At holiday time, baked goods take on more meaning.
Tradition is blended with flour, sugar and eggs, and the presence of those who long ago pulled laden trays from the oven can be felt in the kitchen.
It’s that way at Perreca’s Bakery, where every December, Maria Papa bakes panettone, pizzagaina and ricotta and rice pies.
The recipes she uses are the same ones her grandmother used. There aren’t any recipe cards or really any set recipes at all. An eye for the right mix of ingredients has simply been handed down from one generation to the next.
“I tell people that I’m everybody’s Italian grandma because I am. I, in a sense, channel my ancestors when I’m in this building because they’ve all lived and died here, so it’s not difficult for me. If I go home and try to make panettone or rice pie or ricotta pie, good luck to me. It only happens here,” she said while sitting at a sunny table in Perreca’s on a recent morning, a white muslin moppine wrapped around her head to contain her dark hair, just like the one her grandmother used to wear.
Papa gave verbal sketches of how the bread and some of the pies are made. All are specialties traditionally prepared for Easter as well, she noted.
Pizzagaina is like a quiche, filled with eggs, ham, proscuitto and a mix of cheeses.
The ricotta pie, a sweet dessert, is made with ricotta impastata, which is drier than regular ricotta, to make the pie firm.
Panettone — sweet bread flavored with orange oil — is more challenging to make than the pies.
“It has to rise for hours and hours and hours,” she said. “Sometimes it comes really nicely, and other times I just throw the whole batch away.”
Papa recalled holiday tables of years past and the important part food has always played in her family’s celebrations.
“It’s kind of a safety net for the holidays,” she explained. “You know all is well. No matter how much money you have or how much money you don’t have, the food is on the table. Presents under the Christmas tree mean one thing, but food on the table means something totally different. It means love, safety, I’ve got you, here we are.”
Papa bakes her Christmas bread and pies in the same 16-foot-by-20-foot coal-fired brick oven her grandparents used. A steady warmth has been radiating from it continuously since the 1920s.
“If it ever went out, we would have a problem because the brick would actually crack, so it always has to stay a little bit warm,” she said.
The oven was designed specifically for baking bread, so baking pies in it is tricky, especially since it has no temperature gauge. Papa wraps the pies in foil so they don’t burn. Last year, she made about 500 of them for holiday orders and a few hundred loaves of panettone.
Orders will be accepted at Perreca’s through Dec. 20.
“In these days of traditions dying off and everybody shopping at supermarket delis and bakeries, it’s nice to have that real traditional fare going on,” she said.
Across the street at Civitello’s Italian Pastry Shop, Roie Angerami and her sister, Angela, bake the same Christmas cookies their mother, aunt and grandmother made before them. And although those relatives have since died, at holiday time, they still somehow show up in the kitchen.
“When I’m making my guanti or I’m making my struffoli, I always bring my mother in on it, you know, spiritually. I yell at her if it’s not right,” Angerami said, a smile crossing her face as she recalled the days when her mom made the Italian specialties by her side.
Every year, the sisters bake hundreds of pounds of Christmas cookies, dust countless flaky ribbons of guanti with powdered sugar and soak loads of struffoli — a deep-fried pastry — with warm honey.
Orders for holiday cookie trays start coming in as early as August, and many of them require shipping.
“We have one woman in Texas who orders 60 boxes and sends them throughout the U.S. to all her friends,” Angerami said.
The sisters’ marathon baking session begins around Dec. 12.
“We start fighting around the 16th, but we get through it. We go home and take our naps and then we come back and we’re fresh,” Angerami said with a grin.
Along with the stress of large-scale holiday baking comes a certain peace.
“It just keeps us feeling like family is still here,” she said. “It still feels like we’re holding onto that tradition.”
Over the years, the sisters have tried to count how many cookies they bake in December, without much success.
“I’ll get to like 10,000 cookies that we cut and I lose it from there,” Angerami said.
Orders that require shipping will be accepted at Civitello’s through Dec. 15, and local orders will be taken through Dec. 18.
Everything is made fresh to order, so there is a point where the sisters have to stop accepting orders if too many come in.
“We can definitely only do so much. What that is, I don’t know,” Angerami said. “Every year, we push the envelope. I think that’s where the fights come in.”
Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @KellydelaRocha.