My grandmother was from Bari Italy. When she came to this country she had 3 small children, and spoke not a word of English. Her husband had come ahead of her and worked until he had enough money to send for his family. They boarded a ship in Naples, Italy and set off for America.
My mother was born one year to the day after my grandmother stepped off that boat onto American soil.
When I was a child, my grandmother came to our house frequently, sometimes staying for 3-6 months at a time. This is my Grandma Balducci (yes, you recognize that name. Her BIL, my great uncle, owned the deli in New York City) with me when I was just a baby.
She spoke Italian to us, and her presence was the only time I would hear my mother speak her native language. Growing up in her Italian family, she did not speak English until she was 7 years old. When my grandmother would arrive, they would sit at the kitchen table until 2 a.m. conversing in Italian. I would sit listening to the rapid dialogue between them, fascinated to hear my mother speak this beautiful and foreign language, until my father would take me off to bed.
With my grandmothers arrival, the kitchen would come alive with new foods. I can remember soups with homemade grated pasta, dishes with zucchini and egg, fresh pasta drying on the kitchen table and feasts on Christmas Eve that went on until midnight.
It is a part of my childhood that is so rich and beautiful I can close my eyes and find myself sitting on a kitchen stool, rolling dough “snakes”, sneaking bites of raw dough, and see her vividly showing me how to cut and make “sailors hats”, or orecchiette.
I know how lucky I am that I have this beautiful heritage: these lovely memories of a childhood filled with Italy. I am especially thankful that I took the time to listen to her and watch her cook during a time in my life when I would much rather have been outside flipping over rocks in search of snakes, lizards and salamanders. I was the littlest tomboy, perched in the kitchen, peering into pots full of hearty soup and countertops covered in flour. The food she learned to make in Italy was from growing up in la cucina povera, or the poor kitchen. It was with the simplest of ingredients. Pasta had no egg. Pizza dough had grated potatoes in it. Soup had beans, greens and occasionally chicken.
My grandmother is gone, and with her my mothers first language went silent. She rarely speaks Italian now no matter how I beg her to speak it to my children. She says she can’t remember it much, but I know it is there. In a quest to preserve our Italian heritage, I am self teaching myself the language. When I put my mind to it, it comes rather easy. So much of it is trapped in my head from my childhood, all it takes is hearing the flow of dialogue and I can pick words and phrases out that I remember.
Along with this, I cook the food my grandmother made for me as a child. My kids have known how to make homemade pasta since they were very young. They are growing up with a hint of their Italian heritage. It is important to pass this down. I can also give them tangible memories of my childhood. The texture of of homemade pasta. The feel, in their hands, of the very same blunt knife my grandmother used to make orecchiette. The smell of rich chicken soup. The Feast of the 7 Fishes. Homemade pizza. Many of the recipes I make are from memory, but I also bought several cookbooks from the region of Italy she was from; Puglia.
Several times a year I make taralli. I don’t remember this specifically as a child, but it is a classic snack in Bari. It is sort of like a cross between a pretzel and a bagel. You can flavor it with fennel, crushed red pepper or black pepper. I usually use fennel.
2 tsp dried yeast
1 cup dry white wine warmed to 100F
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups semolina flour
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil warmed to 80F
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp fennel seeds, crushed gently in mortar; or 1 tsp crushed black pepper or crushed pepper flakes.
Warm the wine, then sprinkle yeast on top. Let sit for several minutes, then stir. Add to other ingredients and mix well.
At this point it will be obvious it needs more liquid. Add more wine or water (in addition to the amount stated above) until you have a dough like bread dough. Knead for about 20 minutes until smooth and elastic. This will take some time, as the semolina flour is grainy and has to yield into the dough.
This is what it will look like.
Take a small piece and cover the rest of the dough with a towel to keep it from drying off.
Cut the section into small pieces, then roll each out into a “snake” about 4 inches long and the thickness of your little finger.
Take the small “snake” and wrap it into a loop and join the ends together to make a little donut or cross the ends and pinch together.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop about 10 taralli in and boil them until they float to the top (about 1 minute? Be sure and check to make sure they are not sticking to the bottom of the pot). Remove them and place on a kitchen towel to dry.
Arrange the taralli on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper,
…and bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes, OR until they are golden brown and crisp.