(Photo by Kyle Bruggeman, Nebraska News21)
“Naples invented zeppole and all Italians licked their fingers.” Buon Festa del Papà! It’s Saint Joseph’s Day (San Giuseppe)!
If you live or work anywhere near an Italian community, you may be acutely aware of a wave of cream-filled pastries lining bakery shelves today. This is all in celebration of St. Joseph. In the Catholic religion most saints and holy people have specially designated feast days. Italians are never ones to shy away from a feast – any reason to celebrate with food really – and Saint Joseph/San Giuseppe is a special one because it celebrates the father of Jesus. As such, this day is typically also known as father’s day in Italy (Buon Festa del Papà!). Also, in Italy you typically celebrate the day dedicated to the saint you were named after as well as your birthday. Finally, there’s this crazy delicious pastry assigned to March 19 – fried, cream added and a cherry on top. So, if you are religious, have a father, are named Joseph or just plain like Italian desserts – today’s the day to celebrate!
The snack of choice today is zeppole. That’s zeppoli if you are from the south of Italy and zeppola for the singular form. Today’s zeppole (as that word is applied to a few different types and shapes of fried dough) is a light dough or choux pastry formed in either a circle or a dough-nut shape, cut in half and stuffed with cream or decorated on top with cream and bits of candied cherry. Zeppole are also known by other names, including Bignè di S. Giuseppe and sfinge.
So how do you get from celebrating a Saint to eating fried dough?
All Food February continues on An Italian-Canadian Life with one of my favourite breads to have in the house: ciambelle with fennel!
Ciambella (or chiambella) is a word used for pretty much anything round with a hole in the middle really, even cakes appear with this name. However, this is a bread that is a crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-in-the-middle, great-for-dipping-or-with-cheese kind of bread that I always like to have in the house. My mother started making this bread after getting the recipe from a friend and it’s become one of my family favourites. I believe she’s perfected getting the outside crispy. It freezes very well, so they are easy to keep and then warm up in the oven to have with dinner or appetizers.
Besides just being awesome bread, I now expect it for any family gathering, it’s just part of tradition. But my favourite memory with this bread happened just last year. My husband and I served it for the first time to his grandfather. His Nonno immediately began to tear up. Turns out, his sister (since passed) used to make this bread for him all the time and he hadn’t had it since he was quite young. It brought back all sorts of memories for him. For Christmas, we baked up a double batch and brought him a huge basket full to store in his freezer and have whenever he wanted. He was thrilled and still talks about it. Best. Christmas. Present. Ever. That’s an old recipe come to life.
Ciambelle with Fennel
12 cups of all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons of dry active yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups warm water
As budgets and banks around the world crashed over the past few years there has been a call for the dreaded “austerity” measures. In Italy media articles documented the need to go back to war-time eating, “food austerity” as they were calling it. Gourmet chefs embraced the recommendation, showing off menus that used all parts of a pig, or calling up old-time recipes and putting a modern twist on them.The Repubblica even published a roundup of “nearly forgotten dishes.” A 2012 report by the Italian Bureau of Statistics found that over one out of three families in recession-hit Italy cut their spending on food last year.
“Old recipes are a richness that Italy boasts, that were perfected during periods of poverty and are a way to come through the crisis eating well,” said Carlo Petrini, the head of the slow food movement, which campaigns for traditional, sustainable foods. (from the Guardian)
I realize how much of my food habits and recipes, handed down from my grandparents and parents who immigrated here, have the austerity idea throughout. What we eat and when we eat it has just as much to do with Italian flavours as it has to do with making do. Yes, it stems form the poverty of years past, but it’s not entirely cucina povera (that is dishes that used ingredients common to the poor areas of Italy) as it is making the most use of your food and cutting out the waste.
When I was younger, I distinctly remember the days after Halloween as muted ones. They didn’t have the zest and excitement of the black and orange candy feast of October 31, that was for sure. And truly your stomach takes days to recover from that onslaught of goodies that, though it pains you, you must keep eating. For the record, I always left the Smarties behind.
But it was more than just the candy hangover and life in ordinary clothes that changed the mood. My grandparents, who lived just next door, would light a candle that would stay on for all of November. It sat on the dining room table and you could see it from the hall, the front door, the kitchen while we ate dinner. It became this haunting little light that I don’t think for years I understood properly. They would also gather up flowers and cemetery candles (the type surrounded by tall glass and bearing the picture of Jesus or a saint) and head to the graves of relatives. Unfortunately, with their passing, I understand more about the All Souls Day traditions that fall on November 2 which include attending church and visiting the cemetery to remember the loved ones we’ve lost. Continue reading »
Today we welcome our first guest writer, Jerry Buccilli, a 2nd generation Italian from Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Growing up Italian
There are two very old proverbs, “La cucina piccolo fal la casa grande,” which means, “A small kitchen makes the house big,” and the second, “una buona mamma vale cento maestre,” which translates to “a good mother is worth a hundred teachers.”
I wanted to quote these sayings because they hold a particular meaning to me. We immigrated to Canada when I was seven and after moving from one apartment to another we finally found a house to settle in. It was small 1,100 square foot bungalow tucked away in an old Italian neighborhood in Welland, Ontario, but it was warm, cozy and it was home. It also had the tiniest kitchen you ever saw. But my mamma, who ranks amongst some of the best cooks I’ve ever known, would always be cooking up a storm in there. Using the little resources she had, she made due and created her little feasts. The food, the music and the good laughter and conversation that emanated from our kitchen was the focal point of our lives. It was like mamma was showing her love as only she could. Through food. It’s a romantic notion to be sure, but that’s exactly what it was. A love story.
For us Italians growing our own fruits and vegetables, making fresh bread and our own home-made pasta, making wine, sausages and canning our own preserves….or waking up to home-made Sunday sauce (the smells of garlic, tomatoes and braised meat were oh, so intoxicating)…this was about carrying on a love story with tradition. Handing down recipe after recipe, generation after generation. Each family had its own time-honoured secrets to share.
It was about 2am, early in February a year or so ago, when I finished packing the last of the fifth and final batch of amaretti cookies into a freezer container and snapped the lid closed satisfactorily. I picked up two misshapen “mistakes” of cookies and munched on them on the way to the fridge where I crossed “amaretti” off a long list held to the fridge door by a weak magnet. The magnet couldn’t hold the weight of the list, it kept falling to the floor, and I’d like to think it knew the weight and importance of just how many cookies were on that list and what they were for: an Italian cookie table for my sister’s wedding shower.
Amaretti, tri-colour cookies, chambrelle, crescents, pastry peaches and more lined table after table once we were all done. With two weddings in the family in eight months last year, the cookie baking was constant. My mother baked dozens upon dozens of cookies starting months in advance and filled her freezer, and the freezers of family and friends, leading up to the big day. (All these photos are from my own and my sister’s wedding showers.) The loving care with which they are all prepared, packaged, handled and displayed, shows just how important they are to the celebration.
While no one really knows how and when it originated in general (Wikipedia says it is a tradition that started in Pennsylvania), the cookie table is definitely an Italian-Catholic mainstay for weddings and bridal showers. After a three or four course meal at a shower or a wedding, all the guests line up with cookie boxes in hand to sample the traditional and newly invented cookies and to load up some treats to bring home and enjoy the next day.