Sunday was a day that I had been looking forward to for weeks. It wasn't a celebration (per se), it wasn't a party, and as far as I can tell it's not yet Christmas. No, it was the day I had made plans with my Grandmother to bake some cookies for Christmas. I was finally going to learn some of the recipes and secrets of her famous (at least in our circles :) ) baked goods. The day was beyond my expectations, and one that I will always remember. I walked away with two wonderful recipes for cookies and some important life lessons and tips for my future baking ventures. However, more than this, I left with a greater respect and admiration of my Grandmother and how amazing she is.
We made bocconotti and pizzelli. For anyone who has not been blessed enough to taste these cookies, I will try (and fail) to describe them. Bocconotti is a simple egg yolk pastry crust filled with a light and flavourful chocolate-almond-meringue, usually dusted with a bit of powdered sugar. If something can be both sinfully rich and gleefully light than these cookies are it. Pizzelli is a super thin, crispy, waffle cookie. It's very very light, and very subtle in both sweetness and flavour (which in my Grandmother's case is lemon). It's truly a great cookie and can be paired with so many things or eaten on its own as a light snack. Although light is a matter of perspective, since it's easy to eat ten or twenty of them without realizing :).
When visiting my Grandparents I have always taken for granted that just a few steps away there is a freezer full of homemade Italian cookies readily available. I knew my grandmother worked hard to keep these “in stock” but I never realized just how much work, time, and effort she puts into keeping all her kids, grandkids, husband, and friends satisfied and full at the the drop of a hat. However, the two recipes we made and the lightening quick speed in which she worked gave me a brief glimpse of this. And this was just two cookies, not Christmas dinner, AND I was there to help, normally she does nearly everything on her own.
Watching my Grandmother made me realize how much of a beast in the kitchen she is (a term from the last season of Top Chef that I have stolen and now re-appropriated). I have known this in theory for a very long time but it's much different when you witness it first hand. I actually just stared as my Grandmother kneaded dough. Her small, aged hands manipulating, shaping, and folding the dough with amazing strength and speed. My bigger, younger and stronger hands clumsily trying to follow, likely thwarting the progress she had made. “These things take practice” she assured me, but I know that I will never have the finesse she has. It was amazing to watch her work.
I also learned from my Grandmother that contrary to all my beliefs, baking can be treated like cooking. True, at its core, baking is science, but it's not always necessary to be obsessively precise. My Grandmother (like most Grandmother's probably) bakes by sight, touch, and taste. A cup of flour is an approximation based on a scoop, a shake, a bang and a look. This is a far cry from the 130 gram standard I subscribe to. She can tell with a brief glance or a quick taste whether more flour, sugar or spice is necessary. I know my banana bread recipe down to the gram, I've made it more times than I can count, and I still don't think I can do what my Grandmother does. When she forgets an ingredient she adds it without a second thought, regardless of where she is in the process. I actually watched her knead vanilla into dough after not adding it at the “correct” time. I would have had a near panic attack stressing over what I was going to do and how it was going to turn out.
To make the bocconotti my Grandmother uses these small, individual, fluted tins (i.e. traditional). She rolls the dough into a long rope, cuts it to pieces, making them roughly the same size, and then presses the dough into the tins. While I tried to be exact and precise as I filled each one, she sprinted through them one after the other, doing two for every one that I did. To her there was no need to be perfect. There may be a few that don't turn out as nicely as the others, some might be a little darker in colour but who is going to complain? At the end of the day she was confident that they were going to taste amazing (she was right).
The pizzelli were a complete surprise to me, it wasn't actually part of the original plan. But after spending a few hours in the kitchen making about twelve dozen (yes twelve dozen!) bocconnoti my Grandmother asked if I would like to make pizzelli. Was she kidding? We had been standing for hours and my legs were a bit sore, but she was still ready to go and she hadn't sat down at all! I said maybe, but after leaving to prepare my Grandfather and I a “small” snack, she persauded me to make pizzelli. She had yet to sit down but we were once again on our feet making the pizzelli four at a time. My Grandmother wasn't measuring out precise amounts, nor was she really watching the cook time, she just sort of knew how much batter to add to the pizzelli press and when they were ready.
After spending about 4 hours in the kitchen, on our feet, only stopping for that snack, I was ready to sit down, for good. But after we tidied up a bit the only words my Grandmother uttered were, “Okay, time to make lunch.” I was stupefied as I watched my tiny Grandmother sprint out of the kitchen to prepare lunch. She just didn't stop. She'd probably been up since 5AM, never once looking back. At 75 years old she's more agile and quick than I could hope to be at 29.
So if my Grandfather ever figures out how to use the internet (hopefully he's gotten to the middle chapters of Computers for Seniors for Dummies) I hope my Grandmother has a chance to see this post. Thank you for the amazing day Grandma, I learned so much and I had a ridiculous amount of fun. I can't wait until the next one :)