“I remember everything about my childhood, whether it happened or not.” – Mark Twain
Holiday baking was a Christmas tradition that began with my daughter when she was old enough to participate in the galley, and young enough to think it was great fun. As many a parent will corroborate, kitchen duties can often be one of the many litmus tests by which your child-rearing skills are held to. While some kids enjoy active involvement, others would prefer to lose privileges than be forced to participate. My daughter was, gratefully, of the former league, however, her association came with its own stipulations, chiefly that we each had our own roles and methods and had to play together nicely. (Which seemed unfair, since I was, theoretically, the adult.)
Untold hours spent at flour-dusted counters and tables yielding innumerable batches of cookies, candies, and assorted delicacies produced, in my mind, a lifetime of memories as well as the opportunity to give gifts made with our hands. She and I were a couple of fearless bakers, often incorporating new twists into old recipes that were passed on down from other generations of galley goddesses. A budding scientist, Em would frequently devise her own creations and occasionally went so far as to record her epicurean opuses onto bits of paper so that we have dead-on proof that she once made milk soup with chicken and another time, catbox cake. Always the optimist, she owned her blunders, claiming that “food art is my favorite medium because you get to eat your mistakes.”
Every year, sometime after Thanksgiving, we generally extricated the cookbooks and miscellaneous paper scraps containing recipes and proceeded to delve into the annual baking recon mission. The selected favorites were organized in one heap, while the uncertain options would be piled beside the only-if-monkeys-fly-outta-my-butt stack. One year, determined to begin a new family tradition, as well as to honor a part of her heritage, we put a couple of new dessert options into the pile of uncertainty and finally selected cannoli as our experimental project. For those of you not in the know, cannoli is a fried pastry roll with a sweet creamy cheese filling that often includes candied fruits, booze and chocolate (or what I like to refer to as 3 of the 4 basic food groups). It seemed like a good idea at the time.
What makes cannoli so unusually challenging is the combination of preparation, timing, and actual production skills. What made our debut so problematic, initially, was that the recipe directions were in fricking Italian. Back then, mind you, in the day of excruciatingly slow internet search engines, translation into English was acquired at a most leisurely pace, and in a less than exacting conversion. This detail, alone, should have killed the production at the onset. I, however, perceived this as an opportunity for us to learn a romance language without the help of Rosetta Stone. No matter that we also had to convert measurements from metric to standard as well as attempt to translate Sicilian protocols into Alaskan realities.
For one thing, the pastry shell is formed by wrapping the dough around a cannolo form, an item that can easily be acquired today by clicking on this link – however, that was not the case many years ago when the instructions clearly indicated that the traditional method used by genuine Nonne entailed “cutting last year’s wooden broom handle into 5-inch sections” and then oiling them well before forming the cookie shells around the exteriors. Last year’s broom? What sort of domestic queen acquires a new ride every year, I wondered. Determined not to appear the amateur before my daughter, I plucked a hacksaw out of the tool closet and grabbed the wooden broom as if it were perfectly normal to truncate my trusty ride for the sake of Christmas.
“Mon cherie, hold the broom down, please.”
“Why, mama?” she asked with eyes wide and a shy grin playing across her lips.
“We’re going to perform a ritualistic sacrifice,” I uttered while marking off every five inches on the handle, her fierce little hands simultaneously pressing down on the broom.
“Because this is how real cannolis are made.”
“But mom, I’m not going to eat the broom,” she remarked.
“Good. More for me,” I teased back. “Now hold very still while I eliminate some housework.”
Together we got that broomstick sawed and sanded down and then discussed how to improvise necessary ingredients with available substitutions. In other words, our trial run was the antithesis of all good things that baking calls for: precise increments of certain constituents that couldn’t even be acquired in coastal Alaskan grocery stores. Adding insult to injury, we burnt the first shells in oil too hot. Some got stuck to the forms. Others broke while being filled… That didn’t matter because we were forever living life extemporaneously and somehow everything always worked out.
In the end, the cannolis turned out fine. They were delicious, a little dangerous, and unique to our community. Most importantly, they solidified a tradition that we created with our own signatures. It was all about the journey, much more than the destination; besides, in the worst case scenario, we would both be buzzed on the energy, the sugary filling, and maybe just a wee bit of the Marsala wine that the recipe called for… And after all, isn’t that what holidays are really all about?
Here’s a tribute to Cannoli, written by an anonymous Sicilian seventeenth century poet:
Beddi Cannola di Carnalivari
Megghiu vuccuni a la munnu ‘un ci nn’è:
Sú biniditti spisi li dinari;
Ogni cannolu è scettru d’orgni Re.
Arrivunu li donni a disistari;
Lu cannolu è la virga di Moisè
Cui nun ni mancia, si fazza ammazzari,
Cu li disprezza è un gran curnutu affè!
Beautiful are the Cannoli of Carnevale,
No tastier morsel in the world:
Blessed is the money used to buy them;
Cannoli are the scepters of all Kings.
Women even desist [from pregnancy]
For the cannolo, which is Moses’s Staff:
He who won’t eat them should let himself be killed;
He who doesn’t like them is a cuckold, Olè!
(No, even the WSW cannot explain this line: “women even desist [from pregnancy]”)
Thanks to http://www.diwinetaste.com/ for cannoli pic
Thanks to these folks for mother/daughter pic