Italian-American Christmas, Springfield-style
For years, my husband Peter’s entire dental office eagerly anticipated the arrival of Velma Viele Mayes’ Italian Christmas cookies. The large foil-covered cardboard box overflowed with anise-flavored pizzelle, fried knots of wine-infused dough, cookies filled with dates, cookies covered with sprinkles, and too many others to name or even remember. I used to work there part-time, but even when I wasn’t working, I’d sneak in and grab some.
Mayes is no longer making cookies or her other renowned specialties, but the Springfield area’s Italian-American community, as always, has many outstanding home cooks. And nothing showcases their traditional dishes and abilities more than their Christmas feasts.
Sandy Pecori is one of the best. Not only is she fun and an excellent cook, she’s also organized. Since 1992, she’s kept a file of each year’s Christmas Eve menu. The Pecoris follow the tradition of La Vigilia, wherein seven fishes/seafoods are served on Christmas Eve. La Vigilia owes much to the now-abandoned Catholic practice of forbidding meat on Fridays and Holy Days. As for the seven fishes, “The number seven is significant to Catholics,” Pecori says. “It’s associated with perfection, with the days of creation, the number of sacraments and the number of virtues.”
And it provides a creative framework. “I have recipes, but I don’t always follow them,” Pecori says. La Vigilia – aka the Feast of the Seven Fishes – is the Pecoris’ biggest Christmas celebration. Some dishes appear yearly, others vary. “We always have shrimp cocktail,” Pecori says. “It’s not Italian, but we love it. I have a big fish platter that we line with lettuce and top with smoked oysters, smoked salmon, anchovies, sardines and whatever else looks good. There’s always a baked fish – sometimes as many as three – and usually scalloped oysters.” Some years there may be a fritto misto (mixed fry) of scallops, cod, smelts, oysters and/or other seafood, simply dredged in flour and fried in light olive oil; other years perhaps a seafood salad.
The huge kitchen island that displays the Pecoris’ Christmas Eve buffet also contains non-fish dishes. There’s always a fresh salad, mushroom, artichoke and olive relish; and whisper-thin fettuccini made by Pecori’s mother-in-law, Giovanna, dressed simply with a marinara sauce made with tomatoes canned from Pecori’s own garden, or a white clam sauce. A separate table holds desserts: cookies, including Italian spicy chocolate drops, bread pudding made with Italian panettone, and Giovanna’s incomparable nut ring.
Springfield’s best Italian-American home cooks aren’t all women. Incoming Roman Cultural Society President Larry Trapani who, like Pecori, cans sauce from his garden’s tomatoes, had me drooling as he described what he makes for Christmas. Trapani doesn’t follow the La Vigilia custom: Christmas Eve at his son’s home features pizza, “although we do have anchovy pizza.” Trapani prepares his big feast for Christmas Day: “We’ll have stuffed manicotti. I make my own sausage, and my own bread.” He starts his bread a day ahead with a biga – an Italian pre-ferment made of yeast, flour and water that increases flavor.
The centerpiece of Trapani’s Christmas feast is braciole, thin steak rolled around a stuffing of a multitude of heavenly ingredients, including three cheeses, two cured meats, breadcrumbs, herbs, wine, olives, garlic, onion, hardboiled eggs; then tied and braised in that homemade marinara.
Much as I’d love to be part of a big Italian-American family Christmas celebration, my own roots are decidedly German and Irish/Welsh. At least we non-Italians can co-opt some of their Christmas specialties for our own celebrations. Buon Natale!
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Italian Christmas Eve seafood salad
This seafood salad is associated with Christmas, but it’s delicious any time of year.
- 1 lb. raw, peeled and deveined shrimp, 26-30 count
- 1 lb. calamari (squid) cleaned and cut into rings and tentacle sections
- 1 lb. large scallops, cut into fourths
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp. salt
- a few black peppercorns
- 2 ribs celery, cut thin on the diagonal
- 1 small red bell pepper, diced
- 1/4 c. chopped red onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 c. good quality extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of two lemons
- 1/4 c. chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Have the seafood cleaned and ready to cook.
Bring one quart water to boil in a 4 qt. pot. Add the bay leaf, salt and peppercorns; boil, covered, for five minutes to infuse the flavors.
Add the shrimp, cook 30 seconds; add calamari and scallops. Cook another 2-3 minutes or until shrimp are pink and scallops are opaque. Strain seafood, removing the bay leaf and peppercorns, and set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the celery, red pepper, red onion and garlic. Whisk in the olive oil, lemon juice, parsley. Add the seafood and season to taste with the salt and pepper. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving. Serves 6-8.
Note: 1 lb. each of mussels and clams, or additional shrimp and scallops can be substituted for the calamari.
Panettone bread pudding with Amaretto sauce
This is bread pudding with an Italian twist. Panettone is a sweet yeast bread that usually contains candied citron and/or raisins. It’s widely available at Christmas in Italian specialty stores such as Angela’s and the Italian Food Mart as well as groceries and elsewhere – Pecori found some this year at TJ Maxx! It makes fantastic bread pudding and killer French toast.
- 1/2 c. heavy cream
- 1/2 c. whole milk
- 3 T. sugar
- 2 tsp. cornstarch
- 1/4 c. Amaretto liqueur
For the bread pudding:
- 1 1/2 lb. loaf Pannetone, crusts removed if desired, cut into one-inch cubes
- 8 large eggs
- 1 1/2 c. whipping cream
- 2 1/2 c. whole milk
- 1 1/4 c. sugar
In a heavy small saucepan, bring the cream and milk to a boil. Mix the sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl, then stir in the Amaretto, mixing until smooth. Whisk the Amaretto mixture into the milk and cream, reduce the heat, and simmer over medium-low heat until the sauce thickens, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Set aside and keep warm. (The sauce can also be made a few days ahead, then covered and refrigerated. Warm on low before serving.
Lightly butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish. Arrange the bread cubes evenly in the dish. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, cream, milk and sugar until the mixture is smooth and the sugar is dissolved. Pour the custard over the bread, and press the cubes gently to submerge. Let stand for at least 30 minutes, occasionally pressing the bread into the custard mixture. This can be prepared up to two hours ahead, covered and refrigerated.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Bake until the pudding puffs and is just set in the center, about 45 minutes. Cool slightly. Spoon the bread pudding into bowls, drizzle with the warm Amaretto sauce, and serve. Serves 8-10.
Italian spicy chocolate drops
- 1 c. butter, softened
- 1/2 c. granulated sugar
- 1/2 c. honey
- 2 eggs
- 1 c. ground toasted almonds
- 1/2 c. cocoa
- 1/2 c. cold coffee
- 1 tbsp. grated orange peel
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
- 3 c. all purpose flour
1. Beat together all ingredients except flour. Stir in flour.
2. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto greased baking sheet.
Bake until set, about 12 minutes, in preheated 350° oven.
Cool on wire racks.
3. Make icing. Dip tops of cookies in icing. Let dry.
Store cookies in air-tight container at least 3 days to mellow.
Yields about 7 dozen cookies.
- 3 c. powdered sugar
- 1/4 c. hot milk
- 1 tbsp. fruit flavored brandy
Beat all ingredients until smooth. Then add additional milk, one teaspoon at a time, if necessary.