‘Tis the Season…

The last tree~

Since my return from our Italian vacation at the beginning of November, I have been working for friends at their quite popular flower shop in Birmingham, Alabama (http://www.flowerbudsinc.com/).  We have been decorating houses for Christmas—the first house was on November 15 and today was the last house. There is complete disbelief and seasonal horror at setting up an artificial tree on that first day of houses in November, but today there was something very joyful about hanging a fresh mixed pine and fir garland over the doorway of a large, lovely stone home out in the woods of rural, but developing, Alabama.

In Italy, the Christmas season does not seem to begin until December 1. Here, in America, we can barely get the jack-o-lanterns blown out and the vampires back into their coffins before we are decking the retail halls with boughs of holly. Thanksgiving, naturally, is not an Italian holiday and, except for the literal day, it barely seems a holiday in this country. There is a build up to Halloween and then the immediate shift to Christmas on November 1. I sometimes think that Thanksgiving is just a gluttonous trial run, a kickoff, to the impending holiday season—if you can gastronomically survive Turkey Day you are given the falsely satisfying notion that you’ll be able to survive the four-week onslaught of eggnog, cookies, and parties which culminate in a SECOND turkey with all the trimmings. I feel like loosening my belt again just thinking about it.

Our vacation to Italy this year was the first two weeks of November and last year’s vacation was the last two weeks. This year, the Italians were just starting to bring out the civic street decorations to hang as we were leaving (November 15). Last year, the last few days of November were when shops started converting their windows to Christmas displays and city crews were still in process of hanging street decorations. At the beginning of that late Nov. ‘08 vacation, the already hung snowflakes, bells, stars, and strings of colored lights in the streets remained unlit until the end of the month. We rounded the corner the evening of November 28 and the Christmas tree outside the Fendi shop on Via Corso, previously dark on other evening strolls, was lit—as were all of the street decorations throughout Rome. It seems that December 1 is the retail start of Christmas in Italy. Brava!

So, as I sit here listening to “Frosty the Snowman” on Sirius radio on a relatively chilly “wintery” night in the Deep South, I am paging through my red notebook of recipes that I cooked with Nonna. She gave me a recipe for Biscottini di Natale—Christmas Cookies—which are made with dark chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, amaretto or limoncello, sugar, flour, eggs, butter, and lard. Ha! I think Nonna has one-upped Paula Dean’s fascination with butter by using lard. I have not made this recipe yet, so I have not converted it from metric. Maybe I’ll do that this week since I am in the holiday spirit—and my holiday shopping is done. If I do, I’ll pass it on; however, while living with the family in Viterbo, we did make two “holiday” treats—Crostoli and Ciambelline con patate.

Crostoli are diamond-shaped pieces of dough made with white wine and grappa, which are then fried in oil and dusted with powdered sugar. Ciambelline con patate are yeast doughnuts made with potatoes, marsala wine or limoncello, and fried in oil. They are then rolled in sugar while still warm. Buonissimi!!

Sirius is now “walking in a winter wonderland,” so I think I’ll start planning which of these Italian desserts to “walk” to some parties this weekend. Now that my belt has been loosened, post Thanksgiving, how can fried potato doughnuts be that bad??—Mamma mia!

 Buon Natale~



About the Author

Mark LeslieMark Leslie, seen cooking on NBC’s "The Today Show" and Hallmark Channel's "Home & Family," loves to cook for anyone with an appetite, vacations in Italy every year, and lives to eat his way through every plate of pasta and cone of gelato placed before him. His first book, “Beyond the Pasta: Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family,” tells of his life in Italy while cooking with an Italian grandmother. He shares his food experiences on his blog at www.beyondthepasta.com and has taught cooking classes in California, Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, and across Alabama. While judging for high school culinary events, he was chosen by the US Department of Education to judge for their "National Education Startup Challenge." Mark can be regularly seen cooking on NBC-affiliate, WSFA-TV 12's "Alabama Live! each Friday, bringing easy, locally sourced recipes to central Alabama. His iTunes app “Beyond the Pasta” features helpful videos and more of Nonna’s family-style recipes that she shared with him, plus, upon its release, it was named “New & Noteworthy” by Apple. DaVinci Wines chose Mark as their "2012 Storyteller" in Language Arts—where they sent him to Vinci, Italy, to write about wine, food and life. Mark, his home and book have been featured in such national publications and blogs as House Beautiful, Paula Deen, Food Republic, The Kitchn, Apartment Therapy, Field & Stream, and The Daily Meal. A Chicago-area native and “Yankee” by birth, Mark has lived in Alabama for over 24 years, and celebrates the fact that he started life eating farina, progressed to grits, and finally arrived at polenta. Buonissimo!View all posts by Mark Leslie →

"Beyond the Pasta" is owned and operated by Mark Leslie. Unless otherwise specified all content, writing, recipes and photography is original and held in copyright through the Library of Congress. It may not be used without the express written consent of Mark Leslie.