipe

15 Dec

There is a downside to loving your family.

I can prove it.

(Note to those seeking quick access to this week’s recipe: Scroll down to the next photo, as a rather tense family drama is about to unfold.)

See, I recently promised a loyal reader named Melissa that I would make struffoli for the holidays. Basically crisp fried dough balls cooked in honey, struffoli is a Neopolitan specialty around Christmas, and so Melissa’s request was not at all unexpected. What she didn’t know, however, is that I had never made struffoli before in my life, and so I did the only thing that seemed reasonable.

“Hey Anna,” I barked into the phone, “I want to make struffoli.”

“Good,” my aunt said. “Josephine’s coming this weekend. Come and help if you want.”

Anna sometimes forgets her geography.

“Aunt, I’m 300 miles away. All I want’s your recipe.”

“Are you coming for the Eve?”

This wasn’t a question. I spend every Christmas Eve at my aunt’s dinner table. Where else would I be?

“Yeah, sure, I’ll be there,” I said. “Can I have the recipe now?”

It only took a minute to jot down Anna’s instructions. Then the trouble started.

“Does Aunt Laura use this recipe too?” I asked innocently enough.

“No, she uses milk in hers,” Anna said, brusquely, I thought. “Why, you want her recipe? Her struffoli are no good.”

“I was just asking. Why, what’s wrong with Laura’s struffoli?”

“I just told you, she uses milk. You’re not supposed to use milk.”

“So, what, it ruins the texture? The taste? What exactly?”

“How should I know? I never had your aunt’s struffoli.”

I should mention that Anna and Laura are in no way estranged. In fact, they’re really quite close as sisters-in-law go. They live about a quarter mile apart and see each other regularly.

“You’ve known each other for 70 years and you never had her struffoli? How is that even possible?”

“What do you want from me?”

“And if you never tried Laura’s, how do you know they’re not good?”

“There’s eggplant in the oven,” Anna told me. “I have to go.”

(Note to those of you who are still with me: There is ample time to scroll down to the photos and recipe, you know. I’ll understand.)

A not-so-attractive trait that I possess is tenacity. And so, yes, Laura’s was a struffoli recipe that I now had to have. Due to a bad bit of luck on the health front, speaking to my aunt by phone wasn’t possible, and so I texted my swell cousin Susie, her daughter-in-law, who was still living in Laura’s apartment due to being displaced by Hurricane Sandy back in October: “Ask Laura for her struffoli recipe and email it to me when you get a chance. Also ask her if she’s ever had Anna’s struffoli. If she has, ask her if she liked them.”

A few days later Susie sent me the recipe but nothing else.

“Didn’t you ask her about Anna?” I responded.

“Yes, I did. Not sure if you can use it, though.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because she didn’t actually say anything,” Susie wrote. “All she did was make a face!”

If you are unfamiliar with the language shared by many families such as mine, allow me to translate. Laura’s making a face could only mean one thing: she doesn’t like Anna’s struffoli any more than Anna likes hers. Whether she’s ever tried them or not.

Which brings us to why loving your family as much as I do can be a real problem. By asking both Anna and Laura for their recipes I now had to decide which one of them to actually use. Which meant insulting one of the very dearest women I have ever known.

After two whole days of torturing myself over this decision, and a disastrous attempt at creating an original recipe that made use of chickpea flour (don’t ask!), I readied to inform Melissa that I would not be making struffoli this Christmas after all.

Then the perfect solution arose.

“Hey Fred,” I texted. “I need you-know-who’s struffoli recipe. And pronto.”

My friend Fred, I should mention, shares a home with an expert struffoli maker. Each year this person hosts something called “Struffoli Saturday,” a work event where multiple friends and loved ones get down to the task of producing a hell of a lot of struffoli for their holidays. This individual’s recipe, it turns out, is as closely guarded as her identity. But something very close, Fred assured me, was published in a magazine some time ago. That is the recipe my friend connected me with in order to avoid insulting one of my dear aunts. And that, with only a couple of minor alterations, is the recipe that I have used here.

This recipe (reprinted in full below) calls for a fairly wet dough. First mix the ingredients in a bowl and then roll the dough out onto a floured surface and kneed for a bit.

Once the dough is workable cut it into six pieces and then roll out each piece like so.

Cut into half-inch pieces and lightly roll each one into a ball before deep frying.

It doesn’t take very long to fry struffoli. Depending on the temperature of the oil it can take anywhere from one to three minutes. Just keep an eye on them. These are about as light in color as you’ll want; they can stay in the oil longer and get a bit darker if you prefer.

Removing the struffoli to paper towels gets rid of at least some of the oil. At this stage you can either finish the whole job, part of the job, or just store the struffoli until you’re ready to make them. I prepared the whole batch and so this works out according to the full recipe’s instructions.

Well, sort of. For starters, I used at least twice the amount of candied fruit as called for. (This gets diced up finely, by the way, but the fruit are so pretty I wanted to show them in the pre-cut stage.)

In a pan under low- to medium heat warm honey and the zest of one orange.

Then add the struffoli and mix thoroughly. I also added some of the candied fruit at this stage, but the recipe doesn’t call for that.

Plate the struffoli, sprinkle candied fruit (or colored sprinkles if you prefer), and you’re done.

Now, go and call a relative that you love a lot and wish them a Happy Holiday.

Just don’t ask them for any of their recipes. Especially if you do not intend on using them.

Struffoli
Recipe
Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

1 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel (I used orange peel)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
vegetable oil for deep-frying (I used canola oil)
3/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1/4 cup finely chopped candied fruit (I used more than twice that amount)

Whisk flour and salt in large bowl. Add butter; rub in until fine meal forms.
Whisk eggs, yolk, and next 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Stir into flour mixture. Let dough stand 1 minute.
Turn dough out onto floured surface; knead until pliable (dough will be sticky), about 1 minute. Divide dough into 6 pieces. Roll each piece out to 1/2-inch-thick rope. Cut ropes into 1/2-inch lengths.
Add oil to depth of 3 inches in large pot. Heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees F.
Working in batches, fry dough until brown, 3 minutes per batch. Using slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels.
Stir honey and orange peel in large saucepan over medium heat until warm. Add fritters and toss (I also added some of the candied fruit at this stage). Transfer fritters to platter, shape into wreath. Sprinkle with candied fruit. Cool completely.

Dominic’s famous scones

8 Jan
Some time ago, decades actually, my uncle Dominic did an uncharacteristic thing. He tore a free-offer coupon from one of his wife Laura’s collectible supermarket cookbooks, scribbled his name and address in the appropriate areas, and mailed it off to the company whose promotion so captured his attention.
Weeks later The Quaker Oats Wholegrain Cookbook arrived in the mail. Just 64 pages long, a pamphlet really, it was crammed with all sorts of recipes employing both original and quick-cook Quaker Oats. Some of the recipes seemed innocent enough — Honey Oatmeal Muffins, Toasty Oat Pie Crust — while others may have stretched things just a bit too far — Corn and Frank Chowder, Mexicali Meat Loaves… Saucy Meatballs?
Of the 68 recipes printed between the covers of the little pamphlet, this is the one that caught my uncle’s eye. It is found on page 20 and takes up barely half of the 5-by-8-inch space. So far as I know it is the only recipe my uncle showed any interest in. I have asked him many times about his cookbook and its Scottish Oat Scones — his Scottish Oat Scones — but I can’t say that I have ever gotten to the bottom of Dominic’s fascination with either.
My uncle has made these scones perhaps hundreds of times. Last year I went to visit him the day after a grueling session of chemotherapy had left him quite weakened, and there on the kitchen table was a pile of his freshly made scones. He had baked them at 2 a.m. because he was unable to sleep. And because, I would imagine, doing so made him feel more like himself than his sickness.
“It was free,” he has said of the pamphlet he mailed away for, possibly as far back as 1979, when it was published. “What can I tell you. For some reason it interested me.”
And the scones?
“They looked so simple to make,” he tells me every time I probe the deeper meaning of the mysterious “Scottish” baked good that my Italian-American uncle decided to master. “I’m sorry, me lad. I wish I could be more help to you.”
I love it when he calls me me lad.
Lately Dominic has not been feeling so well. We’re all quite concerned about him. Just before the holidays he spent time in the hospital, and when he came out it was clear that he had weakened. The day before I drove down to visit I decided to try and whip up a batch of his scones and bring them to my uncle. I had never baked a scone before in my entire life and yet the idea of making them for the master did not concern me in the least.
If you knew my uncle you might understand why the thought of possibly botching his “world-famous” scones could not possibly have rattled me. Dominic has never practiced the art of being unkind. He is what was envisioned when the term gentleman was coined. I would be very happy to be half the man that he is. Or to display the tiniest portion of his warmth, generosity or humanity.
Which is a syrupy way of saying that I knew my uncle and I would have a fine laugh over my taking a crack at his scones. No matter how good or how bad they turned out to be.
The first thing Dominic said after laying eyes on the scones was that they looked beautiful, if a bit overdone.
“Aunt Laura won’t let me cook them this way,” he confided to me. “She doesn’t like these dark spots, the crispy edges, you know? The color has to be very light, not dark like these here, otherwise she won’t eat them.”
Laura is the woman my uncle has slept beside for more than 66 years, and his careful attention to her comfort and pleasure in all matters is inspiring.
Dominic only managed a couple bites of a scone. He assured me that I had done a “very nice job,” but that his appetite just wasn’t very good. He apologized for not eating more, and I told him not to worry, they would keep for a few days. Still, I wondered if I had erred in forcing them upon him.
No man should be made to apologize for his affliction. Certainly not this man.
Last spring, on a routine visit to see how he was doing, Dominic handed me this note (click the pic to enlarge), accompanied by a 50-year-old gold wristwatch. The watch, a very fine Longines, had a brand new leather band. It was also just out of the shop for a complete cleaning and a minor repair, things my uncle had gotten done specifically in order to present the watch to me.
It was Dominic’s own wristwatch. And now it is mine.
Like the man himself, an extraordinary gift that I will carry proudly until I am gone.
Oh, and here’s the scone recipe. My uncle is right, they’re a snap. 
Just watch out for Aunt Laura’s dark spots.