(by Patty Bologna and Susan Cipollaro)
“Next time, you make it yourself.”
“If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.”
Our mother, an excellent cook and baker, was very sensitive to criticism when we were growing up. If we made even a slight comment about one of her dishes—maybe she could have added more nuts to her banana bread—that was her response, swift and consistent.
We two sisters are members of a big, boisterous, extended Portuguese family, growing up in southern Massachusetts, in a cultural enclave about two miles from both paternal and maternal grandparents. Our mother’s parents lived in a second-floor walk-up apartment, a classic New England three-decker that our mom and dad owned. It was a big accomplishment, especially for our mother, a first generation immigrant from the Azores, to own property. When Mom wasn’t cooking, she was working long shifts at the locally owned pharmacy down the street, so we saw quite a bit of our “Avós” (Portuguese for grandparents). We would often walk from school to their apartment, where we were allowed to overindulge in Chips Ahoy cookies, Fritos, and hot tea, much to our parents’ chagrin, until we were picked up in the early evening.
Weekend sleepovers at Avó’s meant waking to the aroma of dinner simmering on the stove, slow-cooking all day long. Avó did everything well and with precision, whether crocheting a blanket or rolling out “biscoitos”—the Portuguese version of biscotti that we have made the centerpiece of our baking business. Our grandmother never used harsh words or made us feel inadequate if we didn’t do things exactly as she instructed when we helped her in the kitchen. But her expectations for her own five children were a different story.
Mom, the eldest of her siblings, learned to cook, knit, crochet, embroider, and keep house under Avó’s watchful eye, and “good enough” was never good enough. She dutifully mastered all of the traditional soups, stews, roasts, and fish dishes, but she came into her own when she married our dad and bonded with his sister, Mary. “Tia Mary” was a master baker and second-generation Portuguese-American. She traded American-style recipes with Mom, such as her famous cowboy cookies, apple pie, and sour cream coffee cake. Soon, Mom found that baking was something she truly loved, and a skill with which she could surpass even Avó.
When our grandfather died and Avó moved in with Mom and Dad, the old dynamic re-emerged. As Mom likes to say, “Two women cannot share one kitchen.” We loved Mom’s Portuguese sweet bread, cooked until just golden with a moist, chewy strip along the top of each loaf. But Avó liked hers well-done, “bem cozido,” and thought our mother’s bread was “raw.” Rice pudding is as much of a staple for the Portuguese as for the Greeks, and Mom’s was deep egg-yellow and creamy, wonderful right out of the pot. But Avó thought it should be thick and drier, with cinnamon sprinkled on top in a traditional lattice design. Soups didn’t have enough flavor, stews didn’t have enough salt—there was always fault to find.
Dealing with a daily dose of criticism from her perfectionist mother, it’s no wonder Mom didn’t welcome any constructive input from us. Compliment her on something, and she often merely says, “It’s all right,” or “It could have used this or that,” or “It’s not like my mother’s.” Then again, there are times when everything comes out just right, and she’ll proudly proclaim, “Best I ever made!”
Our current lifestyles are totally different from Avó's and Mom’s, with our busy, modern schedules, but both women instilled in us the value of true excellence over unattainable perfection. Mom still bakes up a storm whether she is at home in Massachusetts (using the same Tupperware measuring cups she used in the ‘70s) or when she and Dad visit us in Connecticut. Now, when we bake the same treats for our families, we often hear “It’s good ... but not as good as your mother’s.”
Patty Bologna and Susan Cipollaro are the co-founders of Burb Bakes, which sells traditional and creative flavors of their Avó's original Portuguese biscotti recipe.
Portuguese Rice Pudding
1 c. short grain white rice
1 c. water
pinch of salt
4 - 4 1/2 c. milk (the creamier you like it, the more milk you add)
1 c. sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten (set aside in a separate bowl)
cinnamon for garnish, optional
Wash rice under cold water in sieve.
Bring water, rice, and salt to a boil in a large saucepan.
When rice has absorbed all the water, add milk and sugar.
Simmer until all milk is almost absorbed and rice has a creamy consistency (about 40 minutes).
Remove pan from heat and add about 1 c. of the cooked rice, one large spoonful at a time to the beaten egg yolks, stirring.
(It will temper the eggs and prevent them from scrambling.)
Add egg/rice mixture back into saucepan.
Turn heat to medium-low and stir occasionally for another 5 minutes.
Pour into serving dish or platter and let cool.
Dust with cinnamon if desired.