by Camille Loccisano
There’s no getting around it. As an Italian-American, my holidays have always included great food, especially at Christmas.
I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — a middle-class neighborhood which nestles like a small jewel under the Verrazano Bridge. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, it was home to many Italian and Irish immigrant families, and offered a harmonious life for one and all in our Catholic community.
At St. Patrick’s Grammar School, I can still recall the month-long Advent season, with the frigid December days leading up to the breathless excitement of Christmas Eve. In every comforting classroom at St. Patrick’s, the polished oak floors were warm beneath our feet as Sister Muriel Agnes taught us about the Advent wreath. My family attended 9 a.m. Mass every Sunday morning, and I sang in the choir – ancient Catholic carols about the birth of our Savior.
In every comforting classroom at St. Patrick’s, the polished oak floors were warm beneath our feet as Sister Muriel Agnes taught us about the Advent wreath.
At home, there was a whirl of tremendous energy as we prepared for Christmas, centering on the person of Grandma Sue. When I was growing up, she lived in the ground-floor apartment of my parents’ home. Though she was the perfect picture of an old-fashioned Italian grandmother, Grandma Sue was not actually my grandmother. Nonetheless, she was like a grandma to me in every sense of the word.
An elderly widow, Grandma Sue humbly displayed her Faith in the statues of the Blessed Mother and Saint Anthony on her simple bedroom dresser. She had experienced many tribulations in her life, including the unspeakable loss of her teenaged son to cancer.
Grandma Sue’s Big Wooden Table
Yet, she was prayerful, strong and spirited. She also gave much joy to those around her. Her cozy apartment was always open to one and all in Bay Ridge, and her kitchen was one of bustling activity. Grandma Sue was a proficient and prolific cook, with lots of (mostly Italian) gourmet recipes under her belt. I owe much of my lifelong romance with food to this warm and generous woman who had – in the Brooklyn vernacular — amazing ‘cooking chops.’
Crowd-pleasing meals and desserts were Grandma Sue’s specialty. Her homemade pasta dishes were topped with savory sauces and sharp, flavorful cheeses. Grandma Sue’s cakes oozed delicious chocolate or luscious, sugary fruits.
Her homemade pasta dishes were topped with savory sauces and sharp, flavorful cheeses. Grandma Sue’s cakes oozed delicious chocolate or luscious, sugary fruits.
As a child, I would sit at Grandma Sue’s big wooden table while she instructed me in the fine art of cooking. While we chopped and peeled, she would tell me the stories of her life, and the lessons she’d learned.
Today, as I recall her words about her teenage son’s death, the irony is significant. There are many years that bridge the life of my carefree, happy young days working at Grandma Sue’s table to my present life as a mother who has also lost her teenage son to cancer. Just like Grandma Sue.
Through it all, Grandma Sue continued to cook and bake, especially her lush dessert, ‘schkatalata.’ Now, we knew this was Italian dialect, and therefore not the correct pronunciation. Regardless, the dessert was unknown, at least in our world. Even when I embarked beyond Brooklyn, I never met a soul who was familiar with schkatalata.
Even when I embarked beyond Brooklyn, I never met a soul who was familiar with schkatalata.
Hundreds of Schkatalata
Every December, Grandma Sue, my mom, my sister and I prepared hundreds of schkatalata for family, friends and our own Christmas table. To make this pastry-like treat, Grandma Sue formed a rich dough of flour, muscatel wine, and warm olive oil. We shaped the strips of dough into pinwheels and fried them to a crisp. The pinwheels were then fried again in a deeply intriguing mixture of sweet honey and homemade raisin wine, traditionally called vine cotte. Once the schkatalata were done, they were sprinkled with a dusting of warm toasted nuts.
This dessert is beyond divine, — with a perfect balance of wine, honey, and raisins with the richness of the dough and the warm, crunchy nuts.
Dear Grandma Sue passed away the day after Christmas in 1983, but her recipe for schkatalata remained with us. We continued the tradition; as my mom grew older, she would have her grandchildren around the table, assembly style, shaping the little wheels while she kneaded dough.
With the dawn of the Internet, I sought out information about this dessert, with no luck.
Years later, however, a dear friend in California, Jeanne Lorusso, sent me her local farmers’ market newsletter; the front cover photos showed a huge tray of Grandma Sue’s schkatalata, and underneath it read, “Cartellate.”
I immediately typed the word “cartellate” into a search engine, and endless websites and a plethora of information emerged – all about Grandma Sue’s honey-and-raisin wheels. It turns out that the recipe dates back to the early 1700s and was proudly made in the Catholic convents of Italy. It was an especially well-known dessert in Puglia; Grandma Sue’s schkatalata are proudly displayed in the windows of local bakeries. (Fascinating, of course, because Grandma Sue was not from anywhere near Puglia!)
It turns out our family recipe dates back to the early 1700s and was proudly made in the Catholic convents of Italy. It was an especially well-known dessert in Puglia; Grandma Sue’s schkatalata are proudly displayed in the windows of local bakeries.
Not every recipe for cartellate is exactly the same. Many Americans of Italian descent prepare them with a touch of cinnamon. Others use the juice of figs or prunes. It was noted that Italian nobility would use tangerine juice, as it was more costly than fig or raisin juice. But all the web sites stated how this dessert is extraordinarily unique in flavor.
Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve
Back in Brooklyn, when Christmas Eve arrived we would attend Midnight Mass after celebrating the “Feast of Seven Fishes.” Along with our traditional seafood dinner, my mother and my aunts served espresso, pastries, homemade cookies, and of course, Grandma Sue’s cartellate.
Cartellate is one of the best moments of Christmas for our family, and so it is our pleasure to share this recipe from our Catholic kitchen, to yours.
Back in Brooklyn, when Christmas Eve arrived we would attend Midnight Mass after celebrating the “Feast of Seven Fishes.” Afterwards, we served espresso, pastries, homemade cookies, and of course, Grandma Sue’s cartellate.
3 1/3 cup flour
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup muscatel wine
1/4 cup water
1 egg white
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup vine cotte (recipe to follow)
3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup almonds
On a clean work surface, form the flour into the circular shape of a wreath. Heat the olive oil until warm. Sprinkle it along the top of the wreath of flour. With a spoon, mix the oil into the flour until the texture becomes crumbly. Heat the muscatel wine until warm and repeat the process of stirring into the flour.Sprinkle in the water. Knead the flour mixture until it becomes a ball of dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow setting for ten minutes.
Cut off a large handful portion of the dough. Take the first piece, dust with a bit of flour, and roll out thinly with a rolling pin. You can also use a pasta machine. Using a fluted-edge pastry cutter, cut the rolled-out dough into 11/2”-wide strips. Dip your finger into the egg white and use it as a paste to pinch the dough together about one inch apart along the strip in order to create small boat-like pockets. Bring the dough around from one end and roll the strip to form a rosette. Repeat with remaining strips of dough. Place the cartellate on paper towels overnight in a cool room. The next day they should be a bit stiff.
In a sauté pan, warm vegetable oil over medium heat. Fry a few cartellate at a time, turning over once, until they are golden. In another sauté pan, warm the vine cotte and honey over medium heat. Place the fried cartellate in the warmed mixture for three minutes on each side, or until they are coated well. Layer the walnuts and pecans on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown. Place them in a food processor and pulse lightly until coarse. Arrange the cartellate on a platter and dust with the toasted nuts.
1-pound box of raisins
11/2 quarts of water
1 cup sugar
Add raisins to the water and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat for one hour or until raisins start to plump and burst. Remove the raisins from the water with a slotted spoon. Reserve raisin water in the pot.
Place the raisins, a large spoonful at a time, into a cheesecloth and squeeze the juice out of them through the cloth and back into the pot. Discard the squeezed-out pulp inside the cheesecloth.
When all the raisins are squeezed out through the cheesecloth, add the sugar to the pot. Simmer for one hour and a half or until syrupy. Pour the vine cotte in a jar and cover when cooled. Refrigerate for up to three months.
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