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