It’s no accident that most people’s memories of holiday celebrations seem to center around food. We all remember those large family gatherings around a table filled with treats we only enjoyed once a year. We remember the familiar aromas permeating the house as our mothers or nonnas baked and cooked for days. Most recipes were handed down in families from one generation to the next and each took pride in the knowledge that theirs was the best.
As time passed, and immigrant people assimilated the culture of their adopted homes, many traditions were lost and forgotten. And new generations had no idea what they were missing.
Fortunately for us, although we may not be making our own holiday specialties, many are still commercially available in some neighborhood bakeries or imported directly from Italy.
In our family, many Neopolitan traditions are still carried on. The most anticipated is Nonna Lisa’s Struffoli. Although the traditional Struffoli consists of pieces of egg pastry formed into balls, fried and then coated with honey, non pariel and candied fruit, our struffoli has a slight variation. Nonna rolls the dough into a very thin circle as if for a pie crust. Then with a decorative cutter, forms small diamond shaped pieces that are then fried. They are much lighter and more delicate than the little balls. After being coated in honey, they are arranged on a platter in a conical shape similar to a Christmas tree, then decorated.
We also serve a very rustic “Pizza d’Escarole”. This is actually a double crust pie, filled with cooked escarole, olives, pine nuts, figs and raisins. The French serve something similar made with Swiss chard and substituting apples for the figs.
The products we generally purchase are Panettone, Pandoro, Mostaccioli and Torrone.
The Panettone is a classic oven baked, naturally leavened specialty cake. It has a mushroom shape and is filled with raisins and candied fruit. Many large companies make commercial versions for export throughout the world. We prefer ours from smaller establishments with less mass production. Although they are all good, some seem to be more moist and richer in fruit.
The Pandoro, which literally means “golden bread”, is exactly that. It too is naturally leavened, very high and served with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar. Leftovers make an excellent base for French Toast. As with the Panettone, we prefer ours from companies like Albertengo from the Piedmont Region.
The Torrone is a nougat candy. It often comes in long bars ready for cutting. The nougat can be filled with almonds or hazelnuts and comes in a soft and chewy or a hard version.
The Mostaccioli are one of our favorites and also one of the most difficult to find. These are cinnamon bread biscuits, usually diamond shaped, dipped in dark chocolate. They are perfect for dunking. (These are available by specialty order. Please call.)
Recently, I was introduced to specialties from several other regions of Italy. From Genoa comes a Pandolce Pan Del Mar, an all butter cake with raisins, pine nuts, hazelnuts and candied orange peel. Last, but not least are two confections aimed at the chocolate lover in me: San Giorgeso Rhum and Gianduiotto. The Rhum is a chocolate truffle, covered in hard chocolate and imbued with rum. The Gianduiotto is a “nocciolato” which is chocolate, filled with ground and whole hazelnuts. Both are sinfully rich and delicious.