So what exactly is a Nonna? The translation is of course Grandmother, but the “quintessential Nonna” is more than that and may not even have grandchildren! My translation of Nonna is an Italian woman, usually older…. that spends hours in the kitchen joyously preparing home-cooked meals for family, friends and even complete strangers. This is not a paid job but something they love doing as it brings them complete joy. The joy is apparent on their face, it spills out of them as they describe the method in which they created the dish. They generously share recipes and techniques passed down through their families. They most likely had a Nonna themselves that showed them the way.
I am a mother of 4 children and the only way I can explain it is the complete joy of feeding your newborn baby their first meals…there is something satisfying about nourishing others. But it’s not just nutrition… it is bonding, it is time together, it is connecting.
My favorite pastime while in Italy is going to the market and speaking to these women. I have been invited to countless strangers’ homes when they sense my passion for this. I don’t always accept as to respect their privacy but one time while in Puglia an older woman insisted my friend and I come in for gelato as it was a hot day. She invited us in and proudly showed us her courtyard garden. There were trays of tomatoes drying in the sun. We chatted about what was for dinner and I translated for my friend. She wanted to know all about what we were cooking at the local cooking school and what we cooked in Canada. Soon a woman appeared at the gate with a concerned look on her face. Her daughter in law lived in the property next door and heard us talking and came to investigate. I quickly explained who we were and how we arrived in her mother in law’s home. She explained that Mamma was suffering from dementia and at the ripe age of 87 strangers in her home were a concern. Nonna quickly defended us and continued with our conversation….before we knew it the entire family started to arrive to meet the new friends from Canada. After insisting a few times that we should move on as we had to get back to the cooking school she saw us to the door. When we arrived at the door Nonna said: “are you sure you can’t stay, my grandchildren, are coming…..”
It is these stories that I cherish most from my travels to the Mediterranean. To truly learn about a place you need to engage with the locals. When it comes to food you cannot get a truer picture of the local cuisine than speaking to the Nonnas. Long live Nonnas!
Ciao for now, Natalina
p.s….my Mom, Nonna Palma, pictured!
Nonna's Lemon Cookies
- 6 large eggs
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- Zest of 4 lemons
- 1 ¾ cups vegetable oil Nonna uses Crisco
- 1 tbsp. vanilla
- 1 cup of whole milk heated lightly Nonna always uses whole!
- 6 ½ tsps. Baking powder
- 7 cups of AP flour Nonna swears by Five Roses, unbleached
- Vegetable shortening to grease the pans
- In the large bowl of the stand mixer with whisk attachment, whisk the eggs and sugar for a full 15 minutes on high speed until light and fluffy. Adjust to low speed and add the lemon zest, oil, vanilla and heated milk. Switch the whisk to paddle.
- Add the flour and baking powder, alternating and mixing in intervals, 2 cups at a time. You will probably need to pour onto the table to add the remining cups and knead by hand if your bowl is not big enough.
- Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease some cookie sheets, about 4, lightly.
- Take a piece of dough and roll into a ½ inch thick snake, 6 inches long. Place in an upside down “U” shape and alternating sides, braid. This is Nonna’s classic shape. Shape as you wish… she always made the Grand Kids initials as well!
- Bake until fully cooked and golden brown. May take up to 20 minutes depending on the size.
- Makes lots! Great for freezing and this is a Classic “dunking cookie”!