Tag Archives: panzerotti

My Italian Christmas – a special encore post

29 Nov

So you know how TV networks call repeats of TV shows encores?  Well, I’m taking a leaf out of their book and posting a story I wrote for Taste.com.au  a few years ago about what an Italian Christmas is like in the little-known Italian town of Melbourne. Consider it a prequel to Nonna’s torrone recipe which we were meant to make together this week, but Nonna hasn’t been feeling the best, so it’s on next week, with a post to follow. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what will be either very familiar or completely foreign, depending on the amount of wog blood coursing through your veins:

Roast turkey, mince pies and shortbread. This is what a foreign Christmas sounds like to me. The same goes for fruitcake, stuffing, pudding and Christmas crackers. Totally exotic.

My unfamiliarity with all things Anglo-Christmas is my family’s fault. My mother is Sicilian, my father is from near Naples, and I was born in Melbourne, but if what you eat is who you are then I am definitely Italian. No question. Or, to be more precise, southern Italian.

Like all good southern Italians, our Christmas meal starts with homemade pasta. In my house, these take the form of panzerotti. Now, the thing about pasta and Italians is that one man’s panzerotti are another man’s crespelle. By this I mean that depending on where you are in the tall skinny boot known as Italy, pasta often has the same name but can be something quite different. In casa Cammarano, however, the panzerotti are made by Romano, my father, and are precise little half moons of pasta filled with ricotta, parmesan and parsley, sealed with a fork, boiled in water, and served with a fresh tomato sauce. Perfect.

However, occasionally people who are not my father get involved in the making of perfection, and things inevitably go wrong. These people, Romano’s children and his mother-in-law, in particular, don’t particularly care if a complete circle has not been cut out of the pasta, making it impossible to create a proper half moon. Or they are sloppy in the way they seal the panzerotti, meaning when you cook them, they burst open and their ricotta filling is lost to the raging boiling water around them.

Sometimes, crazy people, like my mother,  put spinach in the filling and this not a happy Romano does make. He feels that spinach compromises the clean flavours of the fresh ricotta and I think he is right. (By the way, never ever buy the ricotta that comes in the containers at the supermarket – this is a criminal act in Romano’s book.)

While panzerotti were and still are the specialty of Mr Cammarano, my mother Lidia, or, as she hates to be called, Lil, always makes ricotta cake. The recipe for this cake goes way, way back to an ancient and sacred Italian cookbook that no one can remember the name of and has since been lost. But the cake lives on in the memory of Lidia, who will not share the recipe because it’s hers and hers alone. Even though she claims the book has been lost, I think she destroyed it to protect her ricotta cake-making monopoly.

But I digress. It is a delicious cake, no doubt about it. The pastry crust is short and contains orange zest. My mother doesn’t believe in making her own pastry – she outsources it to my grandmother, who brings it to her house already rested and rolled out, in a glass Pyrex dish with crinkled edges. The filling is fresh ricotta, cinnamon, eggs and caster sugar. There might be more, but Lil isn’t telling. It’s baked in the oven and then dusted with icing sugar. We eat it during the entire Christmas period – it is the fuel that keeps us going and propels us through everything festive from gift buying expeditions and loud card games to visiting friends and midnight mass.

Whilst it is starting to sound like ricotta is at the centre of my Italian Christmas, it’s not. Torrone is. Torrone is the Italian word for nougat but my grandmother’s version is not the snowy white version you are probably most familiar with. This one is made mostly of almonds and sugar, and is caramel brown in colour. To make it you must have the strength of 21 men, four oxen and three donkeys. Your hands must be capable of withstanding nuclear plant meltdown levels of heat. Or you must be my 89-year-old grandmother. She makes it, and has always made it, by herself. True, these days, she lets me or my mother occasionally have a turn at stirring it, but she waits impatiently as you try to churn the spoon, her eagle eyes watching for any signs of fatigue. It doesn’t take long – and as soon as you pause, she’s taken the spoon and is back at it again, and you’re left wondering why you’re standing exhausted while a woman four times your age, and a quarter of your size, is moving nearly 2 kilos of sticky, heavy sugar and almonds.

It might seem a good idea, at this point, to give you some of the recipes for these tasty Christmas treats. However, my father would not give his recipe for panzarotti, on the grounds that you will not make them as well as he does. My mother would not give her recipe for ricotta cake, for the reasons stated above. My nonna, however, has provided her recipe for torrone. Because nonna is good and kind and just, and knows that as there’s no way you’re as strong as she is, trying to make it will probably kill you anyway… so look out for Nonna Maria’s Torrone in the next post (complete with pictures, I promise)! In the meantime, tell me if this Christmas is anything like yours?

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