December 13th is a special day in Italy and it was in my home also when I was growing up.
CELEBRATING SANTA LUCIA
(And Remembering My Little Nonna)
Santa Lucia was born in Italy in the year AD 283 and suffered the death of a martyr in 304 AD.
The Feast of Santa Lucia is celebrated on December 13th, the day of her death. Lucia, meaning light, Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the blind. In her paintings or her statues she is often depicted holding her eyes on a golden plate. I was always told that when she was martyred, her eyes were gouged out. However, I have never been able to confirm that. But she is the patron Saint of Eyes.
In Italy there are special devotions to Santa Lucia (St. Lucy) and it is because of this devotion and tradition that her Feast Day continues to be celebrated.
In northern Italy, Santa Lucia arrives in the company of a donkey and sometimes brings gifts to good children in the night between December 12th and 13th. (No donkey or gifts ever arrived at my house in New York City! However, there was Cuccia.)
In Tuscany where my Little Nonna was raised, they ate boiled wheat on this feast day. Some areas called this Cuccia. My Little Nonna’s Mother’s name was Lucia (Vigliari) and so when I made my Confirmation at the age of 6, I was asked by my Father to take that name as I was confirmed. I think it was important to my Dad and Little Nonna, so I did. I can remember a few years when I was little, my Little Nonna would make me Cuccia, sweetened and I think only with sugar, on that Feast Day. Our youngest daughter, Claudia, embraced that name at her Confirmation, but I am remiss as I have not made Cuccia for her. Cuccia is actually a Sicilian name and I remember, as a child, this dish only being called Cucci or Cushi by my grandparents. Unfortunately now just a nice memory.
- 2 Cups Wheat Berries – after soaking
- 2 Lbs Ricotta – drained of excess liquid
- ½ Cup Sugar – or more to your taste
- ½ Tsp Vanilla
- ¼ Tsp Nutmeg
- ½ Tsp Cinnamon – optional
- ½ cup Milk – optional
- Soak the wheat berries for two days making sure you change the water often.
- When ready to cook, rinse the berries and put in a covered pot, in slightly salted water, bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for about 3 hours.
- At this point they should be tender but a little chewy.
- Put the Ricotta, Sugar, Vanilla, Nutmeg and Cinnamon (if using) in a bowl and beat with a hand mixer until smooth.
- If you like it thin add some milk. Taste and adjust for sugar. I remember it being thick, so I don’t think my Little Nonna added milk.
- Add the Ricotta mixture to the wheat berries and stir in until all incorporated. This can be eaten warm or cooled. I remember eating it at lunch time and it was warm.
My little Nonna was really very little. Here we are together probably in 1947”. She raised 3 boys and then had to raise 2 grandchildren after their mother died shortly after childbirth. But, as we all lived mostly together in two adjoining brownstones, Little Nonna probably raised all of us. She was there for me at lunch time when my mother couldn’t be. I always came home to a hot lunch. And I recall many family meals in her kitchen. Didn’t speak a word of English and I never saw her lose her temper. Always the sweetest Little Nonna
ST. LUCY COOKIES
(A December 13th Cookie)
- 4 ½ – 5 Cups Flour
- 1 Cup Sugar – divided
- ½ tsp Salt
- 2 Eggs – large and room temperature
- 1 Cup Milk – whole
- 1 tsp Vanilla
- Vegetable Oil – for deep frying
- Powdered Sugar – to sprinkle
- In a bowl mix together 4 cups of flour, 2 Tbs of sugar and the salt.
- In a medium bowl whisk the eggs and milk together and add the vanilla.
- Stir this mixture into the four adding enough additional flour to make a soft ball of dough.
- On a floured surface knead the dough until smooth and no longer sticky.
- Divide the dough in half and roll out each piece to a 12”X15” rectangle.
- Sprinkle each rectangle evenly with half the remaining sugar and roll up tightly like a jelly roll.
- Cut the rolls into ½” thick slices.
- In a deep-frying pan or electric deep fryer, heat the oil to 375°.
- Fry the cookies a few at a time until golden brown.
- Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper covered dish to drain and cool.
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.
This day honors St. Luci as the Patron Saint of Eyesight because her eyes were gouged out just before she was martyred. Her face was believed to have been veiled in white lace after her death and that’s the reason for the powdered sugar.