When I was a child, Mama began teaching me the secrets of baking traditional cookies and cakes. These wonderful cooking lessons continued into my teen years and throughout adulthood. Mama's recipes had been passed down through generations and now, especially that Mama — Nancy Rose Simineri — has passed on; I am honored to teach our newest generation their beloved grandmother's recipes in hopes they will also continue in our time-honored tradition.
My story begins in the kitchen with Mama, to tell you how we prepared for baking sweets that have always been my favorites.
The morning started with Mama slipping on her multi-flowered smock and handing me a white apron and baker's hat to match. She then called out the names of ingredients and I obediently bounded to our spice cabinet or the refrigerator to retrieve them. Once they were all present, Mama would take down from the highest shelf her treasured Mixmaster; this was a type of blender from the 1950s. She would also place three brightly colored glass bowls, green, red, and yellow, on the table.
Next — and the most necessary of all things I would see Mama do — was to stack 33s on the record player's spindle. The music of Connie Francis singing in Italian would soon fill the room, as did the aroma of our baking as the hours went on. My favorite song then was "Mama" and in tribute to Mama I continue to play it while I bake. As the music played in the background, Mama scrubbed our wooden kitchen table and then sprinkled it with flour. She would explain that this would keep the dough from sticking.
Mama then helped me add eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar to the flour and other secret ingredients into the blender until it all became well-formed dough. Once the dough firmed, Mama would pull a baseball-size piece of dough for me and a larger one for her. Together we would press, knead, roll, pound, and sprinkle more flour on the wooden table until the dough reached a proper consistency. Also, interesting to note is that the blender could only handle a certain consistency, so as the dough firmed we used good old-fashioned muscle power to work the dough on the table.
Although in today's times it would be considered hard work and it was hard work then, I never complained. I always had fun with Mama baking and singing.
At the end of the preparing process, I eagerly waited for Mama to say it was ready to taste. She would give me a big spoon of whatever we were baking and say "Buono." I had to agree . . . it was so good!
When our treats came out of the oven, they were golden brown. While waiting for our treat to cool, Mama would pour me a glass of milk and I was the first to enjoy the cake we made. That was always my reward.
We then would decorate the cakes depending on the holiday and present our baked goodies on colorful serving dishes.
Mama passed away three years ago, but I can still see her in her purple-flowered smock and her beautiful smiling face. I know she is pleased because I still continue to bake from the recipes she and generations before her created. I am passing more than tradition, I am passing Mama's gift she gave for generations to enjoy.
I mentioned earlier that Mama had a secret of baking good Italian pastries. Well, this is it:
Add one pinch of this, a dash of that. But most of all, add a heaping portion of love!
--Rita Simineri, Amityville
Utensils spark memories
I use my mother's slotted spoon almost daily. When my son, Stephen, and I cook together, it's the first one we look to use. I almost always mention that it's his grandmother's, with hopes that someday he will remember whose it was and have special memories of cooking with me and knowing I used it to cook with my mother.
My mother passed when I was young and I remember using it then, as well as watching her use it almost daily. To look at it, it's just a slotted stainless metal spoon, but it's so special that even just typing this I get tears in my eyes. There is a wonderful feeling that I get while actually holding it and stirring cake mixes, or whatever else we are cooking. It almost always brings back loving memories of us together.
This spoon is so special that I was mean to my husband once because of it. We were bringing some food to a picnic and he packed it up and included the spoon, knowing how I always use it. But it wasn't until we arrived at the picnic that I noticed this and told him this spoon is never to leave the house, under no circumstances! It never has, and I did apologize for being too enthusiastic in explaining this.
I have my mom's pastry cutter and chopper — when they broke, I was heartbroken. So was my son, who was reluctant to tell us about the chopper breaking while he was making tuna salad. But, thankfully, I have been blessed with a wonderful and handy brother-in-law, who understood how special these were to me. He managed to fix them and they are usable again. I also still use her pots, including some cooper-bottomed ones that I used to hate to clean with Twinkle.
But there is something else I treasure beyond measure: her handwritten and personally typed recipe books. I also have, and use, her Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cooking books, which I remember buying each week at our local A&P, along with the excitement of looking at the beautiful photos together. I also have a lot of her Tupperware.
According to the world, these don't have much value, but they are priceless to me!
--Angela Cano Scarnato, Wantagh
Recipe direct from Mom
When I got married in 1979, my mom gave me the recipe for her much-loved brisket. She typed it on a manual typewriter at her job where she worked as a secretary for over 25 years. It's on a piece of paper that fits in my recipe box. My mom passed away in 2005. Whenever I make brisket I pull that old gravy-stained piece of paper out, even though I know the recipe by heart. It always makes me smile and think about her.
--Dore Handy, Syosset