On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus holds nothing over my Nonna. While he is wiggling his way down chimneys across the globe, she is making a little magic of her own – in the kitchen.
Crispy golden fritters, stuffed with sharp cheese and anchovies, lay waiting for us on the countertop. A true holiday comfort food, the warmth and simple flavours of this dish envelope your mouth and rekindle memories of Christmases past.
Next comes the baccala, or cod, which is cooked with a traditional medley of figs, raisins, walnuts and potatoes. The sweetness of the fruit is a perfect pairing to the saltiness of the cod. The walnuts bring the dish a rich flavour and unexpected texture.
And the pièce de résistance is my Nonna’s pasta di mare, a delicacy which only comes once a year. Her classic tomato sauce is enriched by the flavours of fresh shrimp, scallops, squid and crab. As she plates the dish, my Nonna generously ladles out the sugu, or sauce, until the spaghetti is fully bathed in red.
As is the case with most of my Nonna’s cooking, there are no written recipes for these Christmas dishes. She calculates according to taste and touch. This makes it incredibly challenging for us to try and nail down a recipe on paper. My mother was on a mission this year, and is fairly confident she captured all the essential ingredients. But I know, there will always be that extra something that only my Nonna can bring to the dish.
Light and delicious: coconut meringues!
While dinner on Christmas Eve and Day are my Nonna and mother’s domain (my mom does a juicy bacon draped turkey), I am on dessert duty. And this year, I decided to try coconut meringues. This came about for two main reasons: we had leftover egg whites, and the recipe was ultra simple. Added bonus: this is one cookie that doesn’t pack a high-calorie punch.
For the recipe, I turned to our trusty 1973 edition of The Joy of Cooking. There’s an innate credibility that seems to emanate from the yellowing, sauce-stained pages of TJC.
A cookbook classic
The recipe couldn’t be easier. Five ingredients: sugar, egg whites, salt, vanilla and shredded coconut. I am happy to report that I successfully beat the egg whites into stiff glossy peaks. However, I decided not to sift the granulated sugar, as called for by the recipe. I didn’t think it would make a difference, and opted not to dirty another utensil. Once the stiff peaks were achieved, I folded in vanilla and the shredded coconut. That’s it.
The cookies tasted like macaroons, except they were crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Next time, I might reduce the amount of sugar to ¾ of a cup, to make the cookies slightly less sweet. In one of the batches I added a teaspoon of coco powder, which gave a nice hint of chocolate flavour.
The ever elusive (at least for me) stiff, glossy peaks!
The only aspect of this recipe that I wasn’t thrilled with was the presentation. The meringues I made ended up flattening out like regular cookies. Perhaps I should have formed a Hersey Kiss shape by using an icing piper. I’ll give it a try next time.
Also, be sure you let the meringues cool completely before removing them from the baking sheet. Otherwise, half the cookie gets stuck to the parchment paper, giving the meringue a slightly disembowelled look. Otherwise, this recipe is definitely a keeper. And I would go so far as to call it my most successful cookie to date!
Coconut Meringue Cookies (from The Joy of Cooking)
– 1 cup granulated sugar
– 3 egg whites
– 1/8 teaspoon salt
– 1 teaspoon vanilla
– 1 ¼ cup shredded coconut (I used unsweetened)
– 1 teaspoon coco powder (optional)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
- With an electric mixer on high, beat egg whites and salt until stiff, glossy peaks form.
- Add the sugar very slowly, beating constantly on high. If desired, add coco powder.
- By hand, fold in vanilla and shredded coconut.
- Drop the batter from a teaspoon onto a greased and well-floured tin. Bake for about 25-30 minutes. Cookies should be firm to the touch, and slightly golden (not brown) in colour.
Crisp outside, chewy inside, with a hint of coco!