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Christmas was always a special time. As a child growing up in an Italian American family, it also meant that our family followed the same traditions year after year. What I remember of those years was that, after church on Christmas morning, my father would take us to visit the relatives where he would pick up all kinds of goodies from his sisters for us to eat later in the day. Those goodies included struffoli, panettone and homemade ricotta cookies.

On the way home, he would  pick up my maternal grandfather (who was a widower) so he could have Christmas dinner with us. My grandfather always had a huge box of all those delicious Italian pastries. While all this was going on, my mother was home preparing Christmas dinner. It was always the same dinner – that was how they liked it!

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A traditional Italian Antipasto – a large platter of Italian cold cuts alongside olives, anchovies, artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, marinated mushrooms, Italian cheeses and lots of crusty bread on the side.

The next course was Meatball Lasagna – my mother’s specialty. A lasagna with little meatballs between the layers of noodles. I used to have to help her make those little meatballs and after making 20 or so, I was looking to quit.

The main course was always roasted boneless pork loin with potatoes. I liked the potatoes because they got brown and crusty from roasting alongside the meat, but, at the time, I wasn’t crazy about the pork. Thinking back, it may have been because my mother is a simple cook, who doesn’t use many spices in her cooking.

Sautéed spinach and a big mixed green salad were always the side dishes.

My mother was not one for baking lots of desserts and she never made Christmas cookies, as I have done all the years of my married life. She does bake great apple pies, chocolate chip cookies and  Capri cakes for special occasions – just not for Christmas. We had plenty for dessert with what my father’s sisters gave him and all those lovely pastries my grandfather had bought with him.

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Italian-American Meatball Lasagna

This is another favorite from my childhood days that my children and husband are also crazy about.

Ingredients

Meatballs

  • 1 pound ground meat (pork, beef, veal, chicken, turkey or a combination)
  • 1/2 cup plain dried bread crumbs
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 finely minced garlic clove
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Olive oil

Lasagna

  • 12 traditional lasagna noodles
  • 4 cups homemade or store-bought tomato sauce for pasta
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
  • Two 15 ounce containers ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, divided
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 lb  mozzarella cheese, sliced thin

Directions

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Oil a rimmed cookie sheet.

In a large bowl, combine the meatball mixture. With wet hands, shape into mini meatballs, using 2 teaspoons of mixture for each. Place the meatballs on the prepared cookie sheet and bake until brown all over, about 15 minutes.

To make the lasagna:

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boiling. Add noodles to the boiling water one at a time and cook for 10 minutes. Drain and place the noodles on kitchen towels.

Stir the chopped basil into the sauce. Reserve 1 cup of the sauce for the top layer.

In a medium bowl, blend ricotta, egg, parsley and ¼ cup of the Parmesan cheese.

To assemble the lasagna:

Spread 1 cup tomato sauce in the bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish. Top with 4 noodles, overlapping. Layer half of the mozzarella slices on top of the noodles, followed by half the ricotta cheese. Spread the ricotta with a spatula. Scatter half the meatballs over the noodles. Pour 1 cup of the  sauce over the meatballs.

Top with 4 more noodles and layer with the remaining mozzarella and ricotta cheese. Scatter remaining meatballs over the cheese. Pour 1 cup sauce over meatballs.

Top with the final 4 lasagna noodles. Spread with the reserved 1 cup of sauce. Top with the remaining Parmesan. Cover the dish with foil.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for 15 minutes until bubbly and slightly browned. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

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Italian Roast Pork

Ingredients

  • One 3 pound center-cut pork loin roast
  • 4 large russet potatoes (about 3 pounds), peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 2 teaspoon freshly ground rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine

Directions

Rub the pork roast with garlic, thyme, oregano, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and 1 teaspoon of the ground rosemary.

Drizzle half of the olive oil on the roast and rub to coat.

Place pork into a roasting pan with a rack at the bottom.

Place potatoes around the roast and sprinkle them with the remaining rosemary, salt and pepper.

Pour the remaining olive oil over the potatoes. Add the white wine to the pan.

Place in a 350 degree oven, covered, for about 45 minutes.

Uncover and roast for another 30 minutes, until the meat registers 140 degrees F.  Transfer the pork to a cutting board and tent with foil. Let rest 20 minutes before slicing.

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Struffoli

Ingredients

For the Dough:

  • 3 1/3 cups (400 g) flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon anise liqueur
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • The zest of half a lemon, grated
  • The zest of half an orange, grated
  • 1 pinch salt

For the struffoli:

  • Olive oil for frying
  • 3/4 pound (300 g) honey
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • Colored sprinkles

Directions

Combine the ingredients for the dough, knead it well and let rest for at least an hour, covered. It does take a while for the dough to absorb the eggs.

Pluck off a piece, roll it out under your fingers to form a snake about as thin as your pinkie and cut the dough into quarter-inch long pieces.

Fry the pieces a few at a time in hot oil until brown and drain them on absorbent paper. Repeat with remaining dough.

In another pot, preferably round-bottomed, put the honey, sugar and water in it. Boil the mixture until the foam dies down and it begins to turn yellow.

At this point reduce the heat as much as possible and add the struffoli. Stir to distribute everything evenly through the honey and turn the mixture out onto a plate.

Using your fingers shape the mixture into a wreath with a hole in the middle or in a dome shape, dipping your hands frequently into cold water so you don’t burn yourself.

Sprinkle with colored sprinkles.

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