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Pizzelle: Nini (nee-nee), Nana (nuh-nuh), Nonna tested; humanity approved


By Carol Dzadony-Mancini

For a little over 13 centuries, pizzelle have had a place in history. When they became a staple of Italian Christmas celebrations or were created by the thousands for Italian wedding cookie tables, I do not know.

Pizzelle were originally made in Ortona, in the Abruzzo region of Central Italy.

As history tells it, pizzelle were believed to be first created in the Italian village of Colcullo, Italy to celebrate the driving out of the snakes to prevent them from overtaking the town. This festival is known as the Festival of the Snakes or the Feast of San Domenico. Once the area was free from snakes, they feasted on pizzelle and celebrated.

Others believe the village of Salle located in Abruzzi, Italy was the first to use pizzelle during the feast of Beato Roberto, a 12th-Century monk. Celebrants would attach the pizzelle to tree branches and parade them through the streets.

It doesn't seem like the most opulent choice with which to celebrate, but remember centuries ago, if they used anise seeds like we do today, they were purchased on the spice trade routes as anise seeds are indigenous to the southeastern part of China and Vietnam. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which is where the saying "worth his weight in salt" originated. Seeds, salts and peppercorns were hot, expensive commodities!

The name pizzelle shares an etymology with the Italian word pizza. Because they're flat? Close.

The word is actually derived from the original Greek word pitta meaning a baked dough that "spreads." Pizzelle just means little dough that spreads. (I should have paid more attention in 12th grade Honors English when Mr. Szymkowski was teaching Latin root word meanings).

I used to help my mom, Bernie, make pizzelle when I was a kid – my first recollection was probably 4 or 5 years old. I believe I was that young because I can remember her telling me I could practice my counting. You see, we had one of the old-fashioned irons that was used on the flame of the stove (see below for types of pizzelle makers). One pizzella at a time. 60 seconds in total – 30 on one side, flip, 30 on the other. The task laborious. For as many times as we made the cookies, they simply did not turn out like Emma Mancini-Litterini's. Was she a Strega Nona? Did she have magical powers that made her pizzelle better than ours? Yes. Yes, she did.

(More on Emma's magical powers later.)

Remember I told you about the secret family recipes I would be privy to once I married Dan? Well, that was true with both sides of his family. As a man of 100% Italian heritage, I could be privy to double the secret Italian recipes–from both sides of his family. Double bonus! But for the first 10 years...nada! Nothing! Zilch!

One Christmas Eve, 10 years, yes, 10 years into the marriage, we were opening gifts (a tradition on my Polish side of the family, too – almost like double gifts – Christmas Eve for family gifts, Christmas Day for the "Big Guy's gifts).

Well, that Christmas Eve I received a rather heavy gift, all wrapped in pretty paper with a ribbon, from my in-laws, Jerry and Louise. Hmmm? What could it be? As it turned out, it was my first and (still) only electric pizzelle maker. Fantastic! I was very excited. Louise told me to look inside. I took the iron out of the box. And inside? Yes, you guessed it, the family pizzelle recipe! (Which turns out was actually Emma's sister Anna's recipe since Louise's family is Calabrese- from southern Italy and probably did not have a family recipe).

Soon after receiving that pizzelle maker and recipe, I dove right into making these great cookies. I followed the recipe to the letter...blah! Bland. Soft, no snap. Gross.

Beginner's luck was not on my side. Let's try this again... I added more anise oil... Yuck! Too pungent! What was I doing wrong? I was no Strega Nona, just like my mom. I was determined to figure out what mistakes I was making. I scoured magazines and the internet and talked to several people who I knew had great pizzelle recipes. Finally, Joan Stevenson (Dan's cousin on the Mancini side) was kind enough to entertain my million questions. I think I cornered her at a Christmas party long enough where she caved and gave me "Aunt Anna's" recipe. (Just kidding – Joan is a wonderful woman who wants to keep her mom’s spirit alive.). Finally, after 13 years of marriage, finally, someone gave me the real recipe. Got home, baked the cookies... nothing! Blah! Bland. Soft, no snap. Gross.

After all of that, I felt defeated. However, my hummingbird angel Cindy came to my rescue. She took Aunt Anna's recipe and tweaked it, added a few of this and took out a few of that and told me the Strega Nona secret…the magic. What’s that? You want to know the Strega Nona secret everyone conveniently forgets to tell you? Well, you'll have to read below to find out!

Whether you have an electric pizzelle maker or the traditional over open flame/stove version, making pizzelle is a time-honored tradition for many families. Every Neen, Nonna, Nunni, or Grandma has recipes that are their own. They should be treasured and looked after by every generation. The recipe below is not the end all, be all, maybe not the one that your family makes, but the interpretation of generations of Italians who were kind enough to share with me. I hope you have your recipe. Use it. Share it. Keep those loved ones alive. If not, you are welcome to use this one.


Cooking Class with Carol

Things to consider: Follow the process

Like other cookies, there is a process that should be followed.

1. Sugar and fat (oil)

2. Eggs and extracts (anise oil)

3. Add-ins (anise seeds, orange/lemon zest)

4. Sifted dry ingredients (flour, baking powder)

A 'little' R & R

Resting this dough in the refrigerator is not necessary but allowing the batter to relax for 10-20 minutes will help in scooping, rolling and dispersing onto the iron.

Strega Nona effect

The Strega Nona effect isn't really magic; it's cooking lesson 101 – toasting seeds. Regardless of baking or cooking, toasted seeds and nuts give the extra "magic" the extra "what is that flavor?" my and my mother's cookies were missing. Heating the seeds releases the oils inside allowing their very essence to be revealed.