Christmas comes every year on December 25th but one never knows when the Christmas moment will hit. It could be a song heard on the radio, or the scent of winter in the air. But whatever, it never comes to everyone at the same time or in the same way or for the same reason. We have our own peculiar way of being charged with the spirit that is special only to us.
When I was a little girl living on 43rd street in New York City, decorations didn’t appear until Thanksgiving was formally celebrated. We enjoyed each holiday in its own time one not overlapping the other. This was great because you could enjoy the anticipation, the present and the past of a holiday without confusion. It made each holiday seem to last longer. Your being had a chance to settle down before the arrival of the next holiday. You could just lose yourself in the excitement of each holiday.
New York City comes unto its own during this season. And I loved the hustle and bustle of the streets. Such merriment can be comforting especially at a young age. The smell of chestnuts roasting on a street corner signaled the prelude to winter and the coming of Thanksgiving. When Thanksgiving was a memory, the sighting of Christmas trees outside of the friendly neighborhood stores announced the beginning of the Christmas season. Local stores decorated their windows with winter scenes or snowflakes, Santa Clause, snowmen, Christmas bells, even a Nativity scene or angels. Some played music, which was special, and you could hear it as you walked down the snowy sidewalks giddy with the smell of pine in the air. Merry Christmas was the greeting you happily called out back then. You greeted everyone you passed with Merry Christmas not Happy Holidays. We might have said Happy Holidays but that would have been saved for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. We had Christmas break from school, not winter festival. Yes it was winter but it was really Christmas that we were going to celebrate. Even in the dreariest of times, such as during the war, everyone seemed joyful. Christmas has a magical way of doing that.
My head was filled with thoughts of Christmas but this was not the moment that invested the spirit in me. We didn’t dream of many presents. That wasn’t even expected. What I waited for were traditional things. My “Little Nonna” soaking Baccala in the sink in the cellar in preparation for Christmas Eve dinner.
Right around this time and very unexpectedly, for me anyway, my Father would arrive home with a very large Panettone and a Christmas Paneforte both of which would be cut up and shared with family. For lack of space in our apartment, they were stored on a rather temperamental radiator and the soft heat would allow them to perfume the rooms. Seeing these items arrive in the house was when the Christmas spirit hit. I knew Christmas was not very long off. Things would start to happen in cadence now. Soon we would be going out for our tree. But that’s for another story!
BACCALA alla MESSINESE
Cod Fish Stew
This is a great recipe from Messina which is a little city in the northeast corner of Sicily.
You can be sure that this will be part of their traditional Christmas Eve dinner. It’s not the way
My Little Nonna prepared it but maybe the way my Mother-in-Law did.
2 LBS SALT COD (Baccala)
2 CELERY RIBS – chopped
2 ONIONS – sliced
3 TOMATOES – large, ripe, peeled, chopped
1 ½ EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
10 LARGE GREEN OLIVES – pitted
1 LB BOILING POTATOES – peeled, quartered
2 ½ tbs BOTTLED CAPERS – drained
2 ½ TBS PINE NUTS
2 TSP CAYENNE or RED PEPPER FLAKES – to taste
¼ CUP RAISINS
In a large glass bowl, let the cod soak in cold water to cover, changing the water several times, for at least 24 hours. Drain the cod and check for skin and bones; removing carefully if you find any.
In a large pot, cook the onions and celery in the oil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, just until all are softened. Stir in the tomatoes and ½ cup of water and bring to a slow boil.
Add the cod, potatoes, olives, capers, pine nuts, raisins and cayenne or red pepper flakes. Bring it again to a slow boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook covered, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.
Serve with a side of pasta.
Baccala was a big part of our December dinners and we ate it many different ways. Either my Father or my Little Nonna prepared it. But it was my Little Nonna’s job to soak it because in those days Baccala was not as refined as it is today. It had to be soaked for several days and the smell permeated the house so Little Nonna would trudge down to the celler and soak it in the sink down there making sure the door was closed. Today that odor might turn people off but to us it was just a smell of Christmas coming.
This essence of Christmas originated in Milan and is a sweet bread traditionally baked in a large cylindrical dome that will be found in every Italian home during the Christmas season.
4 ENVELOPES DRY ACTIVE YEAST
½ LB PIGNOLI (PINE NUTS)
1 ½ TSP SUGAR
1 LB BUTTER – unsalted, melted cooled
½ lb CANDIED CITRON – whole
16 CUPS FLOUR – sifted, divided
1 TSP SALT
1 LB CURRANTS
1 LB LIGHT BOWN SUGAR
6 EGGS – large
2 ½ CUPS MILK – not low fat
EXTRA BUTTER – for greasing
NOTE: butter and milk should be heated to a simmer and then cooled to 105º
In a bowl combine ½ cup warm water (app. 105-110º) with the yeast and sugar. Mix well and set aside until the yeast becomes frothy. In the meantime, finely dice the citron and set aside. In a separate bowl, sift together 14 cups of flour together with the salt. Make a well in the center of the flour, add the raisins, brown sugar, pignoli, diced citron and mix well.
Add the yeast mixture, the butter cooled to 105º, 2 cups of the milk, cooled to 105º and the beaten eggs. Mix and knead until smooth and elastic, adding the remaining 2 cups of flour as needed. You should feel the dough pull away from the sides of the bowl as you are kneading. Form the dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled or buttered bowl, turning the ball to cover all. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm, draft-free place for about 3-5 hours until it as doubled in size. Punch the dough down.
This recipe makes 4 medium size loaves. Depending on the size of the pan you are using, divide the dough accordingly. You may use, coffee tins, disposable round pans or even souffle pans. Shape the dough and tuck in the bottom. Tuck into your buttered pans, cover with plastic and place again in a draft-free warm place to double in size for a second time. Remove the wrap, brush with the remaining warmed milk.
Have the oven pre-heated to 350). Cut the top of the dough with scissors to make traditional X marks. Brush again with more warmed milk and bake for app. 60 – 90 minutes or until the loaves are a golden brown. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and remove the panettone immediately. Transfer to a rack for a few hours to cool.
NOTE: If you are not fond of citron, substitute with pineapple and think about adding some dried cherries. The suggested baking time is based on 4 medium loaves. Adjust the time to the size of the pan that you are using. Panettone usually lasts for a good week. However, it freezes well if well wrapped.