Tag Archives: aunt laura

Aunt Laura

25 Jul


When I was an infant, or thereabouts, young enough to be spending nights trapped inside the confines of a baby’s crib, I found it necessary, on at least one occasion, to break free of both my sleeping station and the apartment that housed it.

I like to think of this as the first time I ran away from home.

After making my way to the living room and out the door I crawled up a flight of stairs to the apartment above ours and scratched at the door until somebody let me in.

The person who welcomed me in that pre-dawn hour was my mother’s brother Dominic’s wife, Laura. Aunt Laura scooped me up and cared for me like her own until mom woke up and came to collect me a short while later.

I hadn’t run away at all, you see. I’d simply gone from one of my homes in a six-apartment building crammed with family members to another one, that’s all. Every door to every apartment was home to each and every one of us, around 30 people give or take.

Laura died this morning, seven years to the day that Dominic left us. True to our family’s stubborn insistence on staying close, a couple of her loved ones made sure that she didn’t have to go it alone.

Dominic has been visiting Laura a lot lately; so has my mother. The only thing that Laura wasn’t quite able to fathom is why only she could see her husband and his sister near her bedside these past weeks, why only she could hear them talking about the place where they soon would be taking her.

I hope that our inability to see or hear what she saw and heard didn’t frustrate Laura too very much. I would just hate to think that it troubled her in any way.

All of us would hate that.

She was a dearly loved and vital member of our family, and is already horribly, horribly missed.

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.

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.

The family stew

30 Sep

I’d like you all to meet two of my favorite people in the whole world. The handsome one (on the right) is my aunt Laura. The not-so-pretty one with the glasses? That’s my cousin John, her son.

Laura (aka “Queen of Doughnuts“) can make me laugh without ever speaking, and when she does speak her words are what “proper” people often refer to as “colorful.” She is also one of my go-to consigliere in matters of traditional family recipes, and so Laura and I have talked a lot on the phone through the years, often while working in our kitchens.

I love my aunt a whole lot.

John makes me laugh too. His language (like mine, I’ll admit) is a lot like his mother’s. So are his kitchen skills. My cousin and I have always been close. As younger men we engaged in dangerous activities together, doing (let’s face it, John) idiotic things that could have gotten us hurt or shuttled to a place upstate where they don’t know from an aglio e olio. Even though we have grown older and more mellow, my cousin and I continue to seek each other out. This makes me happy.

Because I love him a whole lot too.

I haven’t actually seen my aunt or my cousin since early in the summer, and yet they have been with me in my kitchen a lot these past couple of weeks. The “googootz” in my garden (best you click here for an explanation) have been plentiful this season; I have been cooking with them a lot. Nobody digs the ‘gootz more that these two do. I can’t lay eyes on one of the odd-looking Sicilian squash without thinking of Laura and John. Just isn’t possible. Believe me, I’ve been at this a long time.

If it weren’t for them, in fact, our family’s oldest stew might long ago have been forgotten. They’re the only two people I know who will not allow a single summer to pass without preparing at least a couple pots full of giambottaGiambotta is an Italian vegetable stew but when using googootz (all right, the squash’s actual name is cucuzza) my family has always added chicken. I don’t know why that is. Neither do any of them. I’ve asked.

Anyhow, I posted the recipe for my giambotta some time ago now, but since these two relations of mine have been so much on my mind of late, I decided to allow them to share theirs. Googootz are not very easy to find (here’s a link to the cucuzza plantation in Louisiana where most of those you’ll find in the U.S. come from). If you can’t get your hands on a googootz, I suppose a couple large zucchini will work just fine. They just won’t be nearly as much fun.

Here’s a taste of the stew, by the way.

And here are my handsome relatives again, just about to cook up a new batch.

I wish that I were with them. But am guessing that maybe I am.

Laura & John’s Giambotta

1 chicken breast quartered
1 medium onion (vidalia) sliced
3-4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
4-5 carrots, sliced in good-sized chunks
2 celery stalks & their leaves, sliced
1-2 potatoes, chunked
1-2 googootz (squash)
Water or chicken broth to cover
Salt, pepper, oregano, basil, hot pepper flakes to taste
A diced fresh tomato or two if you like

Cut squash into 4″-6″ lengths, then peel, seed and cut into chunks
Brown chicken in olive oil, then add onions and cook until tender
Add squash, carrots, celery, potatoes, garlic
Cover with water or broth (add more during cooking, if needed), bring to boil, then lower to a simmer and add salt, pepper, herbs
Cook partially covered for 30-40 minutes
Check water level during cooking (it should be not quite a soup, more like a stew in consistency)

A word from John: This recipe is good for 2 hungry eaters. But giambotta is even better the next day, and so I always up the ingredients and make extra.

A word from Laura: Shut up and eat already, would you please!

"H" marks the spot

1 Apr
If you have never followed this sign in search of a bite to eat, then you have not been in the company of my uncle Dominic around lunchtime.
Dom likes hospital food. A lot.
Just why he likes hospital food so much is, in my view, one of the great mysteries of our time. Like the pyramids. Or maybe the Kardashians. 
My uncle, you see, knows about good food. His favorite restaurant is my favorite restaurant; his go-to dishes closely mirror my own. Laura, Dominic’s devoted wife of 67 years, is a damn fine cook, I’ll have you know. So are a lot of the people who surround my uncle on a daily basis.
Nobody in the family has been able to get to the bottom of Dom’s peculiar affinity for this dreadful cuisine. Believe me, we’ve tried. Plenty.
For many years, usually as we sat together in one drab hospital canteen or another, I would ask my uncle the origin of this preposterous preference of his. But I stopped asking him about it a very long time ago. Because nothing the man ever said made the slightest bit of sense to me whatever.
Which should explain my utter lack of surprise when, on an unexpected visit last week, I offered to take Dom to lunch and he chose not one of the many restaurants minutes from his home in Queens but, rather, the below-ground cafeteria in Building 3 at the North Shore University Hospital, many miles away on Long Island.
It is true that we were scheduled to be at the hospital later that day, for what can only be described as some very unpleasant and sad business. But that isn’t why my uncle chose to have lunch there. Convenience had nothing to do with it, trust me. He wanted to have lunch in the cafeteria at North Shore because he actually likes the food at every single hospital he has ever stepped foot inside.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to La Villa for some pizza?” I asked as gently as I could manage without appearing to judge. “Or Don Peppe even? You haven’t been there in a while, I’ll bet. We’ve got plenty of time, you know. Hours, actually.”
Dom thought it over, but only for around eight and a half seconds.
“I think I’d rather see what they’re serving over there today,” he said, meaning North Shore. “They have very good food there, you know. You’ll like it, I’m pretty sure.”
And so later on that afternoon Dominic and I sat together and ate pot roast and mashed potatoes, surrounded by hundreds of young hospital staffers who barely noticed the strange culinary visitors in their midst.
When I asked Dominic whether he was enjoying his lunch he pointed to the pot roast and said that it was about as good as any he had ever had.
Which is always and forever good enough for me.

Laura, Queen of Doughnuts

10 May
How far would you travel for a doughnut?
For instance, have you any interest in riding your motorcycle 150 miles roundtrip to Randy’s in LA — in the rain? What about hopping in a friend’s VW van for an overnight run to Saint Louis, so as to hit The Donut Shop just as its doors open at 4:30 a.m.? Road trip not your style? Fine, there’s always the option of cashing in some frequent flyer miles and hopping an Alaska Airlines flight to Portland and to Voodoo Doughnut for a Bacon Maple Bar — then catching the next available flight back home.
I will admit to being acquainted with the (let’s face it, guys) lunatics who chose to do such things, but do not count myself among their ilk. For one thing, I don’t like doughnuts enough to go so far out of my way to eat them. And about the only doughnut I have any interest in is a plain one — but only if a plain cruller isn’t available instead.
There is one exception to my no-drive, no-fly policy. And, yes, it involves another of my dearest family members. You got a problem with that?
I recently was summoned to the Doughnut Queen’s home (in Queens, no less; ten minutes from JFK if you’re thinking of cashing in miles). She and her trusted assistant Dominic were about to conjure a batch of, well, do I really need to say? And I was offered an opportunity to observe.
This cannot possibly sound like a big deal to any of you. How could it? But were you a member of my family, you would have an altogether different view. You see, of all the clan members (present and past) who have attempted to mimic “Aunt Laura’s Doughnuts,” not one has reported a satisfactory result. I mean it, not a single one. And I do not hail from a family of hapless kitchen dwellers.
None of us can understand this, least of all the queen herself. “It’s flour, it’s sugar, it’s eggs and it’s milk,” she has told us all a thousand times. “I don’t know what else to tell you.” (The royals in my family are prone to using more colorful language than this, Laura especially. I have decided, in this instance, to edit my dear auntie’s flowery, albeit immensely descriptive speech. You understand. I only hope she does.)
Anyhow, if my aunt doesn’t know what the big mystery is all about with these doughnuts, then what makes you think that I would? I have never made a doughnut in my entire life. And do not plan on ever making one, what with the carnage I have witnessed involving loved ones who have crumbled to tears by their failure to produce a proper bit of, geez, fried dough?
Besides, I don’t need to know how to make the damned things. If I want a batch of perfect plain doughnuts I know just where to find them. And so that’s what I did.
This is a big old mess of Crisco, scooped from a brand new can of the stuff that was about the size of my head. I asked Laura what she was planning to do with so much shortening, but can’t possibly repeat what she told me. Anyway, the shortening is in a frying pan. The heat is on low so that the Crisco can melt while my aunt prepares the dough.
The recipe’s below, but it all starts with mixing eggs and sugar together.
Then adding milk and some of the melted Crisco.
Next you mix in some flour and baking powder so that a moist dough forms.
The dough gets turned out onto a floured work surface, kneaded a little, then is cut into four pieces.
You roll out each piece of dough, so that it’s about an inch thick, then start cutting the doughnuts.
Like so.
Fry them up until nicely browned on both sides. (The cruller Laura made for me, by mixing together some of the doughnut holes. Thanks, aunt.)
Remove to a colander and allow to cool a little.
Top with confectioners sugar and there you go.
After the demo was completed we sat around the dining room table and visited over a fresh pot of coffee and the newly minted doughnuts. I asked Laura if she had an actual recipe and was quickly provided these index cards. Then, when I asked how long she had been making her doughnuts, Laura looked at Dominic, her devoted husband of sixty-six years, and said, without hesitation, what to members of my family will always be magic words: “Since 753.”
That would be 753 Liberty Avenue, in the East New York section of Brooklyn, the place, along with the adjoining 751, where we all grew up. Together. (We’re talking Old World here, people. Two buildings, six apartments, each headed by a child of my maternal grandparents.)
I pressed further still and asked where my aunt had gotten her doughnut recipe, only to hear the dreaded words, “I have no idea.”
Then Dominic wondered aloud whether it might have come from “those A&P books,” and to test his theory disappeared to another room for around 30 seconds.
When he returned the mystery had been solved. For around 45 years Laura has been making doughnuts from a recipe that appeared in Volume 4 of the “Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery.” The 12-volume set was published in 1966, and my aunt, like a lot of women of her day, bought the books, one by one, at the A&P supermarket (on Fulton Street, in this case) for about $2 apiece.
I cannot tell you how amused my aunt was to learn the origin of her doughnuts.
But I’m not gonna repeat the word she used.
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup whole milk
5 Tbsp melted shortening
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp nutmeg, lemon rind or cinnamon (optional; my aunt doesn’t use any of these)
Shortening for frying
In a bowl, beat the eggs, then mix in the sugar.
Stir in the milk and melted shortening, then mix in the flour and baking powder until a moist dough forms.
Empty out onto a floured work surface and knead the dough a minute or two.
Cut the dough into four separate pieces, then roll each to 1/4-inch thickness, then cut the donut shapes.
Heat shortening in a frying pan. There should be enough so that the doughnuts can float.
Test by frying one of the “doughnut holes” before frying the doughnuts.
Fry doughnuts until golden on side in shortening, then flip and fry other side.
Remove to colander or surface lined with paper towels, allow to cool, then sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.