Desserts of Christmas Past
Returning to the village of Sagamore, a food columnist finds cooks are still making the Italian sweets he remembers growing up.
As the holidays approach, I long for the special seasonal desserts created by the Italian women in the small village of Sagamore, where I grew up. Although the village itself is all but gone, a few of the Italian women, now in their 80s and 90s, help keep the old days alive by baking their specialties at this time of year.
Orange Zabaglione, a light custard
(Staff photo by Kevin Mingora)
A few weeks ago, I knocked on the door of Clementine Tassanari, now 90 years old. As I stood on the doorstep, the warm aroma of something baking wafted under the door and transported me back to my childhood. Clem graciously welcomed me into her home, just as she did when I was a child. The house was filled with the wonderful smell of cranberry bread she was baking for the church bake sale. At least eight loaves stood cooling on the kitchen counter.
We sat down at her kitchen table, and Clem brought out her tattered personal recipe books. The books were filled with dozens of hand-written recipes she had accumulated over the decades, from the days when she and other women in the neighborhood collected and exchanged favorites with each other.
“I always cooked to please my family,” she told me. “Since everyone around here always cooked a little differently, I’d gather favorites that someone around our table really loved.”
Like most Italian women of that generation, she learned to cook by watching her mother.
“My mother never measured, but as she was cooking a recipe with a little of this and a little of that, I sat at the table, stopping her to measure what she was putting in the recipe, and then wrote it down.”
Among the assortment of hand-written recipes, I found one for Alba Papi’s “Bugies” (pronounced BU-ZEES) written in Alba’s own antique handwriting. Bugies were one of my childhood favorites, consisting of thin strips of dough tied in knots, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Mrs. Papi passed away a few years ago and was one of the great cooks of the neighborhood. Clem was glad to share this recipe with me, and I’m happy to have a copy of this for my own recipe book and to be able to share it with you.
I left Clem’s warm house wrapped in the aroma of warm cranberry bread, and filled with an abundance of memories, as well as feelings of sadness and loss for the Italian traditions that are so much a part of who I am. My afternoon with Clem reminded me of the power of food in connecting with one’s emotional past.
Here are recipes for several of the traditional holiday desserts I still remember fondly, which I hope you’ll enjoy.
This recipe, which has many variations, is a dense, rich rice cake best when served with a dollop of slightly sweetened whipped cream. Making this dessert the day before serving it allows the flavors to marinate. It can be made either in two 7-inch spring form pans that make smaller cakes, or one large pan that takes longer to bake but results in a higher cake.
Torta Di Riso (Rice Cake)
3 1/2 cups milk
1 cup (7 ounces) imported Arborio rice
5 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
3/4 cup candied citron, finely diced
1/2 cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons butter
Bread crumbs for dusting pans
In a heavy 3- to 4-quart saucepan with cover, combine the milk and rice. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat. Turn heat to low, cover tightly and cook about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to check for sticking. The rice should be a little tender but still resistant to the bite. The mixture will also be a little soupy. Turn into a large bowl and allow it to cool.
Butter 2 (7-inch) spring form pans, dust with breadcrumbs and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Beat the eggs and the sugar with an electric beater until well combined. Add the almond extract, vanilla, and lemon zest. Pour egg mixture into the cooled rice and fold in the citron and almonds.
Divide the mixture between the two prepared spring form pans, and bake 45 to 55 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and pour generous amounts of whisky over the cakes. Allow to cool on a rack, then unmold and serve at room temperature topped with a little whipped cream. One cake serves 6 to 8
Serve Olga (Tontoni) Roberti’s Casa Duri on a midwinter afternoon by the fireplace, along with a glass of sherry or red wine. This recipe yields a crisp yet non-tooth-breaking cookie due to the amount of egg white folded into the dough. Use the leftover egg yolks to make orange zabaglione with the recipe below, inspired by Joe Rigazio at Hill Crest Farms in Sagamore Beach.
Casa Duri (Home made hard cookies)
2 cups sugar
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
About 1 cup of chopped almonds
1 stick (4 ounces) butter (do not use margarine)
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 short glass of whiskey (2 tablespoons)
10 egg whites (beaten stiff)
Make a well with sugar, flour, baking powder and chopped almonds. Melt butter, add almond extract and whiskey. Fold in egg whites. With your hands, form a ball with the dough. Knead until mixture holds together.
Cut off a chunk and roll out on floured board until you get a long rope like strip, a little larger then the size of a pencil. Cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces. Place 1-inch apart on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough. Bake at 350 degrees about 10 minutes or until lightly brown. Let cool. Store in an air-tight glass jar.
Many years ago, Joe Rigazio’s Hill Crest Farm was located on the mainland just off the Sagamore Rotary circle. Joe sold free-range chickens before they were fashionable, as well as beautiful eggs. Joe made a wonderful, rich zabaglione using lots of egg yolks. Layering a large baking dish with lady finders, he sprinkled them with whiskey, spread the creamy yellow zabaglione over the ladyfingers, and scattered the top with chopped toasted almonds.
Inspired by Joe’s zabaglione, I developed this elegant dessert for a holiday dinner party. With guests gathered in the kitchen, I created this rich, citrusy dessert before their eyes.
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons orange liqueur
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon sugar
Sliced toasted almonds
In a large copper bowl combine the egg yolks, sugar, grated orange peel, orange juice and orange liqueur, beat with a wire whisk or electric mixer until mixture is frothy. Place the bowl over a pan of boiling water, about 1-inch from water (not touching); continue beating, about 6 to 8 minutes or until mixture mounds when whisk or beaters are lifted. Remove from pan and set aside. In a separate mixing bowl beat whipping cream to stiff peaks. Spoon warm orange mixtures into long-stemmed goblets, top each serving with a dollop of the whipped cream and sliced almonds; serve immediately. You may also make the orange mixture ahead of time, refrigerate and put the whipped cream and almonds on just before serving. Makes 4.
This dough is extremely firm, with an elastic quality similar to pasta dough. Alba used her pasta machine to roll out this dough. To make it even thinner she would pull the dough as it come out of the machine.
Alba Papi’s Bugie
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 heaping tablespoon butter (melted)
2 jiggers (4 tablespoons) white cooking wine*
*I used whiskey
Sift and mix the first four ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. In smaller bowl beat the eggs, add the vanilla, butter, wine or whisky, and add to dry ingredients. Mix and knead all ingredients well to form a dough. Wrap in plastic and let dough rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Roll out dough with a pasta machine or on a floured board into wafer thin sheets.
With a pastry wheel cut strips about 3/4-inch wide and 6-inches long. Tie each strip gently into a knot.
Fill a 2-guart saucepan about half full of cooking oil and heat to 365 to 370 degrees F on a frying thermometer. Lower several pastries at a time into the hot oil and cook until light brown. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, place on paper towels, and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar when cool. Keep in an airtight container in cool place until ready to serve. Makes about 4 dozen.
Most of the Italian women in the neighborhood traditionally made their Budino with milk. I prefer heavy cream, with whiskey poured over the top while it is still hot. This produces an extremely, velvety, rich custard.
The best way to cook this recipe is in a double boiler over medium heat. To bake it, I use a four-cup battered and worn metal tube pan inherited from my Aunt Mary. It fits perfectly in a four-quart copper and stainless steel pan with a lid. If you do not have a tube pan, any 4-cup soufflé dish placed in a water bath in a 325-degree oven will also work.
Budino (Crème Caramel)
1/2 cup sugar for caramel
2 teaspoons water
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup whiskey
Caramelize sugar with the water in the metal tube pan, over a medium flame (see photo), holding the pan with tongs and rolling the pan making sure the sides of the pan are covered. If using a soufflé dish, put the sugar in a small, heavy saucepan and place it over medium- to high heat and bring to a boil, stirring with a metal spoon, until the sugar is a deep amber color and has caramelized. Then pour the mixture immediately into the soufflé dish, rolling the dish to coat both sides and bottom and set aside.
In a bowl combine the eggs with the sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add the cream and vanilla; beat until blended. Pour egg mixture into prepared pan or dish and place, covered, over medium boiling water for 30 to 35 minutes or until the tip of a knife inserted in center of custard comes out clean. Remove from pan, pour whisky over the hot custard, and place on a rack to cool. Serves 12 to 14.
John Carafoli, cooking expert and food stylist based on the Upper Cape, encourages readers to send comments or questions, which he will answer in his column on the first Wednesday of each month. Send inquiries to “Cooking With Carafoli,” care of, Cape Cod Times Food Editor Gwenn Friss, 319 Main St., Hyannis, MA 02601, or e-mail to email@example.com. Tips and information are also available at his Web site, www.carafoli.com.
(Published: December 1, 2004)