A Grandmother’s Legacy in Food and Love
Our food contributor Jill Paglia reveals her family’s sweet legacy of gifting homemade treats for the holidays. The tradition started during the Depression, when money was scarce, but their family still values the love baked into these treasured recipes.
When Filomena “Fannie” Pisaniello came to the United States from Italy, through Ellis Island in New York Harbor, she brought her beloved recipes along with her.
“Grandma Fannie” passed away in 1994 but members of her family are continuing to honor her legacy by faithfully preparing her struffoli and biscotti every Christmas.
In Ocala, Fannie’s daughter, Jean Paglia, along with her son and his wife, John and Jill Paglia, host several festive gatherings that include many members of their extended family.
On a recent morning, we joined the fun as Jill and her daughters, Danielle Hartman and Lauren Diamantas, and son Vincent “Vinny” Paglia, enjoyed a pre-holiday lunch of chicken salad croissant sandwiches, pasta salad and Veuve Clicquot mimosas as part of their family baking day.
“We have been getting together with the Italian side of the family for probably 25 years, at least, because my mother-in-law, Jean, always wanted to pass down the tradition of her mother’s cookie recipes,” Jill offers. “She did it at her house a couple of years and then it became the tradition that we usually do it at my house. We pick a Saturday close to Christmas and gather around 11am. I supply lunch and we have mimosas and small pickings. And then we get into rolling our dough.”
Part of the family tradition is everyone donning Christmas-themed shirts and Christmas aprons, and bringing their own tins so they all go home with goodies. Always on the list is struffoli (which are Italian honey balls), several flavors of biscotti, and pizzelles (added a few years ago by Jill). At Jill’s house, the struffoli is always served in Grandma Fannie’s beautiful crystal bowl.
There are usually about 15 people in attendance at the day-long gathering.
“It is literally a family affair,” notes Hartman. “And there is no Christmas table without struffoli. It’s so special because we put so much time into it.”
“Back in the day, the Italians didn’t have much money when they came in, mostly to New York, so as Christmas presents the mothers would form the struffoli—just eggs, flour and sugar—into balls,” Paglia explains. “You can pile them high, in the form of a Christmas tree, and you add hot honey and then rainbow sprinkles that symbolize Christmas lights. They would give these little sweet treats as gifts, because to the kids, that was candy…like heaven. It was, and is, a way of sharing your passion with others and gifting it that way.”
Hartman, the mother of two boys, says that once they do the baking, it really begins to feel like Christmas.
“We’re nearing the big day. I can’t imagine Christmas without it. It can turn into mom/daughter time. You can’t get enough of that,” she remarks. “Especially as we turn into what she is now. I’m going to be that mom too. New ladies come in and they’re like, ’What is this all about?’ And then they love it, and they want to do the same thing.”
Paglia says making the struffoli is the most time intensive.
“You’re making a pretty big batch,” she explains. “It’s easy to whip up, but then you have to put it on a board and flatten it out, then cut strips like a rope, then cut little pieces (less than 1/2 inch, with a knife). You throw them into the hot oil and they turn into a ball.
“For the pizzelles, we do flavors such as vanilla or cocoa or anise, two at a time in a press. They’re very inexpensive and make lovely gifts,” she adds. “We’ll also do Viennese (anisette) biscotti and basic almond biscotti, and I created a knockoff of a Neiman Marcus biscotti, which is cranberry and pistachio. It’s so good, and with white chocolate chips it’s more like a dessert.”
A large binder in Jill’s expansive kitchen contains the original recipes that bear titles like “Grandma Fannie’s Excellent All Year-Round Dessert (biscotti). Recipe has been in the family forever!” and “Grandma Fannie’s Excellent Christmas Dessert (struffoli). Tradition is passed down through the generations.”
“It’s a wonderful tradition to have from generation to generation, and it’s something to look forward to each year going into the holidays,” states Diamantas. “And now that I have two girls, they’re getting involved in it, especially my oldest. So, it’s fivegenerations now.”
As the baking party evolves throughout the day, with Christmas music playing and attendees enjoying the mimosa bar and delicious food, lunch often runs into a dinner consisting of a simple salad, beef and veal bolognese rigatoni and a charcuterie board featuring Italian meats and cheeses. Sometimes family members even stay overnight.
“She loves doing it,” Vinny Paglia says of his mother. “She has always loved cooking and spends a lot of time on it. It really is all about family. And it is so good to wake up in the morning and there are the cookies.”
White Chocolate Pistachio and Cranberry Biscotti
- 2 organic free-range large eggs
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup white baking chips
- 3/4 cup dried cranberries
- 3/4 cup pistachios
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325°. In a small bowl, beat sugar and oil until blended. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt; gradually add to sugar mixture and mix well. Stir in the chips, cranberries and pistachios. Divide dough in half. On a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, shape each half into a 10×1-1/2-inch rectangle with lightly floured hands. Bake 30-35 minutes or until lightly browned. Place pans on wire racks. When cool enough to handle, transfer to a cutting board; cut diagonally with a serrated knife into 1/2-in. slices. Place cut side down on baking sheets. Bake 6-7 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Remove to wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
This recipe calls for a batter-like dough and is baked on a pizzelle iron. Powdered sugar adds an elegant touch. In the Italian version, vanilla is replaced with anise or you can use chocolate.
- 3 organic free-range large eggs
- 1 3/4 cups King Arthur Gluten-Free flour
- 3/4 cups organic cane sugar
- 1/2 cups organic non-salted butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon vanilla or anise extract
In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar until thick. Stir in the melted butter and vanilla or anise. Sift together the flour and baking powder, and blend into the batter until smooth. Heat the pizzelle iron and brush with oil. Drop about one tablespoon of batter onto each circle of the iron. Bake for about 45 seconds, or until steam is no longer coming out of the iron. Carefully remove cookies from the iron. Cool completely before adding powdered sugar and storing in an airtight container. For chocolate pizzelles, add 1/4 cup cocoa sifted together with the flour and baking powder, 1/4 cup more sugar and 1 to 2 teaspoons more baking powder. For a chocolate mixture, make sure the iron is well oiled to start and brush on more as needed.
Grandma Fannie’s Biscotti
(Tweaked a bit by me –– I use parchment paper to bake on and King Arthur Organic All-Purpose Flour.)
- 6 organic free-range large eggs
- 6 cups of unbleached King Arthur All-Purpose Flour
- 1 1/2 cups cane sugar
- 1 cup olive oil
- 6 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons anise extract (or vanilla, almond, or orange extract to taste)
Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper and preheat oven to 350°. Crack eggs into a large bowl and beat with fork, add sugar and beat again. Add oil, anise extract and beat once more. In a separate bowl, sift and mix the baking powder with the flour then combine with the egg mixture. Using some extra flour on your hands, divide the dough into four equal parts. It will be very sticky. Form each portion into a long log on the parchment-lined sheet and pat down as you form it to be about 12 inches long and 3 inches wide (similar to forming a meatloaf.) Place two logs per cookie sheet. Bake at 350° for 30-35 minutes until golden brown. Take out of oven and place each log on a cooling rack. While the logs are still hot, take one at a time on a cutting board and slice with a serrated knife diagonally. After slicing, place each biscotti slice side up on the cookie sheet and return to the oven to broil for 1 minute on each side until golden brown. Place cooled biscotti in airtight container. Store for three weeks or more in a cool dry place. You can also dip some in dark chocolate, or also add mini chocolate chips. These are delicious with your morning coffee or evening espresso!
Grandma Fannie’s Struffoli
- 6 organic free-range large eggs
- 5 cups of King Arthur All-Purpose Flour
- 1 large jar of Nature Nate’s Raw Honey
- 1/3 cup pure olive oil
- 1/2 cup of cane sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon lemon extract
Crack eggs in a large bowl and beat with fork, add sugar and beat again, add oil, vanilla and lemon and beat a final time. Combine the 5 cups of flour with the baking powder then add to the egg mixture. Flour your hands and counter to mold dough together; it will be very sticky until all together. Flatten the dough into a thin loaf about 10 inches. Cut 1/4 inch long ropes lengthwise, then cut 1/2 inch pieces as you go along and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet. If you have a helper they can roll out the dough, make ropes, and then cut pieces and while this is being done you will fry batches in a deep fryer until light golden brown. As each batch cools, place them on paper towels to absorb any excess oil. When all the batches are fried, place them in a large decorative glass bowl. Melt the honey in a pan on stovetop. (Do not overboil.) When it starts to boil, pour over struffoli and blend well. Place on a serving dish, pile into a mound and sprinkle with multi-colored sprinkles. (These symbolize Christmas lights.) Without the sprinkles, these will store for two weeks in a cool dry place. To refresh, simply add a bit more honey and sprinkles.