Pizzelle (Italian Anise-Flavored Wafer Cookies)

December 6, 2017

Pizzelle punctuated my childhood.

Pizzelle were present at every holiday, birthday, wedding, and festive event as well as at random times throughout the year.

They usually came from Aunt Margie, though other folks made pizzelle, too.

My mother never did. Though she liked to bake, and made some wonderful pastries, pizzelle were not part of her repertoire.

The classic flavor is anise, though vanilla, and to a lesser extent lemon and orange, are common as well.

Aunt Margie would use pizzelle to make ice cream sandwiches. She would roll them around a tube to make faux cannoli. She would even roll them into ice cream cones. Of all the permutations, though, my favorite is just the classic, flat, crispy anise-flavored cookie.


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I don’t know anybody who doesn’t use an electric pizzelle iron these days but originally Aunt Margie used one of cast iron that was heated on the stove. It came from Berarducci Brothers in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and is most definitely iron, not aluminum. I have the pizzelle maker in its original box.

Aunt Margie’s original cast iron pizzelle maker

The original box for the pizzelle maker

Unfortunately Berarducci Brothers is no longer around. Not only did they manufacture stove-top and electric pizzelle irons, they made ravioli molds, crank-handle vegetable strainers, and an array of other culinary tools.

A modern pizzelle maker

In my experience, anise oil is essential. Anise extract simply does not pack enough flavor to give pizzelle the punch they need.

When I was young, anise oil came from the pharmacy. It was not uncommon in those days for pharmacies to routinely compound medications to a physician’s specific instructions. Compounding is now limited to a few specialty pharmacies but not so back then. Anise oil was commonly used to flavor what might otherwise be a noxious medication.

It was common practice among the Italian families in my hometown to go to the pharmacy to buy a bottle of anise oil. One upside, besides the easy availability of the stuff, is that it was pharmaceutical grade and, therefore, very pure.


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I tried that in Santa Fe after my mother-in-law kept failing to get enough anise flavor out of anise extract. We even have actual compounding pharmacies in Santa Fe as well as pharmacies that specialize in herbal and homeopathic medications that also make up their own medications. No dice. Not one of them carried anise oil.

Amazon to the rescue. There are other on-line sources, too, like the King Arthur Flour people. So, if you want to try your hand at pizzelle, get anise oil, not anise extract.  If you don’t like anise you could give vanilla, lemon, or orange a try.  If you do, I suggest the lemon and orange oils from Boyajian rather than extract.

The brand of Anise oil I have been using lately

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Pizzelle
Anise extract does not work well. Anise oil is an absolute requirement for the authentic taste. As with many "old Italian recipes" in my collection, this one provided a range of amounts of flour. 1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour worked well and was pretty much right in the middle of the range. The batter will be quite stiff until the melted butter is stirred in.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Combine flour, salt, and baking powder.
  2. Mix well. Reserve.
  3. Combine eggs and sugar.
  4. Mix until well combined.
  5. Stir in vanilla and anise oil.
  6. Stir dry ingredients into egg-sugar mixture.
  7. Stir in melted butter.
  8. Lightly grease the pizzelle maker (with lard, preferably) before the first ones are baked. After the first, additional greasing is not needed.
  9. Add a rounded tablespoon of batter to the center of each shape, depending on the size of your iron.
  10. Cover and cook until light golden but not really brown. The length of time will vary based on the specifics of your pizzelle iron. With mine, it took 30-45 seconds per batch.
  11. Cool the pizzelle on racks.
  12. You can dust with powdered sugar if you'd like but I rarely do unless it's a really festive occasion.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake

August 25, 2017

Mike Abramson says his carrot cake is the best ever.

Janet Carlson doesn’t necessarily agree.

For now, the controversy will need to simmer as I only have Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake recipe, though I have suggested to Janet that she and Mike have a carrot cake bake-off.

Mike makes no apologies for having stolen the recipe from Tom Grier, originally of Grier, Georgia.

The story goes something like this…

In the 1970’s a group of four friends from San Francisco bought a weekend house, they named Aros, near Sebastopol, California. The four owners rotated use of the house, each getting it for a week at a time but also sometimes showing up there together to host parties as in the photo below.

Mike Abramson, second row far right

Over the years, ownership of the house shifted as some individuals sold their interest and others bought in.

At one point, Tom Grier was the youngest owner.

The group met on a quarterly basis in San Francisco to discuss maintenance issues related to the house. As with use of the house, these meetings were held in rotation at the owners’ homes in San Francisco.

Whenever Tom hosted the meeting, he served carrot cake, which Mike believes originated as a Grier family recipe. Tom shared the recipe with Mike and the rest is history. Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake was born.

But for Janet’s assertion that Mike’s might not be the best carrot cake in the world, well, we’ll just have to wait for the bake-off.

From left to right: Janet Carlson, Richard Valantasis, and Gino Barcone

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Mike's (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake
This is almost a cross between a spice cake and a carrot cake. The frosting is generous and could easily be reduced by one-third. This recipe is for sea level. If there is interest in adjustments for high altitude, let me know and I’ll post them.
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
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Instructions
Cake
  1. Butter and flour a 9” x 13” baking pan.
  2. Grate the carrots on the tear-drop holes of a box grater.
  3. Coarsely chop the nuts.
  4. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix with the paddle.
  5. Add the oil and eggs to the flour mixture. Blend until combined.
  6. Add the carrots and crushed pineapple with the juice. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Add the walnuts and raisins. Stir to combine.
  8. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake at 350°F for 35-40 minutes or until the center springs back when lightly touched.
  9. Cool completely in the pan before frosting.
Frosting
  1. Beat cream cheese and butter until light using the paddle of a stand mixer.
  2. Beat in all other ingredients.
  3. Frost cake when cool.
Recipe Notes

For recipes that call for solid vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, I use coconut oil is due to concerns about the negative health effects of hydrogenated fats.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Homemade Dumplings

May 19, 2017

It is unfathomable to me that someone could voluntarily go on a low carbohydrate diet.

Avoiding gluten, short of having full-blown celiac disease, is equally unthinkable.

All of my most favorite foods start with flour.

Some contain flour and potatoes.

Roughly in order these are Potato Gnocchi, my Slovak Grandmother’s Potato Cakes and a three-way tie between Pasta (of almost any sort), Dumplings, and my Aunt Mary’s Bread Rolls Stuffed with Mashed Potatoes and rubbed with garlic and oil.

Of those five foods, the only one I get on a regular basis is pasta.  I have pasta 3 or 4 (or 5 or 6) times per week.  I could probably have it every day and never tire of it.  A few days without pasta and I begin to have serious cravings.

Until just recently, I had a frenetic travel schedule for work.  One of the first things I would do upon landing in a city that I was likely to return to over and over for work was to find a really good restaurant, preferably an Italian restaurant or one with a goodly number of Italian dishes on the menu.  Failing that, I would look for a restaurant with an ingredient-driven menu that was not into precious or pretentious presentation!

Sometimes finding that restaurant was elusive and my pasta cravings would be in full swing by the time I got home.

Over the years, my mother-in-law has learned that the best thing she could make for dinner on a day when I’m returning from a trip is pasta.  Even if I’m not having pasta withdrawal symptoms, there are few foods that I would rather have.  Actually, there’s only one:  gnocchi, which truth be told, is just the Italian word for dumpling, which as you’ve noticed is on my list in its English form, too!

Sometimes the restaurants I’d find were so spot-on perfect that I would just work my way down the menu over successive trips.  In this category are the recently closed Dish Osteria in Pittsburgh, Bari Ristorante in Memphis, Antico in Chicago, and, until the recent change in the menu, Tre Soldi in Chicago.

Sometimes I’d find a chef whose cooking I really enjoyed, as happened with Bruce Bogartz in Knoxville a number of years ago.  My business partner and I followed Bruce through at least three different restaurants.  Sometimes we’d just walk in and sit down and Bruce would come over and say: “Can I just cook for you this evening?”  That would be the sum-total of ordering.

Sometimes my business partner and I would find a restaurant that would accommodate our cravings as happened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  We’d usually get to the restaurant late on the day we came into town.  After a few trips, we got bold and asked for something that wasn’t on the menu.  Something simple.  Something Italian.  As I recall it was spaghetti with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and red pepper.  The chef accommodated us.  From then on, at least once during every trip to Harrisburg we asked for the same thing, sometimes we’d mix it up by asking for a bit of fennel seed to be added.  A salad of arugula with olive oil and lemon juice always rounded out the meal.

While it’s easy to find pasta on restaurant menus, it’s pretty difficult to find dumplings unless you’re in a dumpling culture like Eastern Europe.

After two trips to Prague, I discovered that it was basically impossible to just order dumplings.  I frequently found myself ordering some sort of “Hunter’s Plate” which had an array of cooked meats and, you guessed it, dumplings.

I ate the dumplings first.

Dumplings are a breeze to make.  And don’t even think about packaged baking mix.  (For the reasons why, see my post about hydrogenated fats.)

Unless you are seriously trying to avoid carbohydrates or gluten, give these a try.  They honestly take less than 10 minutes to whip up.  You could get a serious paper cut opening up a box of Bisq…er, biscuit mix, in less time!

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Homemade Dumplings
In order for the dumplings to cook properly, they need to be placed on top of food that is just submerged in the cooking liquid. A little bit of the dumpling will sink below the liquid but, basically, the dumplings should sit on top of the food and steam, rather than boil in the liquid itself. Growing up, the “food” below the dumplings was often kielbasa and sauerkraut. For this post it was turkey with mushrooms and peas in a light cream sauce due to the presence of leftover roast turkey in the fridge. Stir the contents of the pot before adding the dumplings as you won’t be able to do it afterwards. Prior to adding the dumplings, be certain that the heat keeps the liquid at a steady low boil with the lid tightly on the pot.
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Course Sides
Cuisine American, Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Sides
Cuisine American, Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Lightly beat the egg and ¼ cup of milk. Reserve.
  2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until there are “lumps” no bigger than flakes of oatmeal.
  4. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the beaten egg-milk mixture.
  5. Using a fork, gradually incorporate the flour into the liquid by starting in the center of the bowl and stirring in a circular manner, gradually widening the circle to incorporate more and more of the flour.
  6. When the batter will not incorporate more flour, add a few tablespoons of the remaining milk.
  7. Continue stirring and adding milk a few tablespoons at a time, until all the flour is incorporated and you have a fairly stiff but still somewhat sticky batter.
  8. Drop by rounded tablespoonsful on top of whatever you’re cooking in the liquid, such as sauerkraut, pot pie, etc.
  9. Cover tightly and cook 20 minutes without opening the lid. The contents of the pot should stay at a steady, low boil.
  10. Carefully scoop the dumplings onto a serving platter.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)

December 21, 2016

Homemade cookies and pastries were staples of my childhood.  Trays of cookies showed up for holidays, celebrations, weddings, funerals, and, sometimes, for no apparent reason.

My mother along with relatives and friends set up a cookie-making operation that went on every night for weeks leading up to my sister’s wedding.  The overseer was Annie Castagnola, a family friend.  She had a thin spiral-bound 3-inch-by-5-inch notebook of cookie recipes.  The notebook was the kind we used in grade school to write down our homework assignments.  Annie’s recipes were a curated collection gathered from a host of “old Italian women,” my grandmother included.

The little notebook was coveted by more than a few cooks.  Annie, however, did not share her recipes, even when those recipes came from relatives of the very people who were asking for them.  I know, my mother was one of those people who wanted some of her mother’s recipes.  Annie wouldn’t budge.  The situation got resolved, however, during the cookie-baking marathon for my sister’s wedding.  One night, Annie left her little notebook at our house overnight.  Nobody’s confessing, but there are a few cookie recipes in my mother’s recipe box (sitting on my bookcase) written in my twelve-year-old hand.

Annie died a while back.  Her little notebook is most likely gone forever and along with it the baking secrets of a whole group of “old Italian women.”

Of all the cookies that showed up throughout the year, my favorites were the various kinds of cakey cookies, my mom’s Genets, Aunt Margie’s aptly named “Colored Cookies,” and my cousin Angie Catanese’s Sesame Seed Cookies, to name a few.  These cakey cookies, which were not very sweet by American standards, were usually little balls but not always.  Genets are lemon flavored knots.  Colored Cookies are vanilla flavored balls, each made with four or five pinches of dough of different colors rolled together.  Sesame cookies are little logs, perfect for dunking into some Vin Santo.  For me, though, the best of these cakey cookies are Totos, little chocolate spice balls.

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Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)
These little chocolate balls are intended to have a good kick from an array of spices. Lard is the traditional shortening to use. I render my own. If you need these to be vegetarian, or you just don't want to use lard, you can use solid vegetable shortening. Heck, you can even use clarified butter but that is way off the traditional scale!
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
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Instructions
Cookies
  1. In a small saucepan, melt the lard over low heat. When just melted, remove the lard from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg together. Reserve.
  3. Make the icing and reserve.
  4. Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add the cooled but still liquid lard and mix well until thoroughly combined. The mixture will be gritty. I recommend doing this by hand with a mixing spoon but you could use a portable electric mixer.
  5. Add the eggs one at a time to the sugar and lard mixture, mixing well after each addition. The sugar should dissolve as the eggs are added.
  6. Add the milk, honey, vanilla extract and lemon extract to the egg mixture. Mix until well combined.
  7. Add the reserved dry ingredients. At this point there really is no better option than to reach into the mixture with your hand and get everything well combined. The dough will be somewhat sticky. Be certain that all the dry bits are scraped off the bottom and sides of the bowl and combined into the dough.
  8. Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls. If you want to weigh the first few to get the size correct, they should be between 21 and 22 grams.
  9. Space the cookies several inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375°F for 8-10 minutes until the cookies are very slightly browned on the bottom but still soft when touched. They have a tendency to crack as they bake. This is normal. You can bake two trays at a time, one in the lower third of the oven and one in the upper third. Be sure to switch the top and bottom cookie sheets after five minutes and also turn them front to back.
  10. As soon as you remove the cookies from the oven, carefully put them on cooling racks.
  11. Ice them immediately by holding a cookie with one hand and using the tip of your finger to spread a dollop of icing on the top half of each cookie. The icing should be a glaze, not a thick coating. Put the iced cookies on cooling racks to cool completely.
  12. Well wrapped, the cookies can be refrigerated for several weeks or frozen for several months.
Icing
  1. Melt the butter. Add the sugar, vanilla (or lemon) extract and 2 tablespoons of milk. Mix well. Add more milk, a teaspoon at a time, if needed, to make a thick icing that will hold its shape and spread well.
  2. It may be necessary to add a bit of milk from time to time if the icing stiffens up over the course of icing each batch of cookies as they come out of the oven.
Recipe Notes

Check out my method for rendering lard.

I prefer to grind my own spices using a small electric coffee grinder, except for the nutmeg, of course, for which I use a small grater. It is best to pass the ground spices through a small strainer to get out any small bits. If you don’t grind your own spices be sure to buy really fresh ground ones so the flavor is vibrant.

This recipe doesn’t involve any strenuous beating so the first few steps can easily be completed by hand with a sturdy mixing spoon rather than with a mixer. Similarly, after adding the dry ingredients, the dough only needs to be mixed enough to come together. This is easily (and traditionally) done with your hand though I suppose a dough hook would work, too.

Copyright © 2016 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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