“Don’t let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become.” ~ Nick Portokalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding
When I was a kid, whether it was Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, one of my favourite places to be was in my nonna’s basement. There, with 25 family members saddled up to long wooden tables pushed together (the kids seated at one end but within arm’s reach of an aunt or uncle, just in case), we’d gather to celebrate, eat and, most of all, laugh… oh right, and yell. We are Italian after all.
Even today, the holidays, as well as the delicious dishes prepared by the matriarch of our family, take me back to a childhood rich in tradition. In fact, Easter was a big one for us – Fiadone Con Ricotta (ricotta pastries), Pupa Con L’uova (Italian Easter Bread) and those big chocolate Easter eggs wrapped in colourful foil with a cup placed strategically at the bottom that contained a cheesy prize, are present reminders of a simpler time.
Side note: those giant Easter eggs were our favourite. Cousins – young and old – would take extreme pleasure in breaking them into bits and then dipping into a waiting jar of peanut butter. Ah, the good ole days.
So when I asked my aunt if she was making any of the famous ricotta pastries she’d so generously wrap in plastic and set aside, one for each member of our family, you can imagine my disappointment when she responded that it was time for the younger generation to take over.
Well, challenge accepted. In fact, I went out that same night (I’d like to think out of determination, rather than stubbornness) to purchase my tub of ricotta and got my utensils all ready so I could tackle this traditional recipe head on the next day.
If you know me, you know I’ve become a bake-a-holic over the past few years. First with cupcakes, then cookies and, most recently inspired by a friend’s godmother, biscotti.
One of my most well-received creations was this batch of Nutella biscotti (notice the Nonna tablecloth – plastic over crochet).
After taking a bite, my hubby turned to me with wide-eyed wonderment to exclaim “these are the best… ever!”. And let me tell you, he takes his job as the Director of Process Improvements and Quality Control in the Kitchen very seriously.
But when it came to preparing the old world creations on which I had once reveled in at holiday celebrations, I had my doubts. Would I be able to replicate these classics? And, most important, would I have the patience?
You see, these recipes are all about the P-word. It doesn’t take much to mix the ingredients together, but then you often have to wait – anywhere from 3 to 7 hours, then follow another step and repeat. Not to mention the actual work involved. 10 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but when you’re kneading dough it can feel like an eternity. Rolling out the dough is an exercise in itself, working my arms and core like nobody’s business. Bless her heart, but it’s a wonder my grandmother wasn’t built more like Jillian Michaels. But I digress…
I have to say, for my first try, I did pretty well. While the proper shapes would eventually come, the taste seemed to be there – and that’s all I cared about.
I had a taste (or two) and next time I’ll be sure to include the rind of a lemon, but the general consensus (by the empty container sitting on one of the filing cabinets at the office) was that they were good enough to eat.
Next up was taralli (which is more of an everyday indulgence), for which I found this great recipe on a fantastic website I stumbled upon called Italy Revisited. These little bite-sized bows consisted of a simple dough and a not-so-secret ingredient – fennel seeds.
While I shaped them like the ones my father used to bring home Saturday mornings from our local Italian bakery…
They rose more than I thought and turned into little piles of fennel-seeded love.
No worries. I just know that next time I’ll have to roll them out more… and isn’t that what’s it all about? Whether it’s in the kitchen or in life, learning as you go and practicing so you can make perfect?
Although she was the Master of the Kitchen, I’m sure that’s how my nonna learned… even though my father would have us believe she came out of the womb being able to cook and bake like she did. She was a saint, after all.
Which brings me back to our second annual Easter celebration, which is now a fond, but distant memory. Hubby and I host a somewhat traditional lunch at our house (we eat at 1 p.m. in our dining room at one of the three tables pushed together), and I couldn’t be happier.
While pasta and a few desserts are my contribution, I’m lucky to have our family bring other favourites (porchetta and piri piri chicken completing the P-Easter trifecta), to the table. But the best part is understanding and appreciating the joy of hosting 15 family members in our home.
It warmed my heart to have the same laughter, love and, yes, yelling, fill our home. Just because I’m on my own journey toward inner peace, spiritual connection and a life filled with joy, doesn’t mean I can’t take my family traditions with me.
A Canadian girl with an Italian background who loves the Newfie life? Funziona per me (it works for me)!