Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pignolatti and the St. Joseph Altar

OK, so it's taking me a little longer than I thought to finish documenting the St. Joseph Altar. Sorry about that. I do feel it is important to document the traditions of the past, so these recipes WILL get posted - eventually. And if you're interested, I created an entire photobook of the Altar. I have lots of pictures of the food and some recipes, but in the case of something like the Pignolatti, my few pictures don't do it justice. This post will be much more comprehensive. So, here we go.

These Sicilian cookies are so named because they resemble pinecones when they are finished. They are meant to symbolize the pinecones that Jesus played with as a child. I've seen it spelled Pignolatti and Pignolata, and it is pronounced pee-nyoh-LAH-tah. These are different from the Pinolate cookies you might be thinking about, but those can be included on the Altar, too. These are deep fried, hard, crunchy, sugar-coated piles of goodness.

There are two main parts to this recipe - the cookies, and then the coating and shaping of the cookies. The cookies themselves can be made a few days in advance if necessary, and must be completely cooled before moving to the next step. This recipe is HUGE and created a few of gallons worth of cookies (pictured to the right and in step 3 below), but you will be surprised at how fast you can go through the cookies once you start coating and shaping them. The cookies are pretty neutral flavored and you could certainly eat them just as they are - they are not sugary or sweet and just give you a taste of mild, comforting homemade goodness.

And this is definitely a recipe where you can't have too many cooks in the kitchen. You simply can't do this recipe with one or two people. Three, maybe. Four to six, even better.

The next step is when the fun comes in. You'll need a little extra equipment as I've listed below - the most important being a marble or granite slab - or something completely heat proof that the very hot sugar will not melt or radiate through. You'll be dumping hot, melted sugar straight onto it.

1. Melt the sugar until it is light golden brown and very liquid.

2. Pour cookies into melted sugar and remove from heat. Stir cookies until all coated.

3. Pour cookies onto oil-coated marble slab.

4. Begin to work quickly separating cookies into small piles. You can see that each person used two spoons to pull the cookies away and then push them into small piles. The sugar is still too hot at this point to use your hands.

5. Dip your hands in ice cold water and use your hands to begin shaping the piles of cookies into small pyramids - squeezing them together so the sugar will hold them together. Or use a metal funnel and stack the cookies inside. If the sugar starts burning your hands, quickly dip them back in the cold water and then start shaping again. (Try to dry your hands a little bit because too much water will keep the sugar from sticking together.)

6. Top with sprinkles before the sugar hardens.

7. You'll probably need to wash your hands and hopefully they didn't get too burned.

5 cups all-purpose flour
9 eggs
Shortening for deep frying

2 cups sugar (several times over, at least 5)
Candy sprinkles

Large slab of marble or granite
Bowls of ice and water for hands
Spoons to separate dough
Metal funnels for shaping

Add beaten eggs to flour. Work with hands until a stiff, smooth dough is formed. Cut off small portions of dough and roll into pencil-like rolls. Cut into 1/4 inch pieces and fry in shortening until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool completely. These can be made ahead of time and stored in airtight container.

Coat marble and inside of funnels with thin layer of oil. Melt sugar on low heat in very heavy pan (like cast iron, preferably not non-stick). Stir constantly so it doesn't burn. Cook until sugar is dissolved and has reached "string" stage. (Sugar will be liquid and turn medium-brown.) Remove from heat and quickly place two cups of fried dough into sugar and stir well until all pieces are coated.

Pour dough onto marble slab. Quickly use spoons to pull several pieces of dough together. Use funnels or hands to shape pieces into a pyramid shape. SUGAR IS VERY HOT. Dip hands in cold water frequently , but try to avoid wetting the dough too much because the pieces will not stick to each other. Sprinkle with candy sprinkles before sugar hardens. Move cookies to a parchment-covered cookie sheet for cooling.

A special thanks to my mom (Cheryl), her friends - Diane, Teeda, and Cheryl - and their spouses for inviting me to be part of this cookie-making tradition!!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

St. Joseph Altar - The Italian Catholic Tradition

Chances are if you're not Italian and you're not Catholic and you're not from New Orleans, you've probably never heard of a St. Joseph's Altar. They are popular in pockets around the country (including the Chicago area), but the tradition thrives in the Italian Catholic community in New Orleans. On my recent trip to New Orleans, I had the wonderful experience of participating in a St. Joseph Altar, and over the next few days I hope to share some of the traditions and recipes with you.

This altar was very special to me. Some wonderful family friends wanted to host this altar and ask St. Joseph to heal my father's cancer. So many people worked for weeks making plans for the altar, baking THOUSANDS of traditional Italian cookies, simmering gallons of tomato sauce, chopping pounds upon pounds of olives for homemade olive salad, stuffing hundreds of favor bags, and asking for donations to feed more than 500 who were expected to come to the altar.

The origin of the altar to St. Joseph is said to have begun in Italy when the people of Sicily prayed to St. Joseph to save them from famine. When the rains finally came and the crops flourished, the people showed their appreciation with their most prized possessions - food.

Today, people host a St. Joseph Altar to ask St. Joseph for a favor or blessing, or in thanksgiving for a favor received. Almost everything on the altar is based in tradition. All items are donated by the hosts or community - upholding the tradition of "begging for donations." All food is given away to those attending. Any money raised from candles or petitions or donations is given to the poor.

In addition to setting up this elaborate display of breads and desserts, the altar also feeds anyone who come to pray to St. Joseph. The food at the altar includes no meat, probably because St. Joseph's day falls during lent or the fact that meat was scarce in Sicily after the famine. Our altar served more than 500 people who enjoyed Pasta Milanese, crawfish pie, stuffed artichokes, olive salad, green bean and artichoke casserole, fresh bread and so much more.

Everyone who visits a St. Joseph Altar wants to take home a fava bean, or lucky bean. History states that during the famine in Sicily, the fava bean thrived while other crops withered and died. Tradition holds that whoever carries the lucky bean will always have money in her pocket or food in her pantry. They also serve as a reminder to pray to St. Joseph. As a child I remember my grandmother having a small collection of fava beans in her wallet and on her nightstand.

A large bowl of fava beans was placed next to the altar with small stacks of prayer cards. By the end of the evening, the bowl was almost empty. Beans were also placed in the "goodie bags" that were available. The bags also had a pieces of blessed bread (which you should throw outside in a storm to calm the skies), several Italian cookies (recipes to come later) and a St. Joseph prayer card.

Blessed bread is a very important part of the altar. Not only are their full loaves of bread, but much of the bread is baked into symbolic shapes, such as crosses and animals.

Over the next few days, I'll be posting some traditional recipes and more photos of the altar. I hope you'll be back!!

Here we go again!

Wow! Where does the time go? All you gals with full-time jobs, full-time families and full-time blogs are my heroes. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting a whole lotta nothing done. I have a backlog of posts in my head and I really want to get them together. I have a ton of things to work on for the deli and a couple of personal projects going on too. I say this all the time - I'm living my life in two hour increments - enough time to keep afloat, but not enough time to concentrate and really focus on something.

But here's where I embrace it all. Make the most of it. Git 'r done. (Ugh! Did I just say that?) It's that little thing called time management that I've been chasing after since college. Coincidentally, today also marks the first day I am really back on my low-carb diet after a two week hiatus because of a long weekend in New Orleans and my kids' Spring Break. So I'm recommitting to everything today. Using my time more wisely. Making healthier choices. Being a little more patient. Striving to be more productive. Who's with me?

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