Our holiday celebrations always began with Italian Christmas Eve fare: fish and seafood, and our regional specialty of polenta e baccalà. Around nine o’clock, the children clamoured for their gifts, while the adults sipped a grappino.
Christmas Day was for opening the special gifts under the tree at home, going to church, and then visiting my mother-in-law’s sister for lunch. The specialty at Zia Ausilia’s house was lasagna, layered with miniature meatballs, followed by a roast with all the trimmings, and a cornucopia of desserts. The afternoon was spent playing cards and snacking on lenticchie while the children played with their toys.
On New Year’s Eve we all went to a hall party, organized by the Italian association where my dad volunteered as treasurer. His greatest joy was to have the entire family at his table. At midnight, the chef came out of the kitchen to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and brought my father a special cake. That, for us, was the beginning of his birthday celebrations.
The New Year’s Day menu was always chosen with my father in mind. He had no siblings and his father had passed away when he was very young, so when he married my mom at twenty-one, he became very close to his in-laws. He absolutely loved my maternal grandmother’s cooking, and so her dishes were a significant part of the menu.
Papi was a cheese lover, and the typical antipasto platter was replaced by bresaola with robiola mousse and baked pears with blue cheese. Gnocchi was his favourite pasta dish, and so Nonna Ardemia made both spinach gnocchi and pumpkin gnocchi. Nonna’s signature dish was duck, which she cooked with apples and bay leaf. I soon began preparing duck à l’orange*: the thighs were served on polenta rounds with rapini, and the breasts were diced and placed in phyllo dough “purses” and drizzled with raspberry coulis.
The side dishes were also chosen with my dad in mind. Fennel and orange salad was a favourite. Radicchio, which he grew in his garden and was part of his heritage, was Canadianized by adding toasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries. La pièce de resistance was always the birthday cake: a strawberry torte** because he loved strawberry jam.
Although my dad has been gone for almost ten years, the New Year’s menu is still the same. And although someone else is sitting at the head of the table, it truly feels like he is still with us.
These are two recipes from our New Year’s menu:
*Duck à l’Orange (serves 6)
12 pieces, thighs and breasts (Lake Brome duck)
4 oz. / 125 ml olive oil
1 onion, chopped
Zest of 1 orange, finely chopped and 2 oranges, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 sage leaves, coarsely chopped
4 oz. / 125 ml white wine
1 c / 250 ml chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. / 5 ml sugar
Heat the oil in a large skillet, cook the onion over medium high heat, until soft, about 5 minutes; add the finely chopped orange zest and the chopped sage leaves and cook for 1 minute more; add the duck, season with salt and pepper and brown on both sides.
When the duck is nicely browned, add the white wine and 1 c / 250 ml stock; cook covered, over medium low heat, until duck is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
Add the chopped oranges and sugar to the skillet, bring to a boil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, deglazing the pan. Pour the liquid through a sieve, pressing with a spoon; pour liquid back into the skillet and return duck; heat through, turning duck to flavour with juices.
Slice cooled polenta into ¾ ” / 2 cm slices and brown in 2 tbsp. / 30 ml of butter until warm and crisp on both sides. Place crispy polenta in centre of plate and top with a few rapine; place 1 duck thigh on the rapine and drizzle with orange sauce. Serve immediately.
To make duck purses:
8 – 12 pieces cooked duck, skin removed
½ c / 125 ml orange sauce
24 sheets phyllo dough, cut in half
½ c / 125 ml olive oil
3 c / 750 ml raspberry coulis
Remove the duck meat from the thighs and chop the breast meat, combine and add ½ c / 125 ml orange sauce to moisten. Set aside. Place the chives in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave for 2 to 3 minutes; dry and set aside.
Brush 4 half sheets of phyllo dough with olive oil on both sides and stack, one on top of the other; place ½ c / 125 ml duck meat in the centre, draw the four corners together and tie with a chive to make a purse. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat for the remaining dough until all the duck is used.
Bake at 350⁰ for 15 – 20 minutes or until purses are golden brown; drizzle with raspberry coulis or serve with raspberry coulis on the side.
Raspberry Coulis (makes 4 c / 1 l)
2 ½ lbs. / 1.1 kg frozen raspberries, thawed
4 tsp. / 20 ml cornstarch
4 tsp. / 20 ml kirsch (optional)
1 tbsp. / 15 ml sugar
Purée raspberries in container of electric blender and strain to remove seeds; whisk cornstarch and purée together in a saucepan and bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer for 1 minute, stirring continuously, until thickened and clear. Remove from the heat and stir in kirsch and sugar; serve warm.
**Holiday Strawberry Torte
1 c / 250 ml unsalted butter, softened
1 ¾ c / 425 ml sugar
6 eggs, separated
2 c / 500 ml flour
½ tsp. / 2.5 ml baking powder
½ tsp. / 2.5 ml salt
3 c / 750 ml whipping cream
1 tbsp. / 15 ml sugar
1 tsp. / 5 ml vanilla
1 ⅓ c / 325 ml strawberry jam
1c / 250 ml pecans or walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
Line the bottom of a 9” X 3” / 23 X 7 cm spring form cake pan with parchment paper, lightly grease and flour the sides and set aside.
In a large bowl, cream butter and 1c / 250 ml sugar until light and fluffy, add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat until very fluffy and smooth, about 5 minutes.
Sift flour with baking powder and salt, stir into creamed mixture and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks; gradually add ¾ c / 175 ml sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Fold egg whites into batter, pour into prepared cake pan and bake at 350°F for about 1 hour or until a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Let cool in the pan on cake rack. Gently remove from the pan and slice into 3 layers. Whip cream with 1 tbsp. / 15 ml sugar and 1 tsp. / 5 ml vanilla.
Place one cake layer, cut side up, on serving platter; spread with ½ c / 125 ml strawberry jam and 1 c / 250 ml whipped cream, sprinkle with 2 tbsp. / 30 ml chopped nuts. Place second layer on cake and repeat process.
Add third cake layer, cut side down; frost top and sides with remaining whipped cream, sprinkle sides with remaining nuts and dot top with remaining strawberry jam.
Valerie Zuliani Di Paolo was born in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli and immigrated to Canada at age ten. After retiring from a thirty-year teaching career, she published her first cookbook, Celebrating Family and Friends: Menus for Entertaining Throughout the Year.