Lidia Bastianich can still hear the pounding of her father's pestle on Christmas Eve as he prepared baccala mantecato, the dried codfish central to Italy's Vigila feast.
"I remember the whole ritual of soaking it and cutting it and whipping it up," says the chef and author whose latest book, a children's picture book titled "Nonna Tell Me a Story" (Running Press, 2010), focuses on Christmas traditions.
"My father would sit on a chair and put a big pan between his legs, and he'd have a pestle and whip it up," she says. "That dish brings him with us at Christmas."
Bastianich is known for her authentic Italian recipes and her evangelism about the sanctity of the table. In a world that she says has degraded food by turning it over to big industry, Bastianich has added preserving tradition to her mission.
"Traditions are who we are," she says. "They represent us as individuals, they strengthen us, they give us roots. A tree, if it has roots, can withstand strong weather."
Holidays are the most obvious time to pass on traditions, and Christmas offers many opportunities. With her own five grandchildren, Bastianich makes fried dough ribbons, letting the children help cut and fry the dough. Sometimes they make crostata, chocolate or jam-filled butter cookies, which as a child she would eat with her grandmother's quince or apricot jam.
"These cookies, we made these for Christmas all the time," she says. "You bring them to school and share them and it gives you a special identity."
Traditions also transmit culture from one generation – and place – to the next. For instance, on Thanksgiving, Bastianich says her Italian and American identities fuse, producing a turkey glazed with balsamic vinegar and cranberry sauce laced with quince. Her apple strudel, a signature dish of her corner of Italy influenced by its former Austro-Hungarian rulers, gets studded with cranberries.
Whether traditions are big or small, fancy or plain, the important thing is just to have them, Bastianich says.
"Just sit at the table and eat," she says. "It doesn't have to be elaborate. People, they say 'I can't cook.' Everybody can cook."
Start to finish: 2 hours (1 hour active)
Makes 40 cookies
6 tablespoons ( stick) unsalted butter, very soft
1/2 teaspoon salt
cup whole or skim milk
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon (about 2 teaspoons)
Zest of 1 orange (about 2 tablespoons)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
6 to 8 cups vegetable oil for frying, or as needed
cup powdered sugar, or as needed
In a food processor, combine the butter, sugar and salt. Pulse several times.
Add the milk, egg, yolk, orange and lemon juices and both zests. Process until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the flour, then process in pulses until the dough comes together. Scrape down the side of the bowl again, then pulse a few more times to mix thoroughly.
Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead briefly into a soft smooth ball. If it is sticky, knead in additional flour in small amounts. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to 1 hour. (You can keep it refrigerated up to 1 day, but let it return to room temperature before rolling.)
Cut the chilled dough in half and work with one piece at a time.
On a lightly floured counter, flatten the dough and roll it out to about a 16-inch square. Trim the edges of the square and with a fluted cutter, then cut the dough into 10 strips, each about 1 1/2 inches wide. Cut across the middle of the strips to form 20 ribbons, each about 7 inches long.
One at a time, tie each ribbon into a loose simple overhand knot. If necessary, stretch the ends gently so they're long enough to knot. Place the knotted cookie on a sheet pan lined with parchment or waxed paper, leaving room between them so they don't stick together. Repeat with the second half of the dough.
In a large (10- to 12-inch diameter) saucepan over medium-high, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to 350 F. When ready to start frying, raise heat and test the oil by dropping in a scrap of dough – the fat should bubble actively around the dough, but shouldn't get dark quickly.
Using long-handled tongs, quickly drop 10 to 12 cookies into the fryer. Raise heat to return the oil to the frying temperature. The cookies will first drop to the bottom, but soon float to the surface. Turn them frequently with tongs and a spider or slotted spoon, to cook evenly.
Fry the cookies for about 4 minutes, or until they are dark golden. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain the oil temperature and prevent rapid browning. When crisp and golden all over, lift them from the oil with a spider or slotted spoon, drain off the oil, then lay them on layers of paper towels to cool. Fry the remaining cookies in batches the same way.
Store the cookies in a sealed cookie tin or plastic container and keep them dry. To serve, pile the cookies on a serving plate in a heaping mound. Place the powdered sugar in a small mesh strainer and sprinkle generously over the cookies.