Italian Christmas Cookies Evoke Sweet Memories in Highland Heights and Bath
Editor's note: This story was originally published in December of 2015.
In these last two weeks before Christmas, home cooks are racking their brains and rifling through recipe boxes, trying to recall just how Grandma worked her magic for those traditional holiday treats.
Every ethnicity has its favorites, and Italians are especially fond of cookies.
In today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman visits a Bath Township kitchen and an Italian grocery in Highland Heights to nibble a few.
Tony Auletta knows what her customers want at Christmas time.
“The name of our store is DiStefano’s Authentic Italian Foods, and we’ve been here almost 44 years now.”
It’s a family business in Highland Heights that Auletta runs with her husband and brother now that her parents are in their 80s.
“My dad still comes every day and kind of walks around and make sure everybody’s still in line.”
Every year at this time, the ovens at DiStefano’s hardly get a chance to cool down with all the cookies they have to bake.
“Like our Italian biscottinis, pignoli cookies, macaroons and cannolis, big. Cannolis are probably the No. 1 seller.”
So many to choose from, and Emma’s only 3.
“How about the chocolate one?”
Her dad says Emma really likes Christmas cookies. “As long as they have frosting or sugar on them she’s all good.”
Tony Auletta says when older customers find the bakery case at the back of the store they get nostalgic.
“People come back here and always say, ‘Oh, this reminds me of my grandmother when she used to make these kind of cookies.’ And that’s what I like about this time of year, because all that authentic stuff comes back, things that you only get once a year, you know? And they’re good.”
She says customers return every year for Christmas cookies either because they’re too busy to bake or can’t find the family recipe.
She can relate. “My grandmother used to throw flour on the table -- boom, boom, boom -- and she was done. Never a recipe, nothing. It’s the truth.”
A labor of love
It’s a hard grind making the filling for her favorite Italian Christmas cookies, but DolliQuattrocchi of Bath Township warms to the task.
It’s a labor of love.
“There’s something about these cookies that evokes our childhood.”
Grinding takes time
So she slaps a grinding wheel onto her trusty 1974 Kitchenaid mixer and lets it wail away on three boxes of raisins and half a pound of citrons.
“A citrus fruit,” Quattrocchi explains. “Thick-skinned. It’s candied, and you can find it in the produce section of the grocery store, especially at the holidays.”
The dried fruit goes into the grinder along with a pound of fresh figs and a pound and a half of toasted hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds.
Making the cookie filling is the most time-consuming part of the process because she can’t grind everything at the same time.
“You don’t want anything to get jammed in there, and so you alternate the nuts with the raisins and the other sticky things.”
After retiring from a 31-year career at the University of Akron and caring for her ailing parents, Quattrocchi's glad to finally have time to bake.
“One of the things I wanted to do was bring back all of the recipes that we loved when we were growing up. In particular the horseshoe cookies, a recipe from my Grandma Quattrocchi.”
The horseshoe cookies are a Sicilian specialty. “The Italian name is cucidate, and it means little bracelets.”
Quattrocchi says she wouldn’t dare tweak the recipe her late Aunt Helen wrote on a stained, frayed, 3-by-5 index card.
“Every family has their own version of it. Sometimes they’ll make it in a little horseshoe shape and cut notches in it. We don’t.”
Quattrocchi wants her cookies to taste exactly like they did when she was growing up.
“When we would have family gatherings at Christmas time, I always managed to get a seat close to the horseshoe cookies so that I could keep eating them without anyone noticing. I would eat them until I got caught.”
She also loved her parents’ pizzelles and wanted to try making them, but all she got were verbal instructions.
“'Open up a 5-pound bag of flour and dump it on the kitchen table. Make a hole in the middle of it. Crack in a dozen eggs.' No, I’m not going to do that. So I never made pizzelles until I got my Dad’s notecard after he passed. And now I’ll make those.”
But not today. She has her hands full with the horseshoes.
Putting it all together
Now that the filling is well-grinded, she has to warm the mixture.
“It’s going to cook for 20 minutes on the top of the stove, and all the flavors will meld together.”
She’s stirring constantly with both hands to get the gloppy concoction to the right consistency. Quattrocchi's next concern is the wrapping for the filling. She had to use a hand mixer for the dough. Twelve cups of flour, 3 1/2 cups of sugar, four eggs and a pound of lard were just too much for the Kitchenaid.
Once the dough’s thin enough, she grabs a drinking glass for a cookie cutter.
“And then I’ll just make some circles.”
With a teaspoon she dabs some nutty, figgy filling on each dough circle. a one-inch strip goes across the top. Then she rolls them up, keeping the fold on the bottom and sealing the ends.
“OK, let’s see how these will cook up.”
Icing and sprinkles on top
While they bake for 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven, Quattrocchi whisks milk into confectioners’ sugar for a loose icing. That’ll let the sugar sprinkles adhere to her horseshoes.
Quattrocchi’s husband can’t wait to try one, warm out of the oven.
Harvey Gold, the self-described geezer/hipster rock musician of Tin Huey and Half Cleveland is Jewish. But he loves Christmas.
“I love the lights,” he says. “I love the smells. I love the music. I love all the cookies Dolli makes.”
And that’s a lot.
“A bazillion. I’ve never counted them because usually as soon as they come out of the oven, they start disappearing.”
Sharing sweet memories with the treats
Quattrocchi made sure her sister Tina in Florida got some.
“When she received the box she called me and said, ‘I can’t believe it. I started crying. I tasted the first one. It’s perfect just like Aunt Helen’s.”
Making her favorite holiday cookies gives Dolli Quattrocchi a sense of accomplishment.
She says baking the horsehoes also helps her and her two sisters cope with a sense of loss this holiday season.
“Aunt Helen who took over for Grandma making these cookies, we lost her two years ago. Having lost Dad a little over a year ago, it keeps us connected to our roots.”