Is there any greater enjoyment than a good meal, especially one that reminds you of your youth, and simpler times? They call such things "comfort foods" and for very good reason. Today, my elderly Mom and I decided to make such foods.
With Mom's dementia and learning so much more about it, I've seen that the very strengths she once had, such as cooking and baking are traits that can withstand the test of time and memory especially if a loved one shares that passion as well.
I entered the warmth of my mother's kitchen today, (well, a little warmer than usual because with her condition, Mom is always very very cold. The heat was a blaring 74 degrees at the time.) to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table, a well-worn recipe card in front of her, studying it as if the meaning of life was written upon it.
"What's that?" I asked Mom.
"My old recipe for Strufali," came the reply.
Strufali, for those of you who aren't Italian, are little fried dough balls, maybe an inch or so in diameter. Made almost like a pie dough, dropped into boiling oil, then after they are drained on paper towels, put into a pot of heated honey and turned over again and again. These little delectables had usually been made for New Years in my family in the past. My Nonna had made them, and Mom too, bringing to mind my youth and the above mentioned simpler times.
I made up my mind that I was going to be Mom's kitchen slave for the day. Rolling up my sleeves, I began measuring out the ingredients, after putting on a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup, stir-frying another cut up chicken breast, throwing together a meatloaf and oven roasted potatoes too. Did I mention I was a kitchen slave earlier? Indeed. But it was one of the most bonding, fun times with Mom in recent memory. I'd taken one of her favorite things, cooking and baking, and turned it into an afternoon of bonding together. Each time Mom would say, "Please, I want to help," I'd politely turn her down and say, "No, you're the master chef, and I'm your pupil." Now you have to understand, I think I'm a fairly good cook and baker myself, but to let my mother think she was teaching me precious gems of kitchen duties was priceless. Though she did help a little, and later would tell my brother she made the whole meal, it didn't bother me a bit.
What is it with us sometime when we feel we must take credit for everything, or we are completely slighted? It took nothing from me to let Mom think she made the whole delicious meal and the Italian dough balls as well. Her hand had certainly been in it, so in many ways, it was her cooking and baking. I've taken her ideas from many years, and have incorporated them into my own kitchen. Many of the things I make come lovingly from little old scraps of paper, splotches of food encrusted into them as I study Mom's handwriting from years ago. I don't deviate from much of it, though my mother was one of those "pinch of this, dash of that" types too.
When the Strufali were finished yesterday, and we dug into the tasty, honey-coated treats, the look on my mother's face was priceless. A smile, eyes closed, a moan of ecstasy when she bit into one. And when Dad walked into the kitchen and tried his own, the compliment of "these are the best ones ever," was like music to my ears.
What a good day, a bonding day, a day of love and understanding. A day to treasure as her memory may fade, her moods worsen, or God forbid, she forgets any of us some day.
I hope to have more days like this. Days where a mother and daughter can giggle like schoolgirls, talk about old times, work side by side, and share the love and stories that all have come out of an Italian kitchen and bonding over comfort food.
Recipe for Strufali from Grace Massa Langlois, in an article on La Mia Vita Dolce from 2010.
Cicerchiata-Struffoli, Italian Honey Balls
- 6 large eggs
- 375 g (3 cups) plain (all purpose) flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Canola or vegetable oil for deep frying
- 710 ml (3 cups) honey
- 75 g (½ cup) candied fruit, optional
- 50 g (1/3 cup) slivered almonds, optional
- Candy sprinkles, optional
- Vegetable cooking spray (if shaping cicerchiata into a wreath)
- Crack eggs into a small bowl, cover and allow eggs to come to room temperature, 30 minutes.
- Add salt to eggs; lightly beat together with a fork.
- Place flour on a clean work surface or in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre.
- Pour egg mixture into centre of well. With the tips of your fingers or with a fork gradually draw the flour into the egg mixture. Continue until all or most of the flour is incorporated.
- Use your hands to gather the dough together. Knead the dough until smooth and no longer sticky, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Shape dough into a ball, cover with an overturned bowl, kitchen towel or wrap in plastic. Let dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Fill a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan with 5-cm (2 inches) of oil. Attach a thermometer and heat oil over medium heat to between 185° C and 190° C (365° Fand 370° F). (If you don’t have a thermometer, drop a 2.5-cm (1-inch) cube of bread into hot oil. If it takes about 1 minute to brown all sides of the cube and the cube floats to the top the oil has reached the appropriate temperature for deep-frying.)
- Prepare 2 baking sheets line one baking sheet with non-stick baking paper (for cut pieces of dough) and line the other baking sheet with 3 to 4 layers of paper towels (to absorb excess oil).
- Knead rested dough for a few minutes.
- Cut dough into 12 equal pieces. Work with one piece of dough at a time, keeping remaining dough covered. Using the palms of your hands roll each piece into a rope 1¼-cm (½-inch) thick. Cut the rope into 6 1/3-mm or 12¾ mm (¼-inch or ½-inch) pieces. Transfer pieces to prepared baking sheet (lined with non-stick baking paper); cover dough pieces with a kitchen towel. (Cicerchiata puff out quite a bit when frying. If I am preparing a wreath I prefer to cut the dough into smaller pieces. You may want to fry a small batch before cutting all the dough to see which size you prefer.)
- Cook dough pieces in small batches (do not overcrowd pan), stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until lightly golden on all sides, 1½ to 3 minutes (depending on size).
- Transfer cicerchiata to baking sheet (lined with paper towels) with a slotted spoon.
- When all dough is fried allow cicerchiata to come to room temperature. Transfer cicerchiata to a large bowl.
- Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan bring honey to a simmer over low heat. Simmer at low heat, stirring occasionally, until honey is melted.
- Gradually pour honey (reserving 59 ml or ¼-cup if shaping into a wreath) over cicerchiata stirring with a wooden spoon until well incorporated.
- If using candied fruit, nuts or sprinkles (or all three), sprinkle over top of cicerchiata and stir to well combine. (If shaping into a wreath, reserve a portion of the candied fruit, nuts and sprinkles to decorate wreath.)
- To serve, spoon into a bowl, pile onto a serving dish or shape into a wreath.