Here’s an essay I published in New Times earlier this month, and later read at a New Times-sponsored reading at Crescent Ballroom.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving, and I am making eighty dozen Christmas cookies. Surrounded by metal contraptions that resemble waffle irons, I am cranking out hundreds of flat, round, paper-thin Italian holiday cookies that signal—at least to Italian Americans from northeastern Ohio—that Christmas is nearly here.
I don’t eat pizzelles, a traditional Italian cookie I’ve heard people describe as resembling snowflakes and giant drinks coasters, but I’ve been making them practically since I was old enough to stand. I’ve got it down to a science: Plop two spoonfuls of sticky, anise-flavored batter onto the grooved face of the electric pizzelle iron; close iron; open second iron and remove cookies and place on cooling rack; fill second iron with batter; move on to third iron, filling it with batter and closing it, by which time the cookies in the first iron are done and I’m ready to start again.
To my palate, pizzelles don’t taste like much, no matter what kind of flavoring I add. But white people seem to like them, and I can make a lot of them in very little time. Today, I’ve been making pizzelles for a half-hour and I’ve already got about 400 cookies made.
My spouse, Tevye, wanders through the dining room where I’ve set up my pizzelle assembly line. “Oh, hurray!” he sneers. “Sawdust cookies! It must be Christmastime!”
Ha ha. Tevye contends that all the Italian sweets I make are dry and flavorless. Not because he’s unkind or because I’m preparing the recipes badly. Because he’s right. The seven dozen biscotti I made yesterday are exactly perfect, and just like the ones for which people pay three bucks apiece at coffee houses and better delis. They’re also like roofing shingles: brittle and flavor-free. I’ve attempted biscotti recipes other than the traditional one used by my grandmother, ones with exotic ingredients like rosemary and toasted almonds and dipped in melted chocolate, and the cookies are certainly tastier. But they’re not traditional. They’re someone else’s Christmas.
“At least someone else’s Christmas doesn’t require a half-gallon of milk to force down,” Tevye reminds me as I plop out my eight hundredth spoonful of pizzelle batter. “Please tell me you’re not going to make taralli this year.”
“Too late,” I mutter into my mixing bowl. “They’re in the freezer.”
“Oh, good!” Tevye crows. “Because it’s not Christmas without freeze-dried pepper-and-fennel pretzels!”
Well, no. It isn’t. At least according to my family traditions. Last year, though, I tossed tradition out the window and, in an attempt to compensate for the parched sweets of my people, I swapped a soaked-in-rum English Christmas Cake for the traditional New Year’s Eve rice pie (or, as Tevye calls it, Sahara Desert Pie) that my great-grandmother used to serve every December 31st. We’d had Christmas Cake at a friend’s house in London on Boxing Day the year before, and it was the moistest holiday dessert I’d ever eaten. The very complicated recipe involved making a dense, candied-fruit-filled cake that one “fed” with cognac, once a day for a whole month before the holidays. Then, just before serving, one covered the cake with sheets of marzipan and topped it off with a two-inch-thick layer of royal icing.
“So you’re replacing the New Year’s Eve pie made from wood shavings and sand with a cake filled with rubbing alcohol and smeared with lard,” Tevye clarified. “One into which you’ve poured eighty dollars worth of hooch, and that will set off carbon monoxide meters all over downtown Phoenix?”
I remained resolute, and served my Christmas Cake to the neighbors who came for a midnight toast on New Year’s Eve.
They were polite. Mostly. Two or three of them took a nibble, but even the drunkest of our guests left most of their Christmas Cake on their Santa plates. The next morning, I had about 30 pounds of rum-drenched fruitcake to unload.
In the end, we left it on the sidewalk in front of the neighborhood park, hoping a homeless person with a drinking problem might want it.
“Maybe you should go back to baking with splinters and sawdust,” Tevye suggested as we headed back to our house. “At least pizzelles look nice.”
Thing I Hate Today: Christmas arrives with light speed