The story of a beloved Christmas tradition, the love of family, and one very special cookie.
The scent always lingers. It permeates the fabric of the pillows on the couch, fills every crevice in the cabinets, clings to the air, sitting heavy on each atom. It’s unmistakable, unforgettable. Sweet, a bit like licorice. And for me, completely and wholly synonymous with Christmastime. It’s not gingerbread, or eggnog. It’s biscotti.
Every year at Christmas my grandfather, Papa, and my grandmother, Nana, dedicated a weekend to baking batches on batches of biscotti for the family. But perhaps, the story doesn’t start there. It starts decades earlier when Papa bought an Italian bakery in Southern California.
There, he learned how to make everything. Cookies, pastries, even wedding cakes. He’d spend hours sitting at the kitchen table practicing his piping techniques to get it just right. And it was there, at Masielo’s Bakery, that Papa learned how to make biscotti.
Eventually, the bakery was sold and new businesses bought — a lodge in Tahoe, a used furniture store. But the biscotti remained. The cookies, traditional, the recipe top secret, became like another member of our family. Paying homage to Nana and Papa’s Sicilian heritage, the product of Papa’s hard work and dedication, to be passed down from generation to generation.
Biscotti could be described as the exact opposite of an American cookie. They are hard, crunchy, packed with whole almonds and the bittersweetness of anise. Traditionally, biscotti are dipped in wine. I learned to dip them in a glass of milk, and eventually, at breakfast with a cup of coffee.
There’s an art to eating biscotti, and the key is the dipping. Biscotti are not a cookie of many ingredients. The biscotti Papa made, the biscotti Nana taught me how to make after he passed, consist mainly of whipped eggs, sugar and flour. Baked twice, they can become as hard and crunchy as a piece of overdone toast. And that’s exactly the way they should be.
See, the dunking is the secret. Once the biscotti hits that glass of milk, that cup of coffee, all those lovely air pockets fill with liquid and the cookie softens on impact. That’s how you must eat them, when they are at their peak.
Perhaps what was always so magical about Papa’s biscotti was that they came around only once a year. The process is involved, it’s time-consuming and made ever the more special as an annual Christmas treat. I’ve never known Christmas without biscotti. So when Papa passed, I knew the tradition must carry on. The prospect of a Christmas without Papa, without his joy and his light, was dim.
And, I suppose, that’s how I came to be the biscotti baker. For as you may have guessed, the biscotti are not just a cookie to us. They’re a symbol of our family, our tradition, and the love that Papa shared with us. Making biscotti is not something you do for fun. It’s something you do out of love.
So with Nana as my director, I learned how to make them. I tried and failed and tried again. I learned how 10 degrees difference in the oven affected the cookies, the temperature of the eggs, the amount of anise. With the chicken-scratch short hand of Papa’s recipes and Nana as my official taste-tester, I learned. I felt under-qualified for the responsibility. But somehow, I felt Papa cheering me on, guiding my hands and I knew I must persist.
Yes, I may have cried over a batch of cookies. Whether it was the fact that the cookies came out wrong, or more that I missed Papa, I can’t say. Grief will do that. I pushed on.
Until I presented a batch of biscotti one day to Nana, who sat down to test it with her omnipresent cup of coffee and she said, with a smile, “This is just like Papa’s.” In that moment, it was all worth it. The tradition of the biscotti would not fade, Papa’s legacy would continue, and I vowed to myself, every year to make these not only for my family, but for him.
We all have our own holiday traditions. And while we enjoy the fruits of our labor (with a glass of wine, milk or cup of coffee) who we really do it for is the people we love. From my family to yours, I wish you Buon Natale, a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year.