Food is one tradition Italians are known for and that includes desserts – especially during the holidays.
From pandoro to cassata, torrone and tordilli, every region specializes in its own holiday sweets. Many of these recipes made their way over to Canada during the first waves of immigration and are still around today thanks to younger generations of Italian-Canadians who are taking it upon themselves to keep the traditions alive – and who probably have a pretty well-developed sweet tooth. Jennifer Nehme, 25, is a second-generation Italian-Canadian from Montreal. For her family, baking at Christmastime is a bonding activity. “Recipes always come with great stories,” she says. “It’s a great excuse to spend quality time with my mom, my sister and my nonna, reminiscing about the past and building new memories together.” “It’s not only a great way to keep your heritage alive, it’s also a source of pride knowing you’re feeding your friends and family good food made with wholesome ingredients.”
Hazelnut Biscotti – Biscotti alle nocciole
The effort is certainly appreciated by those who get to indulge in the treats. “Everyone goes crazy for our homemade panettone. Baking is something that takes time and requires a certain degree of patience. People appreciate that. And you can’t replicate that homemade taste.”Clara Giustino, 42, of Toronto agrees. “My parents were born in Puglia, so we make sweets native to the region. For us, holiday baking means coming together to spend quality time doing an activity we enjoy. It also means getting to treat ourselves afterwards. Who doesn’t love to sit with guests and dunk the fresh biscotti they spent hours baking into a nice coffee?”
“You either love to bake or you don’t. You can learn the recipes but you can’t learn to love the process. My mom is not a big baker; she would make a few specialties but it wasn’t her passion. I had two zias, on the other hand, who loved it. Zia Gina and Zia Paolina always got together before the holidays to bake a large assortment of cookies, and I loved joining them. They were the ones who taught me not only about baking but about the importance of keeping the tradition alive, which I’ve passed on to my own children.”
For 26-year-old Emily Gagliardi of Toronto, baking represents her special relationship with her nonna. “Last Christmas, my 90-year-old Nonna Lucia taught me how to make Neapolitan struffoli, hardened balls of fried dough with honey, sprinkles and candied fruit. Our shared experiences in the kitchen, filled with conversation, wisdom and humour, have provided me with a living bond to her and to my Mediterranean roots. Preparing struffoli is a metaphor for reviving and ensuring the survival of my Neapolitan heritage, and I will make sure to teach my future children the things I was able to learn from my nonni. I want them to appreciate being born into a beautiful tradition of family values, self-sacrifice and love.”
Sabrina Pedulla, 38, from Montreal uses baking to ensure her nonna’s legacy lives on. “I remember my mom telling me that it was important to learn nonna’s recipes and techniques because they’re not something you can Google later. Not only was it important to see what they used to do in Italy but also to appreciate the love and passion that went into her baking for us. There is some serious intensive labour that goes into making the nacatole, our Calabrian holiday cookies.
“After sweating it out rolling out the dough and cutting it into perfect figure eights, you have to douse them in a bath of hot oil. To keep us motivated, nonna used to tell us, ‘A frittura porta buona fortuna’, or frying brings luck. She passed away two years ago, so her recipes and traditions are even more special to us now.
“I guess we could have written down her recipes and techniques but it wouldn’t have been the same. She would always say you needed to judge and see if it needs more of something. She could never give us a precise measurement. I also get my kids involved so they can have the same memories to warm their hearts as they get older, as I did.”