Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Christmas after Christmas. Two generations of family feasting

Richard J. Cattani, the Monitor's chief editorial writer, and his wife, Jacqueline, have sampled food widely and written about it affectionately for many years. In this essay, Mr. Cattani recalls holiday traditions shared from kitchen to kitchen in his boyhood and modern traditions-in-the-making collected in his family's recent global travels. Mrs. Cattani, a professional chef, provided the menus below.

AS A SMALL BOY ON CHRISTMAS EVE, WITH MY EYES TIRED FROM THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF THE HOLIDAY TREE, I WOULD HIDE MYSELF AWAY IN THE HALLWAY LINEN CLOSET. From deep within a pile of quilts and blankets, I could listen to the laughter, talk, and singing of the family and house guests, until that, too, faded. At some point, well after midnight, I would be missed. ``He must be in the linen closet,'' someone would say, to much merriment. I would be found and put into bed until I awakened for the gift-opening Christmas morning.

About these ads

Perhaps another boy stows away in that closet now on Christmas Eve, to voyage off into holiday wonderment. The family house in Detroit, built by my father exactly a half-century ago, has been sold to a successor family. My vibrant oldest sister, around whom dozens of young men would gather at our house for their last Christmas Eve stop after the midnight candlelight service, is no longer with us. Her friends would play the piano and eat the hams and plates of cookies my mother set out - American sour cream and butter cookies, and a variety of German cookies that had been gathering in picnic hampers in the cellar during the weeks before the holidays. Later, my other sisters' friends filled the house; then my friends.

In the mornings, after opening our gifts, we would be off, first to my father's family gathering at ``Nona's,'' his mother's house. Again there would be singing - Aunt Bruna's mezzo voice, powerful and true, and Uncle Mario's tenor. And the food: ``tortellini,'' small meat-filled dumplings, in broth; sage-and-rosemary-flavored chicken; and desserts - a rolled mincemeat loaf called ``colomba,'' an almond-custard ``torta,'' and the family's ``zuccherini,'' an anise-and-citrus-fla-vored cookie tossed in a sugar syrup. Then it was on, in the evening, to my mother's family, just as large and merry and vocal a clan, usually at Uncle Gus or Uncle Alex Reis's house. Again hams and sometimes goose, each aunt's favorite pie, milk, and Vernor's Ginger Ale. A coal fire glowed in the fireplace, hearty singers caroled at the old piano - both sides of the family were blessed with professional and amateur musicians. A ruckus was raised with more than a dozen cousins.

Again, exhausted, unable to keep my eyes open before the headlights of oncoming cars, I would fall asleep in ultimate contentment in the old 1936 Dodge.

Today when I visit the few remaining of my parents' generation, there is a hitch in the emotions as our eyes meet in the doorway. They are happy to see their nephew again, but a recollection flashes, too, of what good times have passed.

Christmas was always church, food, family, and friends.

My time came, at dating age, to immerse myself in gala gatherings of young folk. Our high school was large and had a wonderful choir, so our caroling was a cut above the usual.

It was a melting pot school of ethnic Greeks, Poles, Italians, Germans, Yugoslavs, Swedes, Welsh, Southern whites and blacks. We would make the rounds of homes and sample the holiday foods.

About these ads

When you have celebrated Christmas so wholesomely in so many households, it becomes difficult later to feel prejudice; or when you meet it in others, it seems so surprising and unfair. These friends are scattered, too - to Jacksonville, Buffalo, Los Angeles. A few of us keep in touch at Christmastime.



It is a fact of social life today that people get together at the holidays less than before. Distances separate us and, paradoxically, the speed and ease of modern travel enable us to visit at times other than the big holidays. Whereas I may never have missed a Christmas Eve at my parents' home until we decided our own children deserved the magic of their own tree, collective family ties now seem generally less compelling.

Luxurious books and slick magazines are devoted to entertainment. Ads picture vast kitchens that could turn out food for the three or four dozen people who might attend a family feast. But the occasions for large gatherings have been allowed to lapse.

What to do?

Some people have taken to writing yearly holiday letters to bring family and friends up to date. The messages tend to dwell more on the upbeat - the scholarships, say, for a daughter going to college - than on disappointments, and that is just as well.

In our case, though we cannot sit down at the same table, perhaps we can share some of the best of the past year in the form of a culinary message, with recipes for a few memorable new dishes, or our discoveries from restaurants abroad. For example, this year we visited Switzerland, France, Italy, and West Germany in the spring and the fall. With a professional chef in the family (my wife, Jacqueline), we approach such adventures with a little more earnestness than most tra-velers might. We often study regional cookbooks beforehand and acquire recipe collections of outstanding restaurants when on the road. When we can, we talk with chefs about their clientele, the availability of produce, and what they are trying to achieve with their style of cooking. Through friends we sometimes meet with local families and again talk food: What are young people eating today? What do you serve for a holiday meal?

In restaurants this year we found our old family ravioli, or pasta with filling, very much in vogue everywhere, not just in Italy. Whether filled with zucchini blossoms, lobster, sweetbreads, pumpkin, or what-have-you, or served in consomm'e or a special sauce, the ravioli has a secure place in today's showcase cuisine.

As a first course, foie gras, fattened goose or duck liver, is also popular: Sometimes a small slice is warmed lightly in butter and served atop a salad, as in many Swiss restaurants that follow Lausanne's master chef Freddy Girardet. Or a duck liver may be cooked whole, as at Jacques Pic's superb hostelry in Valence, France, and served with grapes or other warmed fruit.

``Ditsy'' food characterizes modern meat courses - that is, cuts of meat like breast of duck, or noisettes of lamb, that can be sliced and arranged fancily. One wonders what becomes of the rest of the animal.

For a vegetable course, we recently devised a way to roast a variety of fall vegetables - tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, onions - that enables one to arrange them neatly on the plate, instead of in a jumble, as is the case with ratatouille.

In Italy's Piedmont region, we came across several wonderful desserts, including, near Alba, a confection called ``Bonet'' that can be made either in a chocolate or a coffee version, and a simple nut cake.

Culinary traditions no more stand still than does the rest of life. Today's cooking styles show a greater care for presentation, a lightness and balance of textures, that would not have occurred to family cooks whose daily and holiday fare served a different purpose, and who did not have today's ample summer supply of fresh produce.

Abundance as well as simplicity always characterized Christ Jesus' life. We hope our small sampling of recipes for a Christmas dinner past and a Christmas present will reflect that spirit.

A taste of tradition (Recipes serve 6 to 8) Tortellini in brodo (Tortellini in broth) PASTA

2 cups flour

2 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup water

Make a well in the flour on a clean work surface. Break egg into center, add water and salt, and mix with fingers to make a smooth batter, incorporating flour from the inside wall of flour until a mass forms that can be kneaded. Knead until smooth, 10 to 15 minutes. Let rest 30 minutes covered with plastic wrap. Divide in half. Roll out on well-floured surface or use pasta machine. FILLING

Cooked white meat from 1 fowl (see broth instructions below)

Meat from 2 pork chops, simmered 7 minutes in broth

2 large eggs

4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

Freshly grated nutmeg

Salt, white pepper

Briefly process white chicken and pork meat in food processor. Add remaining ingredients, adding more cheese if desired. To make tortellini, place about 1/2 teaspoon filling on 2-inch squares of pasta, fold one corner over to make a triangle, press open edge to seal. Wrap the two corners of the folded-over edge back around the index finger without lifting off work surface; pinch together to form a ring. Place tortellini on lightly floured tray. Poach about 5 minutes in broth. BROTH

5- to 6-pound fowl

1 medium onion, quartered

1 stalk celery

1 carrot

1 bunch Italian parsley

Sprig of thyme

1 bay leaf

Place bird in large pot, cover with cold water; tie onion, celery, carrot, and herbs in cheesecloth and add. Slowly bring just to boil; simmer 3 to 4 hours. After 2 hours lift out fowl and remove breast meat for filling. Return fowl and trimmed pork bones to pot. Strain and season. Chicken With Sage and Rosemary

2 whole chickens, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds each

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 large bunch sage (1/2 cup), chopped

2 tablespoons rosemary, crushed

1 tablespoon thyme, crushed

2 teaspoons coarse salt

Freshly ground pepper

Remove any excess fat from chickens; rinse well; and dry. Loosen skin from neck cavity with fingers over the breast and thighs. Combine remaining ingredients and divide evenly between the two birds, rubbing the herb mixture between the skin and meat of the breasts and thighs. Rub outer skin as well with remaining herb mixture. Truss birds, place on rack and let stand overnight in refrigerator. To roast, rub skin with a small amount of olive oil, bake at 375 degrees F. for 11/2 hours, basting occasionally with pan juices. Let stand 15 minutes before carving.

Rice and Pumpkin Pilaf

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 cup rice

2 cups pumpkin, peeled and diced

2 cups rich chicken broth (or bouillon cubes)

Saut'e onion in butter until soft; add rice and stir until rice is hot to the touch but not taking on color. Add pumpkin, stir to distribute through the rice, add broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to keep broth at a simmer. Cover pot with a triple layer of paper towels, secure with pot lid. Cook until liquid is just about absorbed, 15 to 18 minutes, and remove from heat. Zuccherini (Anise Cookies) DOUGH

1 stick (4 ounces) butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

6 large eggs

Zest and juice of 1 orange

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla

1 teaspoon anise extract

5 cups flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon anise seeds

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, beating well. Combine juices, extracts, and zests; add to egg mixture, beating slowly. Combine dry ingredients and stir into mixture until smooth. Butter and flour cookie sheets. Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of dough, roll in palms, and place on sheets. Bake 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees. When cookies are cool, prepare sugar syrup. SUGAR SYRUP

4 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine ingredients in deep pan. Cook to 240 degrees on candy thermometer. Remove from heat, add all cookies to pan; stir and toss cookies until coated with syrup, which sets quickly into a sugar crust. Dry on racks.

Contemporary Christmas dinner (Recipes serve 6 to 8) Lobster Ravioli FILLING

1 lobster, 1 to 1 1/4 pounds

5 ounces salmon filet, skinned

5 ounces zucchini, in small dice

1 whole egg

1 egg yolk

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Poach lobster in boiling salted water 5 to 8 minutes. Remove; let cool. Cook zucchini in same water 2 minutes; remove and cool. Remove meat from lobster, tail, and claws; place in blender with salmon, zucchini, egg, egg yolk, salt, and pepper. Blend well; set aside.

Make pasta as in tortellini recipe at left. Divide dough in half; roll out one piece in thin sheet. Cut two 2-inch-wide strips. Place teaspoon-sized amounts of filling on one strip, about 2 inches apart. Cover with second strip of dough, cutting with ravioli cutter into 2-inch squares; seal around each lump of filling. Place on lightly floured surface. Poach for 3 to 4 minutes in salted, gently boiling water. Remove with slotted spoon, drain; keep warm. SAUCE

4 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced

1/4 cup Italian parsley, minced

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Heat butter and oil in skillet; stir in tomatoes. Cook 3 minutes, add parsley, salt, pepper. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese. Grilled Lamb With Savory

Using a butterflied leg of lamb or lamb chops, trim meat well. Flatten meat lightly with meat pounder; rub well with olive oil, then with freshly ground pepper and a good amount of fresh or dried savory. Cover loosely with foil tent or plastic; refrigerate overnight. Heat oven to 450 degrees. For a leg: Place lamb on rack in a pan and bake 15 minutes; reduce heat to 400 degrees and continue baking 30 minutes (for pink lamb, should read 130 degrees on meat thermometer); let rest 15 minutes before slicing. For chops, grill quickly under broiler, turning once after 7 minutes. Oven-Roasted Fall Vegetables

3/4 pound eggplant, sliced thin

3/4 pound zucchini, sliced

3/4 pound fresh tomatoes, quartered

1/4 pound or two small onions, quartered

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon dried basil

4 tablespoons olive oil

Brush large baking dish with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Arrange vegetables in groups in pan, sprinkle with chopped garlic, salt and pepper, basil, and drizzle over remaining olive oil. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake 15 minutes; cover with foil and continue baking until done, about 1/2 hour. Vegetables should be tender but still hold their shape. Piedmont Bonet (Chocolate-Souffl'e Custard) CARAMEL

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

Heat ingredients in small pan to boiling, without stirring. Cook at fairly rapid boil until dark golden in color. Pour syrup into 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pan and, tilting pan carefully, coat bottom and sides. Set aside. (Remaining syrup may be poured onto a buttered plate, left to cool, and later crushed for a garnish.) CUSTARD

3 eggs, separated

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup milk

1/4 cup heavy cream

5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

12 amaretti, crushed (1/2 cup)

Beat egg yolks and 3 tablespoons sugar until very light and fluffy. Beat in softened butter. Combine milk and cream, add alternately with the cocoa and crushed amaretti to the egg yolk mixture, and stir until smooth. In separate bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form; add remaining 3 tablespoons sugar to the whites and beat until stiff. Fold egg whites into amaretti mixture until no streaks appear.

Pour into caramel-coated loaf pan, place in hot-water bath, and bake 40 minutes at 425 degrees. Cool on a rack, unmold onto a platter and chill. Garnish slices with crushed sugar praline, crumbled torrone, whipped cream if desired. Serve with Hazelnut Cake. Hazelnut Cake

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

3 eggs

1 3/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup hazelnuts, with skins, toasted and coarsely chopped

Cream butter well, add sugar gradually, beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well between additions. Combine flour, baking powder, hazelnuts, and pinch of salt. Slowly beat into creamed mixture. Spoon into buttered and floured 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes or until tester inserted in center comes out dry. Cool on rack; unmold.

(Lobster Ravioli and Piedmont Bonet adapted from `The Gourmet's Tour of Italy' (Little, Brown and Company); Hazelnut Cake from ``In cucina a quattro mani,'' by Claudia Verro and Giovanni Goria (Daniela Piazza Editore, Torino).

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.