Shops, homes mark the season with Italian Christmas cookies

By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor

Forget fruitcake. Who needs candy canes? For many people celebrating the holidays, it’s all about the Italian Christmas cookies.

Whether they come from apron-wearing Nanas or the bustling shop downtown, brightly-colored, frosted, fried or sugar-dusted cookies are bringing real cheer to homes around the diocese this Christmas.

Liz Morgan is the president of the St. Therese Society of the Church of Our Lady of Pompei/St. Peter. The society bakes dozens of Italian cookies to celebrate events in the parish or to raise money. She said the cookies celebrate the present as well as the past.

“Every single one of the women in the St. Therese Society has a story behind one of the cookies she makes,” Morgan said. “They’re part of family tradition. It’s not just a cookie. They really are part of our heritage.”

Every year at Christmastime, she brings out some of the old recipes her aunt had the foresight to write down for future generations. “Because back then nobody had recipes, you put down so much flour on the table and then you got going,” Morgan said.

For her family, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without snowballs or her fudge-filled cookies. “When I make them I have to hide them until a little closer to Christmas,” she said, “otherwise they’d all be gone.”

Morgan said even simple cookies will have variations in the recipes that make them unique to a family. “Everybody does theirs a little differently and it’s all because of how their families liked theirs,” she said. “For some people it goes back to where their family came from in Italy.”

Morgan, whose maiden name is Pennacchia, said her family comes from Calabria and from a village outside of Rome called Sonnino. That same village is also where Corrine Intaglietta’s family comes from.

Intaglietta is the former president of the St. Therese Society and is well-known for her baking prowess. Each year she makes almond paste cookies, neopolitans, anise cut-outs, wine cookies and struffoli. Many of the recipes she uses come from her family.

“My grandmother used to make the fussy Italian ones that have to fried. We sort of got away from those because they aren’t so good for you,” Intaglietta laughed.

But she still has her grandmother’s recipes, including a recipe for Cauciune (pronounced “cow-shune”) cookies that are like sweet fried ravioli filled with honey, chocolate and mashed chick peas or chestnuts. “Nobody in my family has made those for several years,” Intaglietta said, “but one day I will. Maybe this year.”

Geoff and Deborah Camire run Biscotti Cafe and Gelateria on North Salina Street in Syracuse. At Christmastime, they sell hundreds of pounds of Italian Christmas cookies.

“We work 18, 19-hour days and we put out as many cookies as we possibly can so we never run out,” Geoff said.

Even after stirring, rolling, dipping and baking hundreds of cookies and then braving the winter weather to deliver them, Geoff said he still loves the work.

“I look forward to the rush every year. We’re just so busy,” he said.

Rosetta Vitale knows plenty about the rush as well. She came to Endicott from Naples, Italy in 1970. Back in Italy, her family ran a bakery and Vitale brought the recipes for authentic hand-made Christmas cookies to America with her. Now she bakes cookies to sell at Christmastime to families in the area.

“People don’t do cookies like these in Endicott,” she said.

She has a couple of ovens to use so that the baking can go on all day. “I make them every day, I make everything fresh,” she said.

But with so many tempting desserts around, Vitale has been blessed with a secret weapon for keeping the pounds off: “You want to know the truth? I don’t like sweets,” she laughed.

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