by Julia Powers
For many home cooks, the old adage that food is love rings especially true during the holiday season. Despite the busy schedules and lengthy to-do lists that are often a hallmark of the holidays, many families celebrate the season by preparing dishes that have been lovingly passed down from generation to generation. Through a magical alchemy of sugar, flour, eggs, family lore and tradition, families celebrate by making time-honored delicacies which grace their tables but once a year. Several eSS&SC readers generously shared the stories behind the foods that are an integral part of their holiday celebrations. Join us as we learn why these delicious traditions are so meaningful to them.
Raised in Italy, Rosa Galeno grew up steeped in a culture that reveres both good food and celebrations, and she brought this aesthetic with her when she moved to America. For her family, it wouldn’t be Natale, or Christmas, without pizza di sette sfoglie, a seven-layer cake studded with nuts, raisins, chocolate and fruit preserves, and scartedatta, a delicately fried cookie drizzled with vino cotta, (cooked wine) on the table.
Rosa traces this culinary holiday tradition back to her family’s small Italian village in the years just after World War II. Shortly after the war and while still a young woman, Rosa’s grandmother passed away, leaving behind Rosa’s dad, who was then just seven years old. Among his many cherished memories of his mother were the confections that she baked each Christmas. When he ultimately married, eager to continue his family’s beloved holiday traditions, he asked the women of the village to teach his new wife the dishes that had played such a big part in his childhood memories.
Rosa’s mom, Guiseppina, was a quick study and these holiday confections soon became a treasured part of Rosa’s childhood. These desserts were labor intensive and took months of planning. As Rosa recounts, “pizza di sette sfoglie is a dish you have to start planning for in the fall.” Her mom would “start making the cooked wine in September. Soak the raisins in liqueur in October or November and pick the filbert nuts (hazelnuts).” After months of preparations, the actual cake had to be baked in the local baker’s oven since the tall-sided dish (used only once a year) was too large to fit in the oven at Rosa’s home. Not wanting to waste any of the delicious dough, Rosa recalled her mother would “carefully cut long strips of leftover dough, pinch each pleat with a little water to make sure they remained intact. As she deep fried each scartedatta, I patiently waited to sprinkle each one with chocolate sugar and spices….if I close my eyes, I am standing next to my mother waiting to carefully sprinkle chocolate sugar and spices on our once a year scartedatta.”
After moving to America, Rosa’s mom continued to make her signature cake and cookies each Christmas. This cake was such a masterpiece that “you had to create a party for this cake,” Rosa says. Like many old-world cooks, Rosa’s mom did not cook from a written recipe, so Rosa painstakingly recreated both recipes through trial and error. After tasting her daughter’s version, Guiseppina remarked, “Rosa, you did it right.”
Rosa was thrilled because, as she put it, “I gave her the joy of the memory.” She continues, “Real, traditional foods tug at the heart. They pull you back into the memories that mean so much.” Now that Rosa’s children are learning to make the holiday favorites, Rosa feels gratified. “At the holidays, the foods I grew up on are on that table. I do it because I am trying to give back to my kids my culture and the integrity of how I grew up.”
The Joy of Cooking Together
Many holiday favorites are labor-intensive, which is part of the reason that reader (and eSS&SC contributor) Lisa Whalen’s family subscribes to the philosophy that many hands make light work as well as multiply the fun. She shares, “For the past ten years, since my nieces and nephews were almost too young to help, we choose a Saturday in December to gather at my mother’s; the kids often bring friends too.” Their project for the day: struffoli, which Lisa describes as “basically a hand-rolled, egg pasta cut into diamonds then deep fried. Before serving on Christmas morning, the whole batch of little-fried puffs is bathed in honey syrup.” When the group gathers in early December, they “take turns rolling out the dough, and rolling some more to be sure it is thin enough. Then [they] share the job of carefully cutting with a crimping tool into consistent ½” diamonds, and finally we deep fry batch after batch of struffoli to the perfect light golden color.”
Another must-have on Lisa’s holiday menu is her grandmother’s Pizza Ricotta, which is “a citrus-scented, curd cheesecake in a short pastry crust.” Many cooks tweak traditional recipes to suit changing tastes and Lisa is no exception. She explains, “I use less sugar in mine then my grandmother did, and I omit the candied citron that she sprinkled over the bottom crust. My aunt doesn’t use citron in her pie either, which means this concession to modern tastes has been approved!”
As is the case with so many holiday cooks, Lisa’s dishes honor the past, as well as loved ones no longer alive. Lisa reflects, “First, the food is delicious and a special treat. Then, I think for my mother and me, it is a way of keeping her mother present in our lives– keeping fond memories alive. For the kids who never knew my Gram, they enjoy how happy it makes my mom (their Gram).” With several generations gathered together on a chilly December morning, Lisa believes that “they enjoy the activity (which is usually combined with trimming the tree) but mostly, I think they enjoy each other’s company. Maybe they haven’t been together since the summer and there is a lot of catching up to do now that they are in high school and college.”
Dorian Greenbaum is another reader who celebrates the season by cooking together with her family. And, since her baking projects take anywhere from a few hours to two days to complete, she happily welcomes the help of her daughter and granddaughters. Dorian has been making Venetians, a 3-layer cake-cookie hybrid, since the 1970s, featuring an almond flavored dough sandwiched together with sieved apricot jam and topped with semi-sweet chocolate.
These cookies require multiple steps and, as Dorian says with just a touch of irony, “they are a total pain, and my family adores them!” Starwiches, another family favorite, are star-shaped cookies with currant jelly sandwiched between two layers of almond-flavored dough that is dusted with pearl sugar just before baking. Dorian’s final piece de resistance is the Christmas Wreath, which she first saw in McCall’s magazine. She first braids rich dough with almond filling into the shape of a wreath. On Christmas morning, Dorian rises early to proof the dough and, after baking, drizzles the wreath with powdered sugar glaze and decorates it with candied red and green cherries. Commenting on her labor-intensive confections, Dorian laughs. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. I was just making cookies. But as these things tend to do, at least with me, I got a little bit obsessed.”
For many, food is inextricably linked to holiday memories. For Laura Raposa’s family, these memories include snowflake rolls, minted marble bark and a fruit-studded cake Laura has dubbed, “My Portuguese Grandmother’s Italian Fruit Roll.” Given the hectic pace of the holidays, carving out time to make these delicacies is an act of love, especially since Laura’s holiday season is busier than most; Laura is the proprietress of Foodsmith, a Duxbury bakery and eatery. Laura recounts, “No matter how dog-tired I am from the long hours catering to everyone else’s Christmas needs, there are two things I must show up with for Christmas dinner: snowflake rolls and minted marble bark candy.” The rolls, which Laura describes as, “the perfect bread—airy, buttery and full of flavor” are “always on the holiday table, and now more than ever since the little ones demand them. ‘These are sooooo good, Auntie,’ little Melanie has said to me on more than one occasion. THAT is a Christmas gift I would never return!”
Thirty years ago, Laura stumbled on the recipe for minted marble bark in Food & Wine magazine, and it has been a holiday staple ever since. Laura continues, “My cousins, Russ and Allison, begin their lobbying Thanksgiving Day when talk begins about Christmas Day. ‘You’re bringing the bark, right?’ And now, Russ’ daughter, Paige, is hooked. Last year, I stayed up until 1:00 am—after getting up at 3:00 am—to make the bark because I couldn’t disappoint my people in Westport. Of course, my mother thinks I am nuts.”
The other must-have confection for the Raposa family is “My Portuguese Grandmother’s Italian Fruit Roll,” which Laura named after her grandmother Lena. This rolled cake, brimming with dried fruit and nuts, is so beloved that Laura bakes several of them. One is eaten by the entire family on Christmas Day; her parents and brother each get a roll to take home; and, when the holiday hubbub has settled down, Laura and her husband Steve share the final one on New Year’s Eve.
No matter how busy or how tired they are, home cooks know that the food they so lovingly prepare is integral to building family memories. Laura observes, “It’s what you do to please your loved ones. Disappointing anyone—especially the kids—isn’t an option. These little pleasures make us happy, and we like to make memories for the children.”
Food and the love, memories, and fellowship it conveys, is central to many families’ holiday celebrations. Whether your holiday is enriched with long-standing food traditions or you want to start some new holiday food traditions of your own, hit the kitchen and celebrate the season with gusto!
Rosa Galeno’s Anytime Cookies
- 3 eggs
- 5 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the oil or butter, sugar, vanilla, and beat until fluffy.
In a separate bowl, blend flour, baking powder, and salt, then add this mixture to the batter, alternating with the milk. The dough should be firm and not too sticky.
Pull off bits of dough and roll into spheres the size of a walnut. Place ½-inch apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets and bake for 9 to 11 minutes, or until bottoms are just a little brown. Remove to a rack to cool.
- ¾ cup milk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 teaspoons anise vanilla, or lemon extract
- 1 pound confectioners’ sugar
- Sprinkles, optional
In a medium saucepan, warm the milk and butter over medium-low heat until the butter melts. Let cool a bit then add flavor extract and beat in confectioners’ sugar.
Quickly dunk each cookie into the icing and apply sprinkles if desired. Let dry and store in a tin for up to 5 days.
You may freeze the rookies un-iced for up to 3 months, thawing and icing them as needed.
Makes about 60.
Lisa Whalen’s Pizza di Ricotta
- 5 ounces unbleached white flour
- pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 4 ounces cold butter, cut in bits (or half lard)
- 1 egg yolk
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons ice water, approximately
By hand or with a food processor work the fat into the flour, salt, and sugar, until the mixture looks like coarse meal. (If using the food processor, pulse 12 to 15 times.)
Stir the egg yolk into the vanilla and ice water. Mix into the flour mixture with a light hand, just until lumps cling together. Quickly push them into a ball, adding more drops of water to the dry parts if necessary. If using the food processor, pulse quickly, and stop and push the dough together with a fork or knife, rather than letting the machine work the dough at all. Once it’s all in a ball wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store airtight in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
Roll out dough on lightly floured surface and fit it into a deep 9” pie plate. Trim and crimp up a nice border. Chill while you make the filling.
- 6 large eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 3 cups ricotta cheese
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon lemon oil or 2 tablespoons lemon zest
- ¼ teaspoon orange oil or 2 tablespoons orange zest
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, then beat in the sugar until foamy and well-incorporated. Work in the ricotta and the remaining ingredients, combining thoroughly.
Pour into prepared crust and bake 50-60 minutes, or until filling is puffed and golden and set in center.
Cool completely. Serve at room temperature or cold.
Serves 8 – 10.
- ¾ cup almonds
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 12 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 3 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 egg whites
- ½ cup sparkling sugar
- 1 cup red currant jelly (Dorian makes her own!)
If almonds still have their brown skins on, bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a medium saucepan, then drop the almonds in and simmer 1 minute. Drain and pop each almond out of its skin. Pulverize until fine as dust in a food processor; add ⅓ cup of the sugar and grind a bit more.
Cream the butter with a mixer; add the remaining sugar, almond mixture, salt and extracts, and mix until pale. Work in the flour until cohesive. Divide dough into quarters, and roll each blob out to a 1/8th-inch thickness between squares of wax paper (about an 11-inch circle). Stack and chill for an hour.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Find a 3-inch star-shaped cutter and a ½-inch star or circle. Working quickly while the dough is cool and firm, haul one sheet of dough out of the fridge and place on the counter. Pull off the top piece of wax paper, then replace it loosely and flip the whole thing over. Zip off that other sheet of paper and cut large stars.
Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheet, ½ inch apart, and bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until bottoms are pale golden. Let cookies cool 5 minutes on baking sheet, then transfer to rack to cool thoroughly. Meanwhile, repeat with another dough slab, cutting out the same number of large stars, but then removing their centers with the small cutter. Brush these top-cookies with lightly beaten egg white, and sprinkle with sparkling sugar, tamping it into place. Continue thus, aiming for an even number of sparkly perforated tops and pale golden bottoms. (Mash together, wrap and chill the interstellar trimmings; then reroll and cut for more cookies.)
To assemble, simmer the jelly, stirring, in a small saucepan for 2 minutes, then allow to cool until just warm. Spoon ½ teaspoon jelly onto the centers of the totally cooled cookie bottoms, and gently ease the tops into place. Top up jelly as needed. Store, layered with wax paper in an airtight canister, up to 3 days.
Makes about 60 cookies.
Laura Raposa’s Portuguese Grandmother’s Italian Fruit Roll
- 1 cup butter, room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 eggs
- 1 egg yolk
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- ½ cup milk
Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of electric mixer. Add vanilla and eggs.
Sift the dry ingredients together. Add to the wet ingredients in three parts, alternating with milk.
When the mixture has come together, gather it up and knead lightly and briefly on a floured surface. Compress the dough into a disc, wrap airtight and chill.
- 30 ounces dried fruit (pitted prunes, raisins, apricots, figs, currants), chopped
- ½ cup granulated sugar, or to taste
- 1 cup dried cherries or cranberries, chopped
- ½ cup walnuts or pecans, chopped (optional)
- Juice of one lemon
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest
Place the chopped mixed fruit in a large bowl and just cover with boiling water. Cover with a lid and let sit for an hour or until soft. Drain thoroughly. Stir in sugar to taste, followed by the cherries, nuts, lemon juice, and lemon zest.
Assembly and Baking
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Divide dough into four equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll one piece out into a 5”x12” rectangle about ¼ inch in thickness.
Spread a portion of the filling down the lengthwise middle third of the dough. Turn up the short edges just to cover the filling, and then flap over the longer edges to make a flat log. (Leave the envelope a bit roomy so that the filling may swell in the oven without bursting the log.) Transfer log to a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Repeat with the other pieces of dough. (You may have filling left over.)
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons milk
Stir together, and brush on fruit rolls.
Bake rolls for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool completely on the pans, and then carefully transfer to racks for glazing.
- ½ cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla or lemon juice
In a small bowl, mix ingredients, adding water by drops until glaze consistency. Drizzle or brush fruit rolls with glaze. Decorate with holiday sprinkles, if desired.
When the glaze is completely dry, wrap rolls in plastic wrap or transfer to holiday-decorated bakery bags. Fruit rolls freeze well, tightly wrapped, but save the glazing step for after thawing.
Makes 4 fruit rolls, yielding 50-60 fat slices.
Julia Powers bakes a few holiday treats from her childhood, with her mom’s holly cookies being the hands-down family favorite. These cookies, a throwback to the 1970s, combine butter, green-tinted melted marshmallows, cornflakes, and red-hot candies—nothing fancy, but oh so good!