On Sunday I am hosting a baby shower for my niece, Jessica. This morning, while having coffee, I reviewed my menu and remembered I needed to find the recipe for a dish that I’ve made for similar occasions. I went to the cabinet where I store my cookbooks. I have more cookbooks than I could ever use. Instead of pulling one of those off the shelf, I reached instead for my stash of recipes collection, those I’ve collected from family and friends over the years. No matter how many cookbooks I acquire, more often than not, I choose from the collection.
Whenever I pull out the collection, the routine is the same. I sort through the stack of papers of different colors and sizes. Each piece of paper holds a memory. All of these papers represent the memories I’ve made over so many years. I like to think about where I was and what was happening when I asked for the recipe. I keep telling myself that I should organize the myriad slips of paper — perhaps catalog them on the computer and print into a notebook with an index for easier reference. But then I think I might miss the ritual of reminiscing. Today when I was looking through the stack, I thought about some other favorites for which I have no recipes. These are the special dishes I remember loving as a child. The kinds of dishes we all have when we are kids — the ones our moms or grandmas concocted the same way every time and never wrote them down for posterity.
My Grandma used to make these special cookies at Christmas time. She would make a sort of volcano of flour and pour eggs and other ingredients into the opening. Her sturdy peasant hands would mix the dough and knead it for a long time. Then she would grab a handful and roll it by hand into a long worm of dough. She would cut the worm into pieces and quickly shape them into knots. I used to love those cookies. She would drizzle a frosting of confectioner’s sugar and milk and top with multi-colored sprinkles. I could eat handfuls at a time. Grandma made another dish that was a favorite — her tomato and bread “salad.” I put salad in quotes because it wasn’t really salad. I’m sure there was a name for it and she said it in Italian but, unfortunately, my generation didn’t learn Italian as children. I asked my siblings about it today and my brother tells me it is called panzanella. I don’t know remember all the spices she used, but she would take large chunks of toasted stale Italian bread and mix them with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and I think parsley. I absolutely loved when she made that. We had it all the time in the summer when the tomatoes were home-grown and delicious. I can remember sitting at her kitchen table, my mouth-watering, as I eagerly waited for Grandma to serve. I think it was Grandma’s salad that is responsible for my love of tomatoes to this day. She also made the best roasted chicken and potatoes I ever had.
Mom made a dessert when I was young that was my favorite. We called it ice cream jello. Made from vanilla ice cream and strawberry jello, it was similar to the consistency of mousse, only firmer. Sunday afternoons, of course, we had macaroni and sauce for dinner. Ice cream jello, a frequent family favorite, followed. After dinner one of us would go to the refrigerator and take out the big bowl of pink foam. She would spoon it into dessert bowls as we waited patiently. Sometimes we kids got silly and squished it out our front teeth. From time to time over the years, my sister and I have tried to make it but it never seems the same. We haven’t quite figured out the proportions of jello to ice cream or whether we should use less water in the jello.
Grandma was by far the better cook, but Mom could make the best desserts. Her recipe for Easter cheese pie is one she made from her memory of being in her uncle’s bakery as a child. We still make Easter pie every year and my kids look forward to this traditional family favorite. I liked when she made chocolate ice box cake. For our birthdays she made us yellow cake with lemon and toasted coconut frosting. To this day it is still our favorite. My sister and I both ask for that cake on our birthdays. And my son, Bryan, still misses her struffoli. He isn’t the only one.
Food is an important part of my Italian heritage. Central to our holiday traditions and other family celebrations were the foods prepared by my grandmother, my mother and my aunts. Most of the dishes we ate as children were made without guidance from cookbooks and recipes. They were made with a lot of work and even more love. Those were the good old days and I miss them.