Tag Archives: Christmas

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!

Christmas fig cookies

13 Dec

These ain’t my mother’s fig cookies.

If they were they would be topped with a thick, sweet white frosting and colorful rainbow non pareils. This would justify the cookies being called cuccidati, the traditional Sicilian Christmas cookie that I and many others like me grew up craving around this time of year.

But here’s the thing (and with deep respect and sincerest apologies to Cousin Josephine, Aunt Anna, Aunt Laura and, of course, mom): I have grown to like my fig cookies without the frosting and the sprinkles on top.

There, I said it.

For the past several holiday seasons I have been sneaking around the very fine bakers of my family and quietly acquiring my Christmas fig cookies at a place called Ragtime, in Howard Beach, Queens. In between visits to one family member or another I will park my car in an inconspicuous location, quickly slip into the store’s small bakery department, order up a couple pounds of their excellent (non-frosted) fig cookies, and retreat just as fast as I am able, so as to remain undetected.

The cookies remain hidden in the trunk of my car until after the holidays are over and I have safely arrived back home in Maine. Never—and I mean never—is their existence revealed to a single family member back home.

I’m going to Hell. I just know it.

This Christmas will be different, however. After decades in the same location, Ragtime recently closed its doors forever. Those in the tightly knit, largely Italian-American neighborhood lost a food shop of iconic stature.

Me, I lost the source for my favorite (non-frosted) fig cookies.

And so…

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.

Oh, and here’s the most important part: Sprinkle some confectioners sugar on top before serving.

And please don’t tell my family.

Thanks are owed

21 Nov

To me, the holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without these two wonderful women.

That’s my Aunt Anna on the left and Aunt Rita on the right. By the look of things I would say that they are taking a well-deserved break from feeding a whole mess of us at some family get together long ago.

Time has altered their appearance a bit. Rita will be 90 very soon and Anna isn’t too far behind.

Each lost her husband at a young age. For decades now they have lived together, currently in an apartment in Queens that is just above Cousin Joan’s and near to several other members of our family.

My aunts are about as close as any two people can be. I know marriages—good ones—that aren’t nearly as inspiring.

Anna and Rita are in my heart always, but never moreso than around this time of year.

I am lucky to be a member of the Christmas Eve celebration they host each and every year. It is literally a feast—the Feast of the Seven Fishes to be exact, totally worth clicking on and checking out—and I would no more miss it than I would lop off my right hand, or even that other one.

For a long time I used to wonder when the holidays might finally, inevitably lose their allure. After all, the years have a way of grinding away at the starry-eyed idealism that’s required to truly love this time of year.

But I haven’t grown at all weary. And in a very large way I owe this to the optimism and love of these two extraordinary women.

I am over-the-moon thankful to them for that.

Happy Holidays everybody.

Making it great again

17 Jan

This wine was not born in the best of times.

Soon after its grapes were harvested and crushed, in the Piedmont, Italy’s finest wine region, a United States Naval pilot had to parachute to safety when a missile took down his fighter jet over North Vietnam. The serviceman, John McCain, would remain imprisoned, frequently tortured, for the next five and a half long years.

Days after McCain’s capture Lyndon Johnson held a secret meeting with his top political advisers. The agenda: Devise a plan to mislead the American people into thinking more enthusiastically about the war in Southeast Asia. “The Wise Men,” as the group was known, concluded that the president should feed his constituents a steady diet of optimistic pablum aimed at advancing the falsehood that America was winning, not losing, an unpopular war in which hundreds of thousands had already died.

Earlier that year, as Italy’s rich vineyards lay dormant, three Apollo 1 astronauts were incinerated aboard their spacecraft as it idled on the launchpad at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Race riots—159 of them—erupted across the country in what came to be known as “The Long, Hot Summer.” Albert DeSalvo (aka the Boston Strangler) was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 13 women, and a vile segregationist named Lester Maddox, who’d refused to serve blacks at his Atlanta restaurant, was sworn in as Georgia’s 75th governor.

Oh, and my poor father’s beloved New York Mets ended the 1967 season with a record of 61 wins and 101 losses, 40 1/2 games in the National League standings behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.

Like I said, not the best of times.

Me, I was a 10-year-old street kid living in a poor corner of eastern Brooklyn, on the border of Queens. Crime and racial tensions ruled here. The only places to buy cheap wine were crappy liquor stores where the inventory and the shopkeepers hid behind thick bullet-proof glass. Blocks away from the apartment house where my family and I lived was the 75th Precinct House. The 75th was often the busiest and most violent police precinct in the entire country. It still is.

All I can remember being concerned about the year that Aldo Conterno produced this very fine Barolo from his family’s legendary nebbiolo vines was getting through the days without getting hurt or even killed.

All of us in the neighborhood fretted over the same thing, I reckon.

My fourth-grade teacher, a nun named Sister Janita, was a big help to me that tumultuous year. Only not for any of the reasons you might imagine.

Sister Janita had grown too old to be in a classroom educating impressionable young minds. She wasn’t a woman who dispensed advice or wisdom to her students, either, at least not at this time in her career. But she was sweet and kind and functional, and so her superiors allowed the nun to keep her position later in life than was probably prudent.

She was also—how to say this delicately?—a loon.

The good sister had a pet pigeon named Lulu that lived in her second-floor classroom. Lulu had full run of the place, flying freely as she pleased. Many times the bird would land on your desk and coo coo coo until you’d share a bit of sandwich bread or some other morsel with her. Once Lulu landed right on my head and cooed until her mistress came around to collect her.

Sister Janita conversed far more with Lulu than with any of her students. Always kindly, always lovingly, always enthusiastically. But most of all, always kookily.

Considering the state of the world outside her classroom in 1967 I count myself lucky to have spent a good chunk of the year well-protected inside the sister’s benign, good-natured little cocoon.

After all, for several long hours a day that entire school year the biggest fear I had wasn’t getting caught up in a riot or a gang fight; it was getting shit on by a crazy old nun’s pet pigeon as it flew by.

We should all have so little to be troubled about today.

My home now is a lovely little town on the coast of Maine. The free local paper’s “Police Blotter” lists items about dogs found wandering without tags or teenagers caught “borrowing” a stranger’s canoe to go out fishing. The town’s only fire truck is new and spiffy, but it doesn’t get out of the garage much.

And yet all of a sudden I live in a very dangerous place again. We all do.

Let’s face it, the year that this bottle of Aldo Conterno’s 1967 Barolo Riserva Speciale got opened wasn’t much better than the year he produced it. You could argue that it was a lot worse. From election night in November 2016 through, well, just through, it’s been one self-inflicted national disaster after another.

Cracking open a 50-year-old Barolo at this time wasn’t my doing. That would be the work of my dear friend Scott, who surprised a small group of friends with it at a dinner celebration just before Christmas. Scott is a sommelier by trade. He’s also a swell guy to have as a friend.

He knew full well that everybody who’d gathered that evening had suffered, often silently, the entire year. And so, in his small and yet extraordinarily generous way, Scott decided to temporarily wrap us all up in a warm blanket made of joy and friendship and, like Sister Janita’s classroom in 1967, even a bit of fantasy.

For a few moments my friends and I could put aside our fears about the next three or even seven long years and escape to a place where good people who love and respect and care for each other can still get to quietly share a common appreciation of something honest and beautiful…

And, yes, even GREAT!

A Christmas past

7 Dec

You would need to be pressed very hard to find a kinder, more generous, better loved, more widely respected man than Joseph Patrick Giamundo.

Though a general contractor by actual trade, his role in 65 years of life was not to renovate or repair people’s homes and properties. Rather, the man’s primary duty was to provide guidance, support, comfort and, most importantly, example to a family consisting of more than 30 people.

He had no children of his own. An early and rather horrific tragedy put an end to that.

Yet we were all Uncle Joe’s children. And proud of it.

“Patriarch” falls pretty far short of describing the man’s station in our clan. He was just completely and deservedly revered, by his family for sure, but by many others as well.

He still is. And it’s been decades since he passed on.

I came across this picture not long ago and made sure to keep it in plain sight so that I could remember to share it with you for the holidays. It’s one of Uncle Joe’s homemade Nativity scenes, the kind he would throw together using scraps of plywood and two-by-fours leftover from his contracting jobs.

Nothing was so extraordinary about these annually assembled outdoor structures. And yet this one will stick with my entire family forever.

The hand-scribbled sign stapled to the top says it all.

TO THE S.O.B.s THAT STOLE THE FIGURES OUT OF THE MANGER
DROP DEAD

Yep, Uncle Joe’s nativity scene figures got heisted.

His mood after discovering the overnight theft was more wounded than angry, at least that’s how it seemed to me. The few figures that you see in the picture are extras that Uncle Joe gathered up and hastily placed in the manger after all the originals had disappeared. It was an incomplete set but, well,  at least it was something for us kids to look at and feel excited about during the holidays.

For a good couple days my uncle tried to hide his melancholy. When his sign appeared, especially the DROP DEAD part of it, we were all pretty shaken up. Uncle Joe just never spoke that way to people, no matter how much they deserved it. I remember feeling really badly for him, like something uniquely precious, perhaps even like the child he’d lost, had gotten ripped away from him once again.

On Christmas Eve Uncle Joe awoke to find that his Nativity scene figures had all been returned. His mood, of course, brightened considerably, and so did the rest of the family’s. Just before leaving his house to attend the midnight mass at St. Rita’s Uncle Joe put up another sign on his manger.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH AND MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU!

I can’t find a picture of that sign. But don’t really need one either.

Merry Christmas everybody.

A Christmas Story

17 Dec

‘Twas not the night before, but Christmas Day itself. Late in the day, actually. It had been dark a few hours already. I remember it being bone-chillingly cold.

I was sixteen or seventeen. The family dinner had taken place earlier in the afternoon. At around seven o’clock or so I walked over to my girlfriend’s house. Her family was a lot like mine, Italian-American tight you know, and so I figured that an appearance on such a holiday would be appreciated, if not expected.

To get to her place I had to walk past the White Castle on the corner of Atlantic and Shepherd Avenues. This was in the East New York section of Brooklyn, I should mention, the place where I was raised. Going past the restaurant on Christmas Day was always both fun and spooky, because this was the only 24-hour period in the entire year that the place was closed. Often my friends and I would go by the White Castle just to witness it on Christmas Day, to see the lights out and the grills cold, to hear the quiet.

Sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the glass door to the restaurant, was an elderly couple. Elderly to a teenager, I should say. They might have been in their fifties, as I am now. They were bundled up but not enough to my eye; their bodies were next to each other but not close enough to keep each other warm, I thought.

“Cold tonight,” the woman said as I walked past.

“Sure is,” the man repeated.

I nodded and kept walking. Moving was the only way I could keep warm.

After visiting a while I decided it was time to get back to my own family. Mom and Aunt Anna would be putting out an evening buffet and I wouldn’t want to miss it. As I said goodnight to my girlfriend’s grandmother she grabbed me tightly by the wrist and drew me toward her.

“You be good to my granddaughter,” she said in the thickest Italian accent. “Understand?”

Before I could answer the old lady kissed me and said I was a nice boy and that she liked me. Then she handed me a tray of my favorite Christmas cookies: cucidati, or fig cookies. I ate one right on the spot, or maybe it was two. They were extraordinary, better than my mom’s, in fact. I hugged the old lady very tightly and kissed her.

“You keep making me fig cookies like this,” I told her, “and I’ll be good to anybody you want.”

Approaching the White Castle I could see that the couple I’d seen earlier was still on the cold ground and against the door. It was around nine o’clock by now. Three hours before the place would reopen. They were waiting for exactly that, I realized. It hadn’t even occurred to me earlier.

Just as before the woman and then the man remarked upon the weather. Again I nodded and kept on my way. It seemed colder now.

After walking another half block or so I turned around and headed back to the White Castle. This time as I approached the couple I made sure to speak first.

“These are my favorite cookies, and I want you to have them,” I said handing them to the lady.

“Thank you, son,” the man said quickly and without looking up, most of his face buried inside the warmth of his coat.

“We’ll have them with some nice hot coffee in a little while,” the woman said. “Won’t we dear?”

I nodded and started on my way again.

“Merry Christmas,” I heard the woman say. “And good night.”

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.