I am sort of the black sheep of my family, the one who had the audacity to move away from Western Pennsylvania. According to my certain members of my family, moving away is almost as bad as, oh, I don’t know, having served jail time or something.
Since I have had children and moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia from Washington, D.C., home is on my mind more. Perhaps it’s because where I live now is so similar to where I grew up. Perhaps it is because I somehow see my childhood more clearly now that I have my own children. My memory banks reach further into my childhood with each passing year. I sometimes catch myself, unguarded, longing for something from home and usually it’s food.
I was recently at the local grocery store and a flat round cookie caught my eye. My heart raced. Could it be the pizzelles of my youth, wrapped in pretty cellophane paper?
My grandmother, Irene, made these delicious cookies every Christmas. They were a lighter and more delicate flavor than most of our other holiday treats—the rich brownies and nut cakes and prettier than the poppyseed cakes and rolls.
Holiday organ music would blare into Gram’s kitchen, where she was firmly planted for the day. This was an unusual stance for Gram, a woman who was the assistant controller at the Aliquippa Hospital for twenty-some years— part of the generation of women who worked outside of their homes but would never call themselves feminist. She loved being in the kitchen and dishing out treats, but she simply did not have the time or energy to do it on a daily basis. If there was a computer problem at the hospital at 2:30 in the morning, her phone would ring and she’d be there in 30 minutes. Gram’s pizzelle making was carefully planned and usually done on a Saturday a few weeks before Christmas—and if I was lucky, I was there to relish in the smells and the holiday atmosphere.
Pizzelles take time and special equipment. In Italy, hundreds of years ago, the pizzelles were baked over an open fire with simple irons. Today, there are non-stick electric pizzelle irons, similar to waffle irons. The thin eggy mixture is poured on the hot iron and pressed down with a lid. The result is 6-inch cookies that look like squashed, round waffles, with delicate-looking snowflake designs pressed into them.
Lifting the cookie from the iron can be tricky. Broken pizzelles happen. But the broken bits are great for satisfying impatient children like myself and my sister, who were eagerly awaiting a taste, usually perched on Gram’s kitchen stools.
For purists, pizzelles are only flavored with anise, (with maybe a little vanilla.). My grandmother, for example, at first, only made the original anise-based recipe. But she found that lemon works nicely, too. My favorite is the chocolate—best before they harden, still slightly warm. The thought of my grandmother’s “experimental” chocolate pizzelles still warms me—a testament to her kitchen creativity.
Funny thing is, my family is not Italian and I don’t know how or where my grandmother heard of pizzelles. We are mostly of Scotch-Irish, English, and German heritage, the lineage of most of the pioneers of the region But, Gram’s work at the Aliquippa Hospital placed her in the center of our ethnically diverse steel mill community, so it’s not hard to imagine one of her colleagues sharing the pizzelle tradition and recipe with her.
The flat Italian cookie took me by surprise at the Kroger. I had not thought about them in years. As I picked up the package, I was moved to tears. Yep. Standing at the Kroger crying. It was like a great, empty wound exposed—both to myself and those unlucky shoppers around me.
Now, I have my own pizzelle iron and carry on the tradition from my Shenandoah Valley home, with my daughters by my side, every Christmas. I tell them stories about my grandmother as we fashion our own pizzelles. One year, we added bright red strawberry flavoring, giving the cookie a more festive look.
I try my best not to break the cookies as I pull them from the iron, but when I do, my daughters happily fill the role of my sister and I all those years ago in our grandmother’s Pennsylvania kitchen.