Sunday, July 3, 2011

Taralli in the family

Like many fortunate Italian Americans, I had two Italian grandmothers who were great cooks. One of them made taralli, a spicy kind of Italian pretzel.
When I was only 18, I left New Jersey and moved to Boise, Idaho to go to college. I loved the mountains, the wide open spaces, the horses, the goats and the chickens, but after growing up in Northern New Jersey, I found myself in a kind of cultural vacuum. I could not find semolina pasta at my local supermarket, and the only pizza place in the whole state was a chain that sold something akin to saltine crackers glazed with tomato and oregano topped with yellow cheese. So I was always grateful when my grandmother Lucy Fressola sent me care packages filled with biscotti and taralli that she lovingly made by hand.

I suppose taralli are an acquired taste, if you set them out at a non-Italian potluck, chances are that they will be passed over for the richer double fudge brownies and the super chocolate chip cookies and the beautifully decorated designer biscotti that you can buy in stores here. But they don’t last long at my house.

The details of my grandmother’s taralli changed from time to time, but the way I liked them best was when she added both ground black pepper and fennel seeds. They are not sweet like so many other confections.

Over the years, my mother, my cousins and I requested the recipe from her several times, and upon each request, she dutifully sent it to us. We rarely even tried to make them because it is a complicated recipe. To make taralli, you must knead and raise dough, make about a mile of dough snakes, shape them, boil them and then finally bake them until they are just right. This is not a recipe for busy or timid cooks.

Some years ago, after we noticed that every one of the recipes for taralli that my grandmother had given us were different, we convinced her to show us how to make them at a family gathering. My sister, my mother, my husband and I sat and watched as she tried to measure the ingredients; she doesn’t REALLY measure, she was only doing it for us. Then she kneaded the dough, quickly, efficiently and we all realized she wasn’t going to slow down to show us that process. After the dough sat in a warm place for 1.5 hours, we all sat around the table with our own pieces of dough and rolled out snakes, worms, pencils and eventually braids and various other knotted shapes. My sister made the most fanciful designs, I labored to imitate what my grandmother was doing. No matter what, hers were nicer, faster, and more consistent. My mother was intimidated with the boiling water procedure and the slippery wet unfinished taralli but she and my husband managed to get them all in the oven under my grandmother’s watchful eye.

I made her biscotti recipe a couple of times for her before she died, faithfully reproducing her recipe of simple ingredients, but I’d never ventured to make those taralli. When my grandmother died in 2003 she left quite a hole in the family fabric.

That autumn, my family went to her home town of Sant’Agata di Puglia, where her cousin made sure that we went home with the RIGHT kind of taralli. But they were different. I knew I’d never have my grandmother’s recipe again unless I learned to make them myself.

In the kitchen, I generally lean on my husband, who learned to bake bread as a boy while living on a farm. He finds Italian baking very frustrating because to him her basic method is “backwards.” He was taught to make a dough by starting with the water, the yeast, and the oil, gradually adding the dry ingredients until you get a good dough. All our Italian recipes start with; “make a well in a hill of flour” to which you add wet ingredients until the dough is right. Each time I made another disastrous attempt at some sort of bread dough recipe, I would call him in, he would sputter and protest, and I’d watch as he changed that bumpy fractious lump of crumbs and grease into a perfect, soft, glistening ball of dough. It was still a mystery to me, frustrating, just beyond reach.

In the autumn of 2006, my husband spent most of his time in New Orleans on catastrophe duty. This gave me plenty of time alone in the kitchen, lots of time to think. I wanted to learn to make Taralli - by myself.

I planned my attack carefully, I figured I’d make my first attempt while my husband was still at home, and then I’d keep trying until I got it right. I cut her recipe in half, 8 cups of flour was way too intimidating. On my first try the dough came out awful. It was tough and cobbled with lumps. My husband wrassled it like it was a recalcitrant hog, pronounced several choice words, but before my eyes transformed it into something that looked pretty good. It was a very hard dough, but at least they tasted like taralli.

I tried again a couple days later, but this time the yeast didn’t rise. The poor thing just sat there in a lump. I left it out overnight in a warm place. In the morning after observing that the only change was that it was now a darker color, I threw it away.

My husband went back to New Orleans and I still hadn’t gotten it right. I was now ready to solo. If I really tried, I could have some ready for the holiday gathering. I tried four more times before I was satisfied. Five times is a charm? The last batch were salty enough, crunchy enough, they rolled out nicely, they browned perfectly. I finally feel like I own the recipe.

Upon reflection, sometimes my grandmother seemed to be sad because she was the only one that knew how to make these things. I’ll bet she’s smiling now, I’m sure she’d say, “you didn’t roll those out thinly enough.” and “Next time, don’t use so much pepper.” Sharing my grandmother’s taralli is kind of like sharing her. Now the younger generation is assured of getting a taste for her recipe, and perhaps the longing for more. Finally, I was able to preserve another family tradition. Her recipe is safely knit into our family fabric for at least another generation.

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