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Sweet As Honey

(by Catherine Gigante-Brown)

Everything my mother did was filled with love, from burping a baby to making a meal. She would hum while she prepped, as she stirred, even as she served. She took true joy in cooking and in life itself.

If my mother knew someone liked roasted peppers, she’d pack a homemade jar of them in a brown paper bag and tote it to Florida when she and Dad visited their capsicum-loving friend. If she knew an uncle had a hankering for cervelli fritti (calf’s brains and eggs, yuck!), she’d be sure to get the organ meat from the butcher.

The daughter of Italian immig

rants, she experienced lean times during the Second World War when she was just a little girl, and she never forgot them. Ingrained in her, I think, was the fear of not having enough, so she always made sure there was more than enough to go around. Mom was the most generous person I knew. But her gifts weren’t showy or flamboyant; they were from the heart, and usually, food-oriented, because to Mom, food was love.

At no time did her beacon shine brighter than Christmas. I swear, she looked forward to that holiday even more than my sister Liz and I did. But for Mom, the best thing about Christmas wasn’t getting gifts; it was giving them.

(I'm in front of my mom.)

Meal-wise around the December holidays, the Gigante/DeMuccio house was steeped in tradition. There was stinky bacalao (dried cod) that my mother and Grandma Louise would soak and soak, changing the salty water daily so it was ready for Christmas Eve supper. There was the stiff dough they’d prepare for lard bread, which was much more appetizing than it sounds.

But my favorite dish was struffoli—Italian wine cookies. Every year, Mom and Nonna made them side by side. Sometimes they’d even let me help. I loved this ritual so much that I wove it into my novels, The Bells of Brooklyn and Brooklyn Roses. About a week before Christmas, my mother and grandmother would get everything ready, purchasing several jars of Golden Blossom honey (the only brand that would do) and procuring a huge jug of muscatel from the liquor store on 86th Street. The table in Nonna’s cramped kitchen was a wreck of flour and sugar, sticky with oil and honey. But it didn’t matter because it took a certain amount of destruction to make struffoli. And the end result was worth it.

Watching my mother and grandmother assemble the struffoli was the first time I realized that cooking could be fun. They gossiped and laughed, half in English and half in Italian. My grandmother mixed, her thick sewing-machine-operator fingers kneading the dough, then pinching it off into bite-sized pieces. Meanwhile, my mother was stationed at the frying pan, managing the boiling oil with aplomb. Sometimes they would take sips from cordial glasses filled with muscatel as they worked.

My job was to finish off the struffoli with honey and oh-so-carefully turn the large, covered plastic Tupperware container over and over to coat the little cakes evenly. I was allowed the honor of tasting the first struffoli of the batch. But only one, so that I wouldn’t get tipsy from the wine, as my mother always warned with a slight smile on her face. (I only half believed her.) And when I sunk my teeth into that very first cookie, I was engulfed with sweetness.


Catherine Gigante-Brown is a New York-based author/editor. Her novels include Different Drummer, which has been adapted as a musical for the stage, and The El Trilogy.

Struffoli (Italian Wine Cookies)

1/2 c. sugar

6 c. flour 4 t. baking powder 2 pinches of salt 2 c. muscatel wine 3/4 c. oil (canola or olive, for cookie dough)

1 c. canola oil (for frying) 20 oz. honey or more to taste, slightly warmed

Combine sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Set aside.

Heat wine and oil in a medium saucepan.

Boil for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add to dry mixture and work with a wooden spoon until combined. Chill dough, covered with plastic wrap, overnight in the refrigerator.

Roll dough into small balls about the size of a walnut.

While the dough pieces are being formed, heat about one cup of oil to 375 F. in a frying pan or deep fryer.

Fry dough pieces until dark golden brown and cooked through, careful not to overcrowd the pan.

(If two are doing this, one can roll and one can fry, just as my mom and Nonna used to do.)

Make sure the cookies are browned evenly on all sides, turning with a fork or a slotted spoon. Place fried cookies in a large bowl lined with paper towels to drain. When all the cookies are fried, put them into a large plastic container.

Heat honey in a saucepan over medium heat for at least 5 minutes until it’s thinned out, and warm but not boiling.

Pour heated honey over the fried cookies while they are still warm, stirring gently to cover evenly. Place lid on the container and flip it upside down. Repeat flipping the container every 30 minutes or so to ensure that the cookies are well coated and soak up most of the honey.

Store cookies in a sealed plastic container. They will stay fresh for at least a week.

Makes approximately 4 dozen, depending on size.


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