When I was young, cookie season started in mid-December and continued until early January. Friends and family all had platters and trays of cookies on their tables, often of the multi-tiered variety. Each was carefully wrapped in plastic ready to be unwrapped when guests arrived. The platters were replenished after each group of guests left.
In my circle of family and friends, cookies usually fell into one of two categories, Italian-American or Slovak-American.
Nut rolls and poppy seed rolls are Slovak (well, OK, they’re really pretty much pan-Eastern European but since I grew up in a half-Slovak family we considered them to be Slovak even though we knew they were also made by the Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenians, and other Eastern Europeans in town) but they were made by the Italian side of my family as much as by the Slovak side.
There were also nut horns, butterballs, and thumbprints which defied ethnic baking boundaries.
However, flat, rolled cookies, like these butter cookies, were not usually made by Italian-Americans. The totos that I wrote about last December and the colored cookies that are coming up later this week were not usually made by Slovak-Americans.
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This recipe came to me by way of Aunt Ann who was married to my father’s brother, Jano. She said it was Grandma’s recipe.
I remember eating these cookies and seeing them piled on my grandmother’s table over the holidays.
These cookies are similar to the sand tarts that are common in the central part of Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania Dutch, of German extraction, historically lived. The big difference, though, is that the dough for these butter cookies is prepared more like a pie crust while the dough for sand tarts is prepared more like cake batter. That is, for these cookies, flour and sugar are cut into butter with a pastry blender whereas for sand tarts the butter and sugar are first creamed together.
There also are sand tarts that I think of as more Southern. These are usually rolled into balls or formed into shapes and baked but not rolled thin like Pennsylvania Dutch sand tarts and my grandmother’s butter cookies.
Grandma Mihalik's Butter Cookies
The cookies should just be pale golden brown on the bottom. The color and weight of the cookie sheet significantly influence cooking. I find that shiny aluminum cookie sheets of medium weight work best. Dark metal will cause the bottom of the cookies to brown too much. Allow the cookies to rest for about 30 seconds before removing them from the cookie sheets. If you wait too long the cookies will lose their flexibility and are likely to break.
Combine cinnamon and three tablespoons sugar. Reserve.
Grind the walnuts and reserve.
Put the butter in a mixing bowl and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to soften slightly.
Add 1 cup of sugar and flour to the butter.
Mix with a pastry blender until little beads form.
Add the cream and egg yolks and continue mixing with the pastry blender until a shaggy dough forms.
Press into a log, cut in half (or quarters) and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll a portion of dough between sheets of waxed paper to approximately 1/8 inch thick.
Cut into shapes.
Arrange on ungreased cookie sheets.
If the dough starts to warm too much it will be difficult to get the cookies off the waxed paper. If this happens, put the rolled out dough, still between the waxed paper, in the refrigerator for a few of minutes.
Brush with unbeaten egg whites.
Sprinkle with ground walnuts
Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
Bake 350°F approximately 8-9 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.
Remove from the cookie sheet almost immediately and cool on a wire rack.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I made applesauce for the first time the summer after my freshman year in college. Don’t ask me how or why I remember making applesauce that summer but the whole process is very clear in my mind. Cooking was still pretty new for me back then. Other than baking cakes, I doubt I cooked more than about four times before my freshman year.
I cooked about once a week throughout freshman year, usually on Sundays. As a freshman, I was required to use the dining service for 10 meals per week, which usually meant lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday. Saturdays I went to restaurants and cooked. It was truly a year of experimenting, not only with cooking but with entirely new cuisines and flavor profiles.
A hand-crank food mill is a pretty unusual piece of equipment for a college student to have. I don’t remember where or when I bought it, possibly I bought it specifically to test out an applesauce recipe that had caught my attention. You can actually see the very same food mill in the pictures below. I still use it
Much to my mother’s dismay I did not go home for the summer after my freshman year. I landed a great summer job in a research lab working for Dr. Mary Catherine Glick (aka Susy), a very well-known researcher. I worked in that lab for the remainder of my undergraduate years.
Students could not stay in undergraduate dorms at the University of Pennsylvania during the summer, so staying in Philadelphia meant I had to find a place to sublet. One of the most common choices was to sublet in Graduate Towers. The graduate students who lived in Grad Towers had to rent for a full calendar year, even if they were not going to be in Philadelphia for the summer.
I sublet one bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment in Grad Towers. Other than a bathroom the apartment had a very small Pullman kitchen and a kitchen table with two chairs. There was nothing that resembled living room furniture, nor would there have been any place to put it.
The other occupant of the apartment was a graduate student who used the kitchen to “cook” exactly three things for dinner. One was a can of tuna fish with pickle relish (ok, so no cooking involved). The second was a single chicken breast boiled in unsalted water and doused with pickle relish. The third was boiled hot dogs with, you guessed it, pickle relish. He ate the same three foods for dinner, in strict rotation, for the entire summer as he had done for months (years?) leading up to that summer.
I on the other hand, freed from the obligation to eat at the University food service and with an almost totally unused kitchen, was making my mother’s long-cooked pasta sauce, baking fish, and making applesauce among other things.
Over the next few years I experimented with the applesauce, changing up the sweetener (white sugar, brown sugar, honey) and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, cloves). In the end, I decided that simple was best to let the apple flavor shine through: white sugar (not too much) and cinnamon.
Little did I know, when I left home at the age of 17 to go to college that I would never spend a significant amount of time in the home I grew up in again. I worked for Susy for four summers in a row as well as most of the academic years in between. During my first year in medical school, I received a full scholarship for medical school and graduate school in anthropology, which I attended simultaneously. (Actually, I was awarded two scholarships and was able to return the one that had less-generous terms so that it could be awarded to another student.) The scholarship, however, stipulated that I could not take summers off, so I was in school eleven months per year. (I insisted on taking time for myself each August.)
Knowing I would never have a chance to be at my parents’ house for more than a few days at a time for the indefinite future, I was able to arrange my last 4-week medical school clinical rotation at the hospital in the town where I grew up. It was an anesthesia rotation. As it turns out, the Friday before the Monday I started there, the Anesthesia Department at the hospital held a retirement party for the nurse anesthetist who taught “open drop ether insufflation” to Robert Dunning Dripps. Dr. Dripps was, a physician who subsequently became the first chairman of Anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was a student. Anesthesiology was not a recognized specialty in the 1940s when Dr. Dripps became chair. He was in the vanguard; one of a very small group of physicians who established the medical specialty of Anesthesiology.
I honestly wonder how my life would have been different had I not landed that first summer job with Susy. It’s the reason I stayed in Philadelphia rather than returning to Johnstown for the summer. It started a whole cascade of events that got me integrated in Philadelphia society, a very different scenario from being a transient student.
Let’s make some applesauce as we ponder the unknowable.
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The amount of sugar and cinnamon is up to personal taste, and partially dependent on the sweetness of the apples chosen. I used Rome and Golden Delicious apples, both are great for applesauce as they break down with cooking and have a very good apple fragrance. Feel free to substitute what is available. Apples that are good for applesauce include McIntosh, Jonathan, Jonagold, and Gravenstein. Leaving the peels on is not only easier but, if some of the apples have red skin, gives the applesauce a beautiful rosy color. The stems and seeds will give the applesauce a bitter taste and must be removed.
Cut each quarter into four pieces. The pieces should roughly be about an inch on a side.
Put apples and apple juice in a heavy-bottomed pot.
Cover and bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce heat to medium-high and continue to cook, stirring periodically, until the apples are soft, 20-40 minutes. Do not overcook the apples or they will begin to lose their flavor.
There should only be the barest amount of liquid in the pot when the apples are finished cooking.
Pass apples through a food mill.
Add sugar and cinnamon to taste while the applesauce is still hot.
Cool completely and refrigerate or freeze.
If you’re not certain if the apples are cooked enough, try to run a spoonful through the food mill. If they don’t crush easily, return the “test” apples to the pot and continue to cook the batch a little longer.
In the United States, cassia, a spice different from cinnamon, can legally be labeled cinnamon. While cassia is good in its own right, it is much more assertive than true cinnamon. If you can find whole Ceylon cinnamon give it a try.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that I love to put things in alcohol. If so, I’m not alone!
Melinda Orlando and I started working together in early 1989 when I moved to Chicago and became the Medical Director (Chief Medical Officer in today’s terminology) of Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, at the time a 600-bed psychiatric hospital with approximately 7000 admissions per year.
Melinda and I have worked together ever since. Most recently she and I were business partners in The Mihalik Group, LLC (TMG). Though we sold the company last year, we still do a limited amount of consulting.
In our twenty-odd years at TMG we traveled a lot and ate at a lot of restaurants. We frequently joked that we probably ate more dinners together during that time than either of us did with our spouses.
At Chicago-Read, Melinda and I bonded early-on over a love of good food, especially Italian. Chicago-Read was located adjacent to a large Italian-American community. There were some really good Italian restaurants, butchers, pasta shops, and grocery stores just minutes away. It wasn’t a struggle to maintain my weight in those days so eating lunch at one of the nearby restaurants happened often.
This recipe for drunken prunes came from Melinda’s Grandmother.
Melinda’s grandmother came to the US as a young wife with two children. A third, Melinda’s father, was born onboard the ship. After going through Ellis Island she traveled to Chicago by train to meet her husband.
At one point, Melinda’s grandmother rented an apartment on Grand Avenue and took in boarders. These were day laborers who were working to save enough to bring their families to this country. They slept on the floor of the apartment and used the toilet in the hall. Baths were taken by all at Hull House down the street. They paid “rent” and got sleeping space, breakfast (coffee and something baked) and dinner (always including pasta).
Melinda’s grandmother was frugal, eventually saving enough to buy a building in Elmwood Park, at the end of the trolley line out of the city. The building became home for her and her five children (her husband was out of the picture), a store (selling candy and cigarettes), and a “bar” (providing beer for a nickel and a free bowl of pasta). It had the only telephone booth in the area. Eventually there was a jukebox and it became a popular place on weekends.
Melinda’s grandmother served drunken prunes in a shot glass speared on a toothpick, with some of the grappa poured into the glass.
If not served at family events, the prunes generally accompanied a game of canasta among Grandma’s “women friends” and were intended to be nibbled on. Never were they eaten in a bite or two. Seconds were rare, though they did occur. (I’d love to know what the women said of those who had a second prune but that information is lost to history.)
Before canasta, there was always lunch, almost always pasta, and dessert, usually pound cake. Occasionally the pound cake was used to sop up the grappa in the bottom of the shot glass if it wasn’t consumed outright. A glass (single, of course) of wine was sipped all afternoon.
Drunken prunes were only served in the winter, never in the summer. As to what took their place for those summer canasta games, we’ll just need to wait for the next installment from Melinda!
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Melinda's Drunken Prunes
The amount of sugar will vary based on personal preference. I suggest starting with the smaller quantity and then adjusting after a month. Once you find your “sweet spot” you can put all the sugar in at the beginning.
So began a 2003 email from Simon Rusconi, the Hotel Manager of the Sheraton Moana Surfrider Resort on Oahu.
Mr. Van Sant, Jim to the rest of us, had complimented the resort on its guava cake and Mr. Rusconi was writing to share the recipe.
Jim printed out the email and affixed it to an index card and put it in his recipe box. Late in 2016, the subject of the guava cake came up somehow at a dinner party at Jim and Bill’s house. Jim offered to share the recipe with me if I was interested.
I was, and I said that I’d make it for him. Shortly thereafter, the original recipe arrived in the mail still affixed to the index card. Not wanting to keep his original, I scanned it into my recipe database and returned the hardcopy.
Since Jim and Bill rent a home in Palm Springs just steps from our house, and since baking cakes at nearly 8000 feet where I live in New Mexico is an iffy proposition, at best, I said I’d bake the cake in Palm Springs. Every winter they rent the Oscar Mayer House. Yes, that Oscar Mayer!
We had a delightful luncheon at tables set up around their pool with guava cake for dessert.
But that’s jumping ahead.
Receiving the recipe from Jim was merely the beginning. I became fascinated by guava cake without having even made one. Almost any recipe with the degree of cultural significance that guava cake seemed to garner grabs my attention. I did internet searches and combed through my Hawaiian cookbooks (of which I have a goodly number).
It appears that there are basically three variations of guava cake in Hawaii: Guava Chiffon Cake, Guava Spice Cake, and (plain old) Guava Cake. Recipes for the last often start with a box of cake mix and use Cool Whip in the cream cheese frosting.
From what my research has revealed, the original was a Guava Chiffon Cake invented by Herbert Matsuba, owner of the Dee Lite Bakery, in the early 1960s.
The popularity of the cake no doubt led to multiple copycat recipes, including those using a box of cake mix and Cool Whip aimed at the home cook.
The recipe from the Moana Surfrider was a Guava Spice Cake. I followed the recipe closely the first time except that I needed to find a substitute for frozen concentrated guava nectar which I was unable to find after scouring 10 grocery stores in Palm Springs and nearby desert towns.
I ultimately was able to source pure guava puree at a market catering to Hispanic shoppers. It had no sweeteners so I thought I might need to add sugar to the batter in a subsequent trial but for the first round I used the guava puree as a direct substitute for concentrated guava nectar.
The cake was good but everyone who tasted it failed to taste any guava. It really just tasted like a spice cake. Certainly it was not worth hours of searching for guava concentrate only to have the flavor masked by spices.
Other than guava chiffon cake, which was definitely not the same genre as the cake that Jim had at the Moana Surfrider, I could not find a recipe for plain guava cake that did not start with a box of cake mix. I decided to make the original recipe without the spices.
That did it! The guava flavor came through but something told me that Herbert, a professional baker, might have used something to amp up the guava flavor.
That started me on a search for natural guava extract. I found a wonderful extract made by Amoretti.
The next time I made the cake, I added a tiny bit of guava extract to the batter. I believe it enhanced the flavor but if one is not going to make a lot of guava cakes I would consider omitting the guava extract as it is expensive and very concentrated so a little bottle will last a long, long time.
For an everyday cake, I suggest baking it in a 9” x 13” x 2” rectangular pan. For a more special presentation, make a layer cake by dividing the batter between two 9” round pans. If you are doing the latter, make a double batch of cream cheese frosting. You’ll have a little left over but a single batch will not be enough. You could always whip up half a batch of batter and make guava cupcakes to use the extra frosting!
In honor of Oscar Mayer, in whose house we all came together over Jim’s Hawaiian Guava Cake, I recommend the following tribute. Who knew there were so many variations on the Oscar Mayer Wiener theme?
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Jim's Hawaiian Guava Cake
Because frozen, concentrated guava nectar is not readily available except in Hawaii, I standardized this recipe using frozen guava pulp which should be easy to find in large supermarkets or in markets catering to customers from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. It is important that the cream cheese frosting be level so that the guava gel forms an even layer. If you are making a rectangular cake this means there will be a bit more frosting at the edges than in the middle. If you are making a round two-layer cake, I suggest cutting off the tops of the cakes to achieve a perfectly level appearance. Put the cakes cut side down to avoid having lots of crumbs working their way into the cream cheese frosting. Guava nectar can be purchased in cans or refrigerated. Guava pulp is frozen.
Italians love putting fruit in liquor. Cherries. Grapes. Prunes. The list goes on.
This practice meshes nicely with the Italian practice of making homemade cordials. (For example, see the post on homemade limoncello.) The liquor in which the fruit macerates becomes, in essence, a cordial that can be drunk on its own or with the fruit.
I learned to make cherries in liquor from my mother-in-law. She learned from her mother. She even remembers her grandmother making them. You can bet the chain of cherries in brandy goes back way further than that. She does grapes, too, in exactly the same way.
Here’s a picture of my in-laws with my (now) husband circa 1959. Pretty Italian, huh?
My mother-in-law hails from the little town of Treppo Grande way north of Venice. Treppo Grande is in Friuli which is known for its wine, especially white wines.
They also make a mean grappa in Friuli. After all, you’ve got to do something with all that leftover grape pomace from making wine. It can be fermented one more time and distilled into an Italian version of white lightening.
Actually preserving fruit in alcohol had a long tradition in Europe. Americans may be most familiar with the German tradition of Rumtopf. Traditionally, Rumtopf is made from an array of fruit, using the best of what ripens in sequence from early summer through early fall, mixed with over-proof rum and sugar. In addition to being made from a mixture of fruits, the proportion of sugar used in Rumtopf is much greater than would be used in Italian alcohol-preserved fruits.
Rumtopf makes a great topping for ice cream or cake. In college I even used it as the fruit layer in upside-down cake.
Cherries and grapes preserved in alcohol (we use brandy or grappa) will keep for years though at some point the texture starts to suffer. Traditionally, these fruits would be put up in the summer for consumption during Christmastime. Some years we make such a supply of them that we work through them for years afterwards.
Popping one of these cherries into a Manhattan is a real treat!
This is what our current stash of cherries and grapes in liquor looks like. We have “vintages” dating back a few years, including cherries that we picked from cherry trees belonging to Rich DePippo and Doug Howe as well as Bruce Donnell.
The traditional way to serve this is as a digestive after dinner. Put a few cherries or grapes in a cordial or shot glass and add a bit of the liquid from the jar. Drink the liquid then roll the fruit, one at a time, into your mouth. You’ll need to extrude the cherry pit after freeing it from the flesh.
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Cherries in Brandy
Use the best, peak season fruit you can find. Cherries and grapes work equally well in this recipe. The amount of sugar is a matter of preference but I find these proportions work well. We’ve made this using domestic brandy and French brandy. Honestly, I don’t think the price differential of imported brandy is justified. Grappa is also a traditional spirit but, again, you’d be looking for a pedestrian, but drinkable, grappa, not one of the über-expensive artisanal grappas. The recipe is infinitely expandable and very quick to pull together. If your jars are larger, just increase the sugar. I have collected an (almost) endless supply of these jars from French jams and use them over and over.
I grew up at a time, and in a town, where people just dropped in, unannounced, to visit family and friends.
Some evenings we’d stay home. Some evenings we’d go to town. This was pretty much every Monday and Thursday when the stores were open until 9:00 PM. And, mind you, we dressed to go to town! Other evenings we’d visit family and friends.
Around the age of 5 or 6, when we went to Aunt Ann’s, I’d play with food. Really. And not at the table. I don’t honestly know how this got started but Aunt Ann would spread out a vinyl tablecloth on the beige wall-to-wall carpet in her living room. (Remember, this was around 1960!) I would pull pots and pans and mixing bowls and other equipment (like box graters and spoons) out of her kitchen cabinets and haul my stash to the living room.
Then I’d raid the refrigerator for things like carrots, celery, and so forth.
I’d sit in the living room, on the tablecloth, grating vegetables and mixing things in the various pots and bowls.
My love of cooking has deep roots.
My love of peanut butter not so much.
For some reason, I despised peanut butter at that age. (I know, that’s almost un-American!) But just to keep things from being too quiet, Uncle Jano would sometimes walk towards me holding a jar of peanut butter and I would run like a vampire running from a wooden stake.
I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, but I had to escape from the peanut butter.
The ordeal usually ended with me face down on the sofa until Uncle Jano retreated…sometimes only to start again after I pulled my face out of the pillow.
Aunt Ann and Uncle Jano were great fun. But they were only Aunt Ann and Uncle Jano if you were related to them through Uncle Jano. If you were related to them through Aunt Ann, they were Aunt Honey and Uncle John.
Aunt Ann was a great cook. She was ethnically Russian and made lots of Russian and Eastern European food like mushroom soup, potato soup, kielbasa, chicken paprikash, pierogi, stuffed cabbage, and so forth.
She also made Italian food, which she learned from the wife of the local Mafia Boss who lived down the street. (I had a colorful childhood. What can I say?)
There were the occasional American dishes, like Rum Balls and Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie, too.
Years after those episodes of “cooking” on Aunt Ann’s living room floor, when I was in my teens and twenties, I was always on the lookout for pineapple cream cheese pie when we went to visit.
In an attempt to keep this manageable, I am not posting a recipe for pie crust just yet, but I will at a future date. If you have a favorite pie crust recipe, by all means, make your own. If not, buy prepared pie crust from the grocery store. But whatever you do, give this recipe a try if it appeals to you. It’s always a hit!
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Aunt Ann's Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie
If you don’t have a favorite pie crust recipe, or if you aren’t comfortable making pie crust, buy prepared pie crust. Be sure to purchase NINE INCH DEEP DISH pie crust, however. If you are making your own pie crust, you can use a standard nine inch pie pan, deep dish is not necessary. The cream cheese filling is easier to make in a food processor though an electric mixer works, too. If you are using a mixer, the cream cheese will be much easier to mix if it is at room temperature. This is not critical if you are using a food processor.
I love mead, more so dry mead than sweet mead. I first tasted mead at the age of 19 when my college roommate, Ray Hugh, and I visited his mother outside of London one summer. For some reason, I never had it again but the experience stuck with me. (I know you’re wondering how this is going to get around to Limoncello but read on!)
Fast forward to the late 1990’s when my husband began making wine at home. We didn’t have a proper wine cellar at the time, though we ultimately built a temperature controlled wine cellar in the basement of the coach house at our estate on Oakdale Avenue in Chicago…right below the gear works that were once used to rotate the horse-drawn carriages on the floor above.
This is what the coach house looked like when we owned the property on Oakdale Avenue.
We had a whole row of five gallon carboys of grape juice bubbling away through air locks in our family room. The wooden floors became stained purple. Luckily we were planning on remodeling the room and tearing up the floor so it didn’t matter much.
The wine was surprisingly good. We had both red and white. We made labels for our “Rohkam House” wines that portrayed a picture of the house as it looked in the late 1880’s. You can find that picture in a previous post.
After a few successes with wine, I asked Frank to make mead. He settled on a recipe he fancied, though it was not entirely a traditional northern European mead. It contained honey, of course, but the recipe specifically called for orange blossom honey which obviously has no connection to northern Europe. The recipe also required some freshly squeezed orange juice instead of just water. I was a bit skeptical about the non-traditional ingredients but…hey…I was finally getting my mead after all these years.
I found a beekeeper in Florida who would sell me five pounds of orange blossom honey from his own bees. I ordered five pounds of honey. I got fifty pounds sent overnight delivery!
It turns out that Muriel, the beekeeper, got two orders at the same time. My order was for five pounds sent by UPS ground. Someone else ordered 50 pounds sent express. Muriel got the orders confused and we suddenly were in the business of making ten times as much mead as we had planned.
That also meant we needed ten time the number of oranges we had planned on to get enough juice. I couldn’t bear to let those orange peels go to waste so I took out the recipe for limoncello that I got from relatives in Tuscany on our visit a couple of years earlier and decided to make it with orange zest instead of lemon zest.
I dubbed it arancello, using the Italian word for orange in the same way the Italian word for lemon is used to make the word limoncello.
I ultimately served it to friends and family visiting from Europe. I explained what I had done to make it. Not one of them had ever heard of anything like it but it was a hit.
Fast forward a decade or two and arancello started to be imported from Italy (often called orancello or orangecello). While I can’t claim to have invented arancello, I am pretty sure it was not a common product when I got the idea to repurpose the family recipe for limoncello.
Oh, and that mead…it was pretty darn good. We served it for many dinner parties in place of white wine. Everyone thought it was wine. It had that haunting floral quality so like a good Viognier. Now that we have orange trees outside our door in Palm Springs maybe we can dig up that mead recipe again and make arancello as a buyproduct!
Limoncello (Italian Lemon Liqueur)
While you will find recipes for Limoncello made with vodka, using higher proof alcohol yields a more consistent extraction of the flavor compounds. The higher the proof, the better. However, 190 proof alcohol is not available everywhere so I’ve adjusted this recipe to use 151 proof alcohol. The original recipe, which came from family in Tuscany, called for less than half the amount of lemon zest I've used here. Over successive versions for over the last 2 decades, I find I like these proportions best. Lemoncello does not keep indefinitely. It is best to use this within a year. Use the freshest lemons you can find for the most flavorful limoncello.
The starting point: lemons in the tree in Palm Springs.
Using a vegetable peeler, carefully pare zest from lemons without including any of the white pith. Use a peeler that removes the zest in strips, not the zesters that remove little tiny curls.
Weigh the zest.
Combine the zest and alcohol in a large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. I use a one-gallon jar, though something of approximately three quarts will work just fine.
Put the jar out of direct sunlight in an area that is at comfortable room temperature for seven days. Swirl the contents of the jar daily. The alcohol will not cover the zest so it is important to mix up the contents at least once a day.
On the fifth day, combine the sugar and water in another glass jar or non-reactive container. Stir or swirl several times a day until all the sugar is fully dissolved.
After the zest has macerated for a week in the alcohol, add the sugar syrup.
The limoncello will initially become cloudy as some of the sugar comes out of solution.
Allow the lemon zest to steep in the alcohol-sugar syrup mixture for an additional 3-4 days, swirling once or twice daily.
It will become mostly clear after a few days. Because of the amount of lemon oil in this limoncello, it may remain slightly cloudy.
It is important to not over-extract the lemon zest or the limoncello may become bitter.
Strain the limoncello. Discard the zest. Divide the limoncello into bottles with tight-fitting lids. I like to use 750 ml liquor bottles.
Store for at least one week before using to allow the flavors to mellow.
Limoncello is best served frosty cold, over an ice cube or two. I like to keep a bottle in the freezer. It may get cloudy but just shake it well before using.
Earlier this month I wrote about my “crunchy vegetable” phase of cooking back in the 1970’s. One of the dishes I was reacting to was my mother’s green beans with tomato sauce and bacon. Honestly, though, I can’t tell you why. It was, bar none, my favorite vegetable dish growing up. Why, when I started cooking in my late teens, I thought I could make it better by cooking the beans until they were just crunchy is beyond me.
Chalk it up to youthful indiscretion.
Americans served a lot of mushy vegetables back then, no doubt, but the reaction shouldn’t be to turn every vegetable crunchy. But I was just learning to cook and had a lot to learn, not only about technique, but about understanding the essence of a dish.
The essence of this dish is the silky texture (most definitely not mushy) of the beans cooked for a couple of hours in tomato sauce. The textural change is accompanied by a flavor change that is unobtainable by quickly cooking the ingredients.
It’s actually pretty difficult to turn these beans mushy unless you boil them too long before adding them to the tomato sauce. The tomato sauce reacts with the beans to somehow inhibit the development of mushiness. I’m not sure, but it think it might be the acid in the tomatoes.
That first four minute boil is critical, however. One time, thinking I could eliminate a step, I tried putting the cut up beans in the sauce without parboiling them first. Mistake! Four hours later the beans were still not cooked properly!
Green beans cooked in tomato sauce is a classic Italian combination. The use of bacon clearly signals that this is Italian-American, however. Italian recipes might use pancetta but not bacon. Smoked foods are uncommon in traditional Italian cuisine. The few that appear really stand out.
Pancetta and bacon are made from the same cut, pork belly. Both are cured but only bacon is smoked. Although I’ve made other versions of green beans in tomato sauce that are traditional Italian, rather than Italian-American, I keep coming back to this one as my favorite.
Green Beans with Tomato Sauce and Bacon
These long-simmered green beans in tomato sauce with bacon are an Italian-American favorite. The long, slow cooking is really essential to achieving the right texture and flavor. Although I've specified the amount of water in cups, when cooking with tomato paste my mother always measured water by the can. This dish would have had five tomato paste cans of water. She didn't quite fill them to the top so each can held about 5 1/2 ounces of water, or a little over three cups total. You may need to add more water, or to boil some away, to get a thick sauce.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, large enough to ultimately hold the beans, gently sauté the bacon until golden brown.
Add the minced garlic to the bacon and bacon drippings and sauté until fragrant and just beginning to turn golden, about one minute.
Add the tomato paste and sauté until it turns a shade darker and smells sweet.
Add the water, stirring to combine. Cover and bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer. Add salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste, oregano and sugar. Simmer, partially covered, for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, cut the tips off the beans at a diagonal. Cut the beans into pieces about 2 to 2 ½ inches long, also on the diagonal.
Wash the beans in several changes of cold water. Cover with water and allow the beans to soak for 15 to 20 minutes, to fully plump up with water before cooking.
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water (at least 4 quarts of water and ¼ cup of salt) to a boil.
Drain the beans, add to the boiling water, and return to a boil as quickly as possible.
Boil until the beans are just beginning to get tender, approximately 4 minutes. They will cook much longer in the sauce so be careful not to overcook them at this point.
Drain the beans and add to the tomato sauce, which should have been cooking for 45-60 minutes by this point.
Simmer until the beans are silky, but not mushy. This can take 2 hours, plus or minus. Go by texture, not time. The beans should be silky but still have some body.
Taste once or twice while cooking and adjust salt, pepper and, if you wish, oregano.
You can make the sauce and partially cook the beans in advance. After the beans have been boiled, quickly chill them in a bowl of ice water. Cool the cooked sauce to room temperature. Drain and add the partially cooked beans to the sauce. Refrigerate until ready to complete cooking.
I have been planning the launch of this site for several years. It’s going live shortly before Christmas, a time when Italians traditionally enjoy panettone. Panettone for breakfast. Panettone as a gift. Panettone as a snack. While there are wonderful commercially produced products, I prefer to make my own.
The fact that the site is going live now feels like a gift…to myself! So, I’m making panettone!!! One for me, and half-a-dozen for friends.
I’ve been making Panettone for almost 30 years. This year I’m using candied citron from Italy. I plan to try making my own candied citron from the wonderful Buddha’s Hand fruits available from the farmers’ market in Palm Springs, California where I spend time each winter using this recipe from David Lebovitz. For now, though, I’ll be using the citron from Italy.
Panettone is a sweet bread from Italy, traditionally served around Christmas. It is enriched with eggs and butter and contains raisins and candied citron.
This is candied citron from Italy. The flavor is superior to the diced candied citron sold in supermarkets.
If using large pieces of citron, cut them into batons approximately 1/4 inch on a side.
After cutting batons of citron, or if using citron that is already diced, slice the citron into thin slices.
Beat salt, sugar, eggs and egg yolks together. Reserve.
Use a mixer with a dough hook. Put 1200 g flour in the bowl of the mixer. Add yeast and begin to mix. Add warm water and mix. Add egg mixture and mix. Slowly with the mixer running, add 225 grams of melted butter and orange oil or zest. Knead for approximately 10 minutes, scraping the side of the bowl a few times. Add citron and raisins and continue mixing till incorporated. The dough will be sticky.
Butter the inside of a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of the softened butter. Place dough in the buttered bowl and be sure to butter the top with some of the melted butter. Cover dough with waxed paper and place a kitchen towel on top. Refrigerate overnight. It should have at least doubled by morning. In place of a large bowl, you can use a food-service container of approximately 7 quarts with a tight-fitting lid.
Punch the dough down by hand. Cover again with waxed paper and towels and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk.
Butter 3 cylindrical baking pans, approximately 7 inches in diameter, using 3 tablespoons of softened butter. Set the pans aside.
Knead the dough by hand until smooth and the air bubbles have been worked out. Form into 3 balls and place each into one of the baking pans. Butter the tops with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter.
Cover with waxed paper and a towel. Allow to rise at room temperature until doubled (or a little more), approximately 45-60 minutes.
Cut a deep cross in the top of each loaf. Bake at 350° F for 55-65 minutes. Use a cake tester to be sure that none of the dough clings to tester.
Place on a cooling rack. Cool slightly and remove from the pans. Cool completely on the rack. Wrap tightly until ready to use.