Una Pasqua Americana-Siciliana (A Sicilian-American Easter)
Ever since I was old enough to remember, Easter has been a holiday favorite in my household, as it is one of the holidays that requires three-day-in-advance preparations and acute culinary execution.
If you grew up in an Italian-American household, you are aware of the intense operations that unfold once the matriarchs in the family are overcome by “holiday mode.”
Sound the alarms!
Family is coming…
and they’ll come hungry!
And if you grew up in an Italian-American household, you’ve also been either enlisted to help prepare, or have been pushed out of the kitchen and threatened with a smack from the wooden spoon, especially if you didn’t help clean the dining and living room areas.
My fondest memories of Easter always feature my Nonna Olga, as she was the true head of our household. Nonna watched us kids as we excitedly decorated our living room with tiny ceramic bunnies and eggs, strategically swapping pastel colored decor in place of the typical Italian-style trinkets. She waddled herself into the living room every Easter morning, no matter how early we woke up, and beamed as we tore through our Easter baskets. She took great pleasure in baking us traditional, Sicilian Easter sweets, and surveyed my father with a close eye as he prepared the Easter feast.
Joy, for Nonna Olga, was always defined by her grandchildren. Don’t get me wrong, we also caused her great agita, but nothing un’abbraccio and un bacio grosso couldn’t fix.
Nonna Olga loved buying us uova di pasqua, which are giant chocolate eggs sold across Italy that typically have a small toy or souvenir inside of them. They aren’t necessarily easy to come by here in the states, so my Nonna would typically force my parents to drive her to the old Italian section of Hartford, CT to acquire the chocolate eggs, wrapped in bright foil and cellophane.
They were my favorite part of Easter.
And now, as we prepare for Easter 2017, our household looks different from the memories I recount. Our family has gained members, lost one of its most important, and the house itself is quite new for our family as well. But, we’re Italians for Pete’s sake, so we know how to keep a damn tradition alive.
This year, my sister Catherine is taking the reigns on Nonna Olga’s baking. Catherine had the wherewithal many years ago, before my Nonna’s passing, to sit down with her and record each of her holiday recipes in a book, so that she could always bring the flavors, and thus her spirit, alive when Nonna would no longer be with us. I am so thankful she did that, because as Easter nears, I find myself researching the proper Italian/Sicilian names for the desserts my Nonna carefully crafted for the holiday in an attempt to understand more about our cultural traditions.
I know the recipes, the flavors, the shapes, but the names of the desserts escaped us. Perhaps they were lost as my sister recorded the recipes, but after some research (Thanks, Wikipedia!) and calling my mother to bother her at work for some answers, I uncovered the names of the 3 Pasqua classics always baked by Nonna Olga.
Here are the 3 Easter staples of our family’s dessert table:
Pasticciotti con crema/ con cioccolato / con ricotta - (A.K.A. the “boob cookie" as it’s known in my house, because Nonna Olga used to make them in little round domes that had a small circular piece of dough on top… lol idk.) These are sealed with dough on top, and brushed with an egg wash. Apparently these should be eaten warm, but we ate them all day everyday around Easter.
Cassatelle di ricotta - One of my favorites, made in a little basket-cookie form filled with a sweet ricotta and cinnamon mix inside. The tops of these sweets are not covered in dough. We ate these warm, but I also like to eat them once they cool in the fridge and the ricotta filling becomes dense.
Panareddi - These are by far the most memorable cookies my Nonna Olga made throughout the entire year. These cookies are also known in Sicilian as "cuddura cu l'ovu," and are shaped into a flat basket, elaborately designed with added dough-braids. A colored, hard boiled egg is placed on top of the cookie, which my Nonna used to cover with more braided dough, and a dough nest with two love birds on top. She would sculpt the dough with Michelangelo precision, even though the dough was soft and difficult to shape. She would braid it and intricately incorporate the tiniest design elements that looked too good to eat- but tasted too good to marvel at, alone. She would add simple colored sprinkles (always the tiny ball sprinkles only!) to add a bit more color on top, and they always came out beautifully.
These customary Sicilian desserts are not unique to the island alone, as there are many adaptations of these desserts found in other regions as well with varying fillings, ingredients, and styles used to create them!
Does your family make any of these desserts as well? What Italian traditions do you follow in your family? From what region were these Easter holiday specials passed down?
Let me know in the comments section below, as I would love to hear about your family’s Pasqua traditions and treats!
Author's note: My mom and I were talking about this post, and we both agreed that no matter what your culture is, taking your family traditions, carrying them out, and passing them on to the next generation is one of the greatest joys we can have in this world. It keeps us close to loved ones who have passed, while it also serves as a way to educate the young and encourage family bonds. I must admit, writing about my Nonna Olga is not always easy, but with each tear I shed for her, I am reminded that without her, I probably wouldn't have this story to tell.
Buona Pasqua a tutti!