Years ago my aunts put together a photocopied version of my Italian grandma’s recipe notebook. I didn’t live in the same state with her growing up and my non-Italian mom only cooked the recipes that my dad liked from his childhood. So coming upon these hand-written recipes as an adult feels a bit like a treasure-hunter happening on a horde.
I recognize the cookies that she would send at Christmas time. With flavors of anise and nuts, they were memorable to my child’s palate as decidedly unappealing and relegated to the category of mysterious adult enjoyments like coffee and salads. I recognize the original versions of classic Italian dishes that my mom had modified to our family’s tastes. Cappalletti, ciambella, piada, green lasagna, ragu. Some are in my great grandfather’s handwriting. An immigrant with English as his second language, he wrote “spun,” for what I believe was supposed to be “teaspoon.” And then there are wacky things from the sixties and seventies like jelly rolls, icebox cake, something called “Prune and Date Delight,” “Broccoli Bake” (I assume some kind of casserole), and “Can-Do Raisin Bread.”
I ignore all the Americana and hold dear all the Italian dishes, some I’d never even heard of before and are certainly misspelled in their namings so that Google searches are little help in identifying them. One I’ve appropriated into our family tradition is my grandma’s breakfast strata, which I’d never tasted before I made it from her recipe book. Now I riff on it a bit with different herbs or flavors, but I make it every Christmas Eve and we eat it while we’re opening presents with coffee, Muscato D’Asti, and my “aunt” Sue’s chocolate scones she was locally famous for when she owned a cafe in the Midwest. I feel surrounded by these lovely older women with hands strong enough to knead the hell out of a chunk of bread dough. I can hear their quick laughter and their nasal vowels, see the sudden flash of their eye and their don’t-mess-with-mama tone when they know they’re right about something.
I’ve also come around when it comes to biscotti. I’ve always loved the American cafe versions, huge and dipped in chocolate, and in high school I started to make a slightly more sophisticated cranberry and pistachio studded variety from a Martha Stewart recipe. But the clincher was the day I set foot in Italy. I was 19. I’d flown into Florence to visit a friend and she greeted me with a bag of biscotti made that morning at a bakery round the corner from her university villa. They were crisp, but also pleasantly chewy in the middle, not hard all through like the kind I’d always known. And they were quite small. I could eat one in two bites. I fell hard for them. I’ve never had any quite like them since, but I’m on a quest to recreate them before I die. I plan to make my grandma’s anise flavored biscotti for the first time for Christmas this year, so maybe this will be the break-through year. Or maybe I just need to go back to Italy. (Any excuse.)
I’ll share with you my grandma’s recipes, showing them as they appear in her cookbook. If you use them, feel free to adapt them to your own tastes–that’s part of carrying it forward to the next generation. We add our own personalities and, thus, our love. From the rich heritage of women who’ve handed these treasures down to me, I pass them on to you. Merry Christmas.
J.M. RODDY is a freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, a mother of two, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.