By Tina Albo:
Whenever Christmas rolls around, I listen to everyone around me tell stories about their favorite childhood memories. Most of these memories revolve around special toys and movies from Christmases past. Whenever I think of this special time of year, I think of the wonderful culinary memories made in the kitchens of my Nonni. If there's anything I've known about my grandparents over the years, it's that all four of them loved and cared for me very much.
Natale, the traditional Italian Christmas, was always a magical time for me as a child. Traditionally, the true Italian Christmas is celebrated from the beginning of December to the date of Epiphany, January 6th. During this time, families and friends celebrate, share delicious food, and enjoy the company of those near and dear to them.
Natale is a time for family and a time for traditions. This year, I have decided to continue where my grandparents left off and add an Italian twist to my celebrations with family and friends—a sentiment echoed by my mother, who has also contributed to this article.
While there are so many different pastries available to us around the holidays, I wanted to share a few from my family's native region of Calabria. They may be new to you, or they may be something similar to what you've enjoyed in the past. Either way, you will enjoy your glimpse into what's baking in my cucina!
I am proud to announce that this particular article was created with the efforts of my mother, Gina, and myself, as you will see in my photos. Please read and enjoy!
My Nonno Ugo was a man of many talents. Not only was he a stone mason, but he also dabbled in wine making and was an excellent cook. Well into his early nineties, he also tended a greenhouse garden that he built himself from the ground up. As his only granddaughter, I learned a lot from watching him and cherish every moment I spent with him.
His favorite time of year was Christmas, as he would happily spend hours making delicious treats for my brothers and me. Every year on Christmas Eve, the entire family would gather in his living room to open presents. His dining-room table would always be well stocked with his homemade goodies. We would eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves. To this day, I can almost smell the pleasant aroma that used to waft from his kitchen whenever I reminisce about Christmas Eves past.
When he passed away in 2005, he left us a treasure trove of recipes to enjoy; and one of those recipes was for his Turdilli.
The best way I can describe these delicious, bite-sized pastries is that they must have been sent from heaven. Turdilli is almost like the traditional Cuban Buñuelo, a sweet, deep-fried dough. It is made with regular flour, orange zest, sugar, and Moscato wine (or any wine you prefer—Nonno Ugo used to pour in his homemade Zinfandel). The finished product is drizzled with honey and has a texture that melts in your mouth.
For years I have been adapting Nonno Ugo's recipe and have managed to replicate the heavenly taste with my own twists. Cinnamon in the dough adds an extra dimension of flavor as does a hint of orange juice in the honey that is drizzled on top. Like every other recipe in the world, you can adapt it and make it your own!
4 cups of flour
½ cup sugar
1 cup white wine or vermouth
1 package Lievito Bertolini (or 1 tbsp baking powder)
1 tsp cinnamon
Zest of 1 orange
Oil for frying
Orange juice (best if you use the juice from the fruit itself and not from concentrate)
In a mixing bowl, combine eggs and sugar.
Add the orange zest, wine/vermouth, Lievito Bertolini, cinnamon and flour into the egg mixture. Be sure to slowly incorporate the flour so that your dough comes out nice and even.
Work the dough gently and evenly mix in all the ingredients.
Take a piece of dough, roll it and make a 1 inch flat strip. Cut the strip into small pieces that are about 1 inch.
With a fork, put lines onto the pieces and curl them into small cylinders.
Fry all of the Turdilli.
In a pan at low heat, melt the honey and add the orange juice.
Add the Turdilli, one at a time, to the honey and coat it evenly before placing the coated pieces on a cooling rack over top parchment paper.
Once all pieces have been coated, let the honey cool slightly and pour over the Turdilli.
Nothing says "Buon Natale!" like this sweet confection! Whenever I make a batch, I feel like Nonno Ugo is there with me, proud of my work in keeping the Albo family traditions alive.
Crespelle (Cullurielli) Calabrese
The best part about having both sets of Nonni living in the same city is that I got to spend equal amounts of time at both houses. Natale was also a favourite time of year for Nonno Giustino and Nonna Fortunata, my mother's parents.
I fondly recall visiting during the holidays, feeling the warmth and enjoying the flavorful simplicity of the delicious food Nonna Fortunata would prepare for us. Much like at Nonno Ugo's house, there would always be this pleasant, warm aroma emanating from her kitchen into the living room
where we would all gather.
Cullurielli, or Crespelle, is one pastry that will always bring on pleasant Christmas memories for me, as Nonna Fortunata always made sure to make a few batches for the family.
Unlike Turdilli, Cullurielli is a versatile fried dough made with mashed potatoes. You could make it as a regular sweet fritter by coating the finished product with sugar, or you could make a savory stuffed fritter by adding some sliced anchovies. Either way, your taste buds will love it!
4 cups flour
1 ¼ cup mashed potato (I would suggest using Russets or a harder variety)
2 ½ cups warm water
2 tbsp yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 small can of anchovy fillets, drained (optional)
Oil for frying
In a small bowl, mix the yeast with warm water and sugar. Set aside.
Mix the mashed potato and the active yeast.
Add the salt, flour, and as much warm water as needed to form a compact dough.
On a working floured surface, form 20 cm-long sticks that are 1 cm in diameter. (For the anchovy stuffed fritters, form the dough to fit the palm of your hand and place one anchovy fillet in the opening. Then, join the ends together to form a pocket. Roll the pocket a few times on the floured surface to ensure that the dough will hold when fried.)
Bring the ends to form the shape of a donut.
Cover donuts and let rise for an hour.
Fry the dough in hot, boiling oil. Remove from oil when they are golden brown and twice the volume.
Drain and put donuts on paper towels or blotting paper to drain excess oil.
Place in a dish and serve.
With these heavenly savory donuts, you will want to make an entire batch to keep as a secret stash, for you will find that every morsel will be gone in the blink of an eye. The best part is that you can dip a piece in a mixture of olive oil and fig balsamic vinegar for a perfect last-minute addition to a holiday antipasto dish. My advice would be to make sure that you don't run out!
Pesche Con Crema
One last pastry that brings back a lot of memories would be the Pesche Con Crema. Edmonton boasts a big population of my extended family, and there are a few family friends and cousins who would send these delicious cookies to Nonno Giustino and Nonna Fortunata, who would then share them with my brothers and me. As far as I can remember, there
would always be a sizable pile on top of their coffee table for everyone to enjoy whenever they came to visit.
While they aren't strictly a pastry for the holiday season (you can be sure to enjoy them during any celebration), I find that they add a special something to your holiday get-togethers.
Like the name suggests, the cookies are shaped like peaches and are filled with a delicious pastry cream flavored with the zest of a lemon and peach jam.
(Note: I have adapted this recipe. The original credit goes to Martha Stewart herself for her wonderful take on these delicious cookies. Please visit her website to see the original recipe.)
2 cups 3.25% (or whole) milk
Zest of 1 lemon, peeled with a vegetable peeler into strips
4 large egg yolks
¾ cup sugar (or any sugar substitute you might want to use)
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup peach jam
3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
3 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup milk
½ cup unsalted butter (melted and cooled)
Grated zest of 1 lemon
½ cup white rum
Red and yellow food coloring
1 cup sugar
1. In a large saucepan, bring milk and strips of lemon zest to a simmer over medium heat.
2. In a large bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is thick and yellow.
3. Add flour to egg mixture and whisk until well-combined.
4. Remove lemon zest from milk and discard.
5. Slowly whisk hot milk into egg mixture.
6. Return mixture to saucepan and place over medium heat.
7. Cook, stirring constantly until the cream thickens and begins to boil.
8. Transfer pastry cream to a large bowl and mix in peach jam until even; cover with plastic wrap, pressing down on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool completely.
1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder.
2. In another large bowl, whisk eggs. Add sugar and whisk to combine.
3. Add milk, butter, and lemon zest to the egg mixture and mix until smooth.
4. Gradually add flour mixture, mixing with a fork, until dough is smooth and stiff.
5. Let dough rest for 5 minutes.
6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with non-stick baking mats.
7. Using a lightly mounded tablespoon of dough, roll firmly between your palms to make a smooth, round ball that is roughly the size of a walnut.
8. Repeat the process, taking care to make sure all the balls are uniform in size. Place finished balls on prepared baking sheets, spacing about 1 inch apart. (Note: you should be able to fit 24 balls on each baking sheet.)
9. Flatten tops slightly with your fingertips.
10. Transfer to preheated oven and bake until the bottoms are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Please keep in mind that the tops will still look pale.
11. Transfer to a rack and let cool slightly.
1. While the pastries are still warm, use a small, sharp knife to cut a circle on the flat side of each ball. This circle should be about the size of a quarter. Please take care not to crack the edges when doing so.
2. Use the tip of the knife to scrape out enough crumbs to make hollow and hold about 1 tsp of pastry cream. Set pastries aside.
3. Place rum or maraschino mixture in a small bowl. Add enough red and yellow food coloring to create your desired shade of peach. Set aside.
4. Fill a shallow bowl with sugar. Set aside.
5. Fill each hollowed-out cookie with 1 teaspoon filling.
6. Sandwich two cookies together so that the filling comes just to the edge, taking care not to crack or break.
7. Using a pastry brush, brush "peach" with colored liquor and roll in the sugar to coat. Transfer finished cookies to a large, sealed container and transfer to the refrigerator to chill overnight.
8. Just before serving, pierce each "peach" with a toothpick where the two cookies come together and insert the "stem" of a peach leaf. You can also garnish the cookies with decorative leaves as well. This step is entirely optional, as the cookies will still look magnificent.
With these playful cookies, I would suggest making more than one batch, as they will disappear before your very eyes. They are the perfect addition for any get-together during the holidays.
You can also get creative and arrange them into pastry boxes for fun gifts for your guests!
Natale may come and go like the wind, but these pastries will create a lasting impression that will make your upcoming Christmases be merrier and brighter with each passing year.
From my famiglia to yours, Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!