when i first married len, he told me amazing stories of his mother's immigrant family, grandfather salvatore and grandmother angelina lentine. how they arrived from sicily traveling through ellis island, speaking no english and carrying few belongings and many dreams hoping that these would be enough in a new country. how they carved out a home for their growing family in new jersey where their descendents still remain.
how angelina raised her seven children alone once her young husband died, laboring and resolving to make it a happy and productive home. how she raised chickens and would gather the fullness of her apron at her waist, filling it with the day's supply of eggs. how she spent many years in mourning and dressed in black because of the loss of her husband and many children. how she would sit at the phone, dressed in black, calling on children and neighbors daily just to see how everyone was doing. how she would tell her girls to "make dinner and don't ask me what to make" because she had worked hard enough during the day to think any more.
how she would work in the kitchen with eager children watching, making gnocchi so fast that her fingers were blurred by speed. how she was ask len in her blend of italian and broken english to "fikisit lenny" (fix it) and when he would, she would praise him with "looka lika brand new".
i didn't know angelina but i know her kind. the kind who would cling to the words of her mother, remembering what she had been taught as a child and knowing that if she followed those rules, she would make it. a woman who despite the loss of her husband would forge through giving little thought (in public) to the fact that she was alone. it was only in her private moments that the tears would come, if they came at all. a woman who had the respect and love of her children and even though she was as tough as nails, they loved her and somewhere in the back of their mind, wanted to be just like her. a woman whose grandchildren marveled at the table before them, the italian delicacies of lasagna and meatballs and manocotti, all homemade with, well, secrets she never disclosed. a woman with such strength and resolve that it made your head spin.
i hope len never forgets angelina and the way she called him 'lenny' when no one else in the world dare would. i hope he doesn't forget her misshapen fingers working at the speed of sound assembling traditional feasts for her family. i hope i never forget the power of a woman to hold a family together despite death and struggle.
so each time i make and enjoy cucidati, i think of angelina, her family and her beginnings. i hope that she'll have this inkling of a southern lady trying to be just a little sicilian and a whole lotta strong.
cucidati (italian fig cookies)
i searched high and low for the recipe and it was tough to find. the one that is by far the best, in my humble opinion, is by brown eyed baker. she is the mastermind behind this recipe and i believe managed to merge tradition and flavor in one recipe.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1½ tablespoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
1 cup vegetable shortening
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup milk
sift flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl. whixk in sugar and combine well. cut in the shortening with a fork or pastry blender and work the mixture until it looks like cornmeal. in a separate bowl whisk together the egg, vanilla and milk. add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and mix with an electric mixer for a full 3 minutes. dough will be soft. remove from bowl and knead by hand for 5 minutes. divide the dough into 4 equal pieces, wrap each with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
1 cup dried figs
1 cup dried dates, pitted
¾ cup raisins
½ cup walnuts, chopped or ground in food processor
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup honey
¼ cup orange marmalade
grind figs, dates, and raisins in a food processor until coarse. add the remaining ingredients.
(i mix these a day before i assemble. i leave them in the frig overnight which seems to make the gooey goodness so much richer. use sourwood honey for a touch of southern sweetness.)
work with one piece of dough at a time. on a floured surface, roll the dough into squares - about 3" by 3". use an ice cream scoop and gather filling and place in the middle of each square. pull the edges over top, and pinch to seal.
(my cookies never look the same. the more filling i can get inside, the better. don't worry about looks; once you drizzle sugar and sprinkles on top, you'll forget about how 'creative' you have been.)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons milk (approximately)
colored sprinkles (optional)
mix together, adding only enough milk to achieve desired consistency. make sure it is still thick, not runny. drizzle on the tops of the cookies, then sprinkle with color. let them set before storing in airtight container.
(it takes about 2 days for these to completely disappear. as good as they are, they are still all about family and tradition. enjoy!)
There were only three of us for the holidays - me, mama and daddy. In fact, it was always just the three of us. And that was just fine by me.
As each year came to a close and the north Georgia mountains took on its icy glaze, I was certain of a few things.
First, it was time to kill the hog, and that meant, all the fresh sausage I could hold. Biscuits and thick, bubbly sausage gravy with tidbits of meat weighing it down as only mama could make. Daddy preferred the red-eye gravy, and mama would make it for him. I would turn up my nose and reach for the creamy goo instead.
Then, there were fried pies. In the fall, mama would dry the apples on tattered, discarded front door screens. After a few days, she would gather, then freeze them in the little quart boxes for a winter treat. I couldn't stand it. Inevitably, within a couple of weeks of stacking the boxes neatly in calculated rows in the freezer, I would drag out a box and beg for fried pies. She'd roll out a dough, cut it hap-haphazardly, stuff it with cooked apples, and with bubbling oil in the iron skillet, she'd drop them in. I'd hold my breath until I finally saw the edges turning brown. She would scoop each ready one onto a towel and simultaneously give me the evil eye. I had to wait. Not long, but I still had to wait. Finally, she'd nod and I'd grab. The taste of that first bite would hold me all winter.
Finally, her orange slice cake. We hated fruit cake, but there was something about this cake - even though it had most of the same ingredients - that had the perfect crunch, the perfect flavor. I honestly can't remember taking part in the baking, but I do remember the moment she took it out of the oven. She'd pour the glaze onto the steaming cake, and it inhaled the orange juice mixture. I'd watch puddles form on the plate, and it took all the strength in me not to run my finger around the plate's edge. Again, it was the evil eye.
For those fruit cake haters, here's a variation that just might turn into a tradition. A couple of things to keep in mind: it takes forever to cook and it weighs a ton. As for the evil eye, you will have to work on that one yourself.
Juette's Orange Slice Cake
For the cake:
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 (12-ounce) box dried dates, chopped
1 pound orange slice candies, chopped
2 cups pecans, chopped
1/2 cup flour for dredging
2 cups sweetened coconut flakes
For the glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup orange juice
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Grease and flour a tube pan.
For the cake: In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. In a separate bowl, dissolve baking soda in buttermilk. Add flour to butter mixture alternating with the buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with flour. In another bowl, toss dates, nuts and chopped orange slices in 1/2 cup flour until coated. Stir in coconut until well-combined. Add to batter and mix until well combined.
Bake in a prepared pan for about 2 hours or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. (I had to add an extra 45 minutes to baking time; of course, it could be my ancient oven.)
For the glaze: Meanwhile, combine powdered sugar and orange juice in a small bowl until smooth. Remove cake from pan and cool cake completely. Drizzle glaze over cake. Or, when cake comes out of the oven, use a toothpick to poke holes and pour glaze on cake. Let cake stand in tube pan overnight before inverting.
Whether it is exploring this amazing world or being content on my own piece of real estate near Athens, Georgia, I'm spinning stories and fashioning tales from a Southern perspective. As an editor and writer, I get to meet incredible people and share their stories. As a photographer, I get to cement these moments in time. As a wife and mother, I'm always excited to see what's around the next corner, For it's anything but ordinary.