Updated: Mar 1, 2020
(by Clare Paternoster Lowell)
My mom had balls. Cujones, as we’d say on street corners. She feared no one. Not even my father, whose often-inebriated presence would give even fiercest adversary pause. Because once you started a war with Marge, you’d better win or you’d live to regret it. (As Marge Simpson once said to daughter Lisa when she experienced a disappointment with the opposite sex, “You’re a woman, Lisa. You can hold on to this forever.”)
But it was that strength and ballsiness that enabled the family not only to survive, but to thrive. It was her perseverance in elevating a working-class lifestyle that drove her ceaselessly. Although my father’s blue-collar wage as a boilermaker landed us squarely in the jaws of semi-poverty, Marge found a way out by establishing herself as the most popular piano teacher in Canarsie, Brooklyn (over my father’s objections). It was that drive and refusal to accept life as it was that enabled the family to move up the suburban ladder, allowing her children (and, eventually, grandchildren) to graduate from colleges Marge could only dream about in her day. Yet she never lost touch with who she was and where she came from. In my mind, I can still see her kissing stale bread and saying a little prayer before throwing it away because she never forgot what it was like to do without. “So no one I love will ever be hungry,” she’d say.
To be honest, though, she was a lousy cook (admittedly unheard of in Italian lore). Her pizza tasted more like tomato cardboard than a cheesy delight. But we didn’t mind because the house was always filled with the Italian dolci she’d craved as a child but couldn’t afford. In the same vein, birthdays were always a big deal. If you were a kid, you got a party with presents from friends, relatives, and people you didn’t even know (she often invited her piano students, whom she treated like extended family). And the Birthday Boy or Girl—regardless of age—always got his or her favorite cake. For me, it was cannoli cake. To this day, it’s a tradition I cherish. Even dead relatives enjoyed their special day in heaven as cemetery visits were always in order, with flowers replacing the cakes. Honoring the dead is as Italian as chianti and gnocchi. You never forget.
with Mom, older daughter Bridget and baby daughter Caity)
My mom was the second daughter in an immigrant Sicilian family and therefore “bambina senza importanza” (a girl-child of no significance). But that wasn’t who she was—ever. She always knew how to stand up for herself (a trait that was rarely appreciated at the time). When her xenophobic first-grade teacher arbitrarily changed her given name from “Domenica” to “Margaret” (“Because ‘Domenica’ is an Italian name, and you are in America”), it was the last time she capitulated. When her older sister got piano lessons but she was passed over, she insisted so strongly on equal time that she convinced the elderly Maestro to tell her father that—if he could only afford to give one of them lessons—he should concentrate on “the little one,” because she had the true talent. And he was right, for that talent served her (and us) well for the rest of her life.
Thanks, Mom, for the cujones (as well as the cannolis). I’ve passed them both on to your two fierce granddaughters.
Cannoli Cream Puffs
(Okay, I realize that most Italians would pooh-pooh any cannoli recipe that didn’t involve genuine cannoli shells, but that Italian I’m not—cannoli shells are beyond my pay grade. So I started making Cannoli Cream Puffs—kind of an Italian riff on a perennial favorite—from a recipe I got in a Polly-O recipe pamphlet. I make minis since people would rather take four minis than a whole full-size one.)
1 (32-oz.) container Polly-O ricotta cheese, drained
3/4 c. powdered sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. miniature semi-sweet chocolate chips
optional (depending on how authentic you want to be) 1/2 c. candied fruit, finely chopped)
Combine all ingredients, and chill for at least 30 minutes.
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 t. sugar (optional)
1/2 t. salt
1 c. all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
optional: 1 egg beaten with 1 T. water
optional: additional powdered sugar, sifted
Preheat oven to 375 F.
In a medium saucepan, combine butter, sugar, salt, and 1 cup water.
Bring to a boil and quickly stir in flour with a wooden spoon.
Continue to stir until mixture forms a ball.
Remove from heat and add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each one.
Continue beating until mixture is thick and shiny and breaks away from the spoon.
Place rounded tablespoons of the mixture onto parchment-lined baking sheets.
(Optional: Brush the tops with egg wash made from 1 egg beaten with 1 T. water).
Bake until puffs rise and are golden (about 30 minutes).
Let cool on sheets on wire racks.
Once cooled, split and fill with cannoli mixture.
(Optional: Dust with sifted powdered sugar.)
Makes about 2 dozen.