Growing up in an Italian household meant I dined like a queen on varying pasta dishes, lovely Northern Italian desserts and delicacies created by Grams, the chief cook in our home.
Ok, full disclosure here. When we moved to the Nort’ side and built our house near Grams, she apparently took it as carte blanche to bring over a meal at a moment’s notice, whether or not mum had our supper on the table. This became more prevalent when the old gal moved in downstairs. And my mum, the peacekeeper, demurred to her mother-in-law’s wishes. Dio! Having been married awhile, I’m not sure I could be that diplomatic. There’s a halo awaiting Mumsie and I’m not the only family member who thinks so.
Anyway, there were many instances where Grams got a wild hair up her culo and decided she needed to try her hand at those other, American, desserts. Unfortunately for our family, she was rarely successful and for one simple reason—Grams had an inexplicable tendency of substituting ingredients that didn’t always jive with the recipe. Over time, this peculiar quirk forced our family to implement the huddle, pass it on and sniff technique. Rude, horrible, ungrateful behavior towards someone who slaved over a hot stove to bake for her family, no doubt. Still, until you’ve tasted a Boston cream cake without the cream, or the cake, refrain from judgment.
When Grams would present us with what appeared to be a cream pie, we knew better and tried to muster up our appreciation with halfhearted oohs and ahhs, which in turn earned us a dirty look since Grams knew we were just making her ass tired. (A favorite saying in my house growing up).
Meantime, while Grams was busy emptying out a kitchen drawer in search of a serving utensil, those of us assembled around the table would huddle up, pass around the dessert and speculate about its actual contents. “Do you think it’s really chocolate?” That question tinged with panic was thrown out there by my younger brother who, throughout his short life had been conned into eating prune pieces posing as chocolate chips, Cool Whip in lieu of real whipped cream and semi-formed, gelatinous Jell-O molds promising mini marshmallows only to deliver chunks of questionable fruit about to expire.
After having passed the plate around for inspection we’d look to Mumsie for her expert opinion as she was the best baker in the family. After a moment, she reached out to touch the suspiciously gloopy surface.
“If it’s a cream pie,” she’d inform us, “It should have a little give,” (which it didn’t) “Not suck in one’s finger like a house going down a sinkhole,” (which it did) “Unless, one substituted egg whites for egg-yolks, powdered cocoa instead of a baking bar and skim milk for whole milk.” Then she’d remove her finger, sit back and wait for dad’s sigh of disgust.
So, the day Grams decided to make peanut brittle, a favorite candy my dad enjoyed, we were dubious to say the least. As she presented her spoils, she informed dad it might not be exactly the same because she didn’t have (Any? Enough? God only knows the thought process here...) dark corn syrup and decided caramelizing brown sugar would work just as well. The result was a globular mass that spread across the 10” plate like so much congealed melted cheese. Only Grams would substitute the very thing that gave the candy its name--brittle. Despite our not-so-subtle looks of horror, she expected dad to be completely delighted and choke it down with a smile. Dad accepted the plate examined it and then took a loooong whiff just to irritate her and she left in a huff of indignation. Dad sighed, shook his head and handed off the plate instructing me to dump it in the garbage with extreme prejudice.
As I stood over the garbage can, I stared at the plate and realized the mass was starting to harden, though not enough to become brittle. And that’s when an idea came to me. I scraped the mass off the plate and shaped it into a softball sized ball. As it began to harden, I snatched up a piece of tinfoil and smoothed it around the ball over and over until perfectly round. The next day, I tossed it in my backpack and brought it to school to my first class of the day, concert band.
After the warm-up, our music teacher was called to the main building over the road, and that’s when I took the opportunity to unearth my brittle-ball. As it happened my sister, a Senior to my Sophomore, shared the class with me. After we held a brief discussion on the pros and cons of tossing the three-pound, tinfoil wrapped ball, we decided there was no harm in having a little fun. At least we’d squeeze some enjoyment from Grams’ ‘dessert.’ We went back to our respective seats and eye-balled the distance between us—it was pretty significant.
At the time, I was 2nd chair out of 16 alto-saxophones (because I was totally awesome) and my sister, who played clarinet, was way in the hell across the room at the tail end of the third row playing that one whole note every 4 beats, which meant the path that silver ball would travel was fraught with traps and pitfalls—people standing around in-between the chairs gossiping; a couple kids with gi-normous target-able heads were in the way; and a flute player I would have loved to “accidentally” bean was in the line of sight. No matter, we were determined to have our fun!
And we did, for a while, until my sister decided to catch the brittle-ball with her face. Thankfully, she didn’t break anything. However, explaining to the parents how she got that shiner is another story.
Until I made friends beyond my Italian neighborhood, I had no idea Crème de Cocoa liqueur wasn’t actually a topping for ice cream—Gnocchi never made it on the menu at the first Thanksgiving dinner—or that the end of a loaf of bread is only known as the 'Culo' in an Italian household. Intrigued? Then kick back with a glass of vino and take a glimpse into my life growing up Nort’ side.