A smile comes to my face as I remember past Christmases spent with my Italian family. We were lucky to have everyone—my grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as cousins from both sides—come together for the joyous occasion of Christmas Eve.
I still recall waking up to wonderful aromas escaping from my mom’s kitchen. Her work began in the wee hours to prepare the magnificent Feast of the Seven Fishes, a family tradition going back generations. Long before everyone arrived, the table was set with fine china and fancy linens. My dad had the task of washing all the glassware, starting a fire in the fireplace, arranging all the candles and setting out dishes of candies.
In mid-afternoon, our feast always began with shrimp cocktail served in old fashioned champagne glasses followed by a wonderful tray of lasagna filled with sausage and meatballs. Then, the fish parade began: calamari frita with spicy sauce, fried flounder, linguine with clam sauce (and lots of garlic), mussels marinara, baby lobster tails in sauce and scallops wrapped in bacon. Conversation ceased as everyone concentrated on the meal.
Later, bowls of nuts, fresh fruit and wine arrived on the table. My grandfather would peel and cut the apples for us children. Then, while the women adjourned to the kitchen to make coffee and espresso and to prepare a fabulous finale of dessert, the rest of us would sit around the Christmas tree and hear stories from Christmases past. For dessert, we ate ricotta cheese cake, apple and pumpkin pie and Pannetone, a sweet Italian Christmas bread. Homemade cookies were put out—pinnoli cookies, butter rum balls, crescents with powder sugar, sfogliatelle with honey and my absolute favorite was strufoli, which were Italian honey balls with multi-colored sprinkles. Cordials like Amaretto, Limoncello and Anisette were served in multi-colored little glasses.
After this amazing meal, the children were allowed to open one gift as a Christmas Eve tradition. Then, as soon as the gifts were open, another tradition began—the serving of Italian sausage and peppers before our guests would leave.
I remember falling fast asleep with a very full belly and dreaming about how Santa would soon arrive and how tomorrow would be another day of family fun.
[Barbara Matos is sales/advertising director at The River Reporter.]
Struffoli – Italian Honey Balls
1 cup sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp cinnamon
3 tsp baking powder
Oil for frying
Warm honey and sprinkles for the topping
Put the flour into a mound, and then make a hole in the center. Put the sugar, eggs, vanilla, baking powder and cinnamon into this hole. Using a fork, begin to mix everything together by pulling the flour slowly into the egg mixture.
Once everything is well mixed, form the dough into rolls, about the width of your thumb. Cut each roll into 1-inch pieces.
Fry each piece of struffoli in oil heated to 375°F until golden and puffed. Drain on paper towels and top with warm honey & add sprinkles for décor.
1 pound calamari, cleaned
½ cup milk, only if needed
1 cup cake flour
¼ cup bread crumbs
Oil for frying (about 2 cups for a 6-quart saucepan)
Lemon slices for garnish.
1 cup basic marinara sauce
2 to 3 cloves garlic minced
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 to ¼ teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice
To prepare the spicy marinara, add the extra virgin olive oil, red pepper and garlic to a sauté pan over medium heat. Sauté until the garlic is just fragrant.
Add the marinara sauce and continue to heat until the sauce is hot. Stir in the lemon juice, remove the pan from the heat and cover to keep warm.
To prepare the calamari, cut the calamari tubes into rings, about ¼-inch thick. Leave the tentacles whole.
Combine the flour and bread crumbs in bowl and toss the cut calamari in the flour mixture to lightly coat it. If your calamari has been bought prepared you may need to first dip the calamari in milk to add a bit of moisture for the flour to stick.
While you are preparing the calamari, if you are using a deep fryer, heat the oil up to 350°F. If you do not have a deep fryer, you can use a small (6 quart) sauce pan just as well. Fill the pot with oil & heat to 350°F.
Working in a couple batches to avoid crowding, add the floured calamari and fry until just lightly golden—about 3 to 4 minutes depending upon the oil and thickness of the calamari. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel or napkin covered platter to drain.
Pile the fried calamari attractively on a warm serving platter. Lightly salt the calamari with sea salt and a few squeezes of fresh lemon to taste. Place the warm spicy marinara sauce in small dipping bowl on the platter with slices of fresh lemon.