A Taste of Home
Linzer torte from Dagmar's Desserts in Old Saybrook.
Anthropologists who study food and memory have found that people (even those who are generations removed) who grow up eating foods from the “old country” remain fond of them throughout their lives. Even foodies with sophisticated palates say there’s just something delicious and comforting about the dishes nana used to make—the casseroles and soups, the pies, puddings, cakes and cookies that define us as Italian-American, Latino, Jewish, German or any other descent.
This hankering for familiar foods comes to the fore around the holidays, says Jo-Ann Dell’Amura, when “we plan our special menus and feel like we have to include the foods from our childhood. Especially the sweets—“those are the things we remember best, the dishes that we love.” As bakery manager at Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop in New Haven, Dell’Amura says nothing drives sales like tradition.
“As Italians, our memories are all wrapped around food,” she says. As Christmas nears, Libby’s will be filled with the aroma of such classic Italian treats as struffoli (deep-fried balls of dough drizzled with honey and sprinkles), pannetone (a fruit-studded cake from Milan) and cucidati (decorated Sicilian fig cookies), all of which will fly out the door. “And the cookies, oh, the cookies will sell like crazy,” she adds. “They always do.” Decorated cookies make us nostalgic for the past—and the days when holiday splurges were more affordable. Pastries can be pricey, says Dell’Amura, “but cookies, at 20 in a pound for $12, can go far. They look nice, too, so people bring them as gifts.”
Holiday treats help us to identify with our roots, keep our ethnicity alive, and just generally feel good about ourselves and our families of origin.
Although Hanukkah, which is usually observed in early December, is only a minor festival in the Jewish calendar, it has become quite commercially popular. In reference to the Biblical tale of the Maccabees (for whom a day’s worth of lamp oil lasted for eight), dishes associated with the holiday are not baked. Hanukkah is, instead, “all about the oil,” according to Anne Marie Connor, marketing coordinator for The Crown Market in West Hartford. “One of the things people look for most at Hanukkah is Sufganiot, or jelly doughnuts, which are fried in oil. We sell a ton of them,” she says. “But to be honest, it’s more for the tradition. It’s a jelly doughnut. That’s all it is.”
The Crown is a kosher market that’s been in operation in the Hartford area for 72 years. Says its owner, Marc Bokoff: “One of our biggest sellers during Hanukkah are latkes, the traditional potato pancake. They’re actually available all year long, but during the holiday we sell tens of thousands of them . . . all made and fried here by hand.
“There’s no religious significance to any of the foods we eat at Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah or Passover. There’s no Jewish law that prescribes the eating of latkes,” he adds. “But food gives people a feeling of connection, and food is central to the Jewish culture.”
At Isabelle et Vincent in Fairfield, the holidays are a time to break out the most elaborate desserts, especially the bûche de Noël, decadently filled truffles and other French delicacies.
“The French like the bûche de Noël so much they begin eating it in early December,” says proprietor Isabelle Koenig, whose husband Vincent is a master baker and chocolatier. The couple, who owned a bakery in France for 20 years before moving here in 2008, have customers who come from New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and beyond to pick up a bûche, an elaborately decorated rolled-cake yule log filled with chocolate butter cream and studded with meringue mushrooms.
“The chocolate bûche de Noël is our most popular and the true traditional dessert for Christmas in France,” says Koenig. To please more American palates, they also make it in vanilla (vanilla cake and vanilla butter cream), coffee (vanilla cake with coffee butter cream), and praline (vanilla cake with praline butter cream). Priced at $38, they are all decorated in the same fashion and serve eight. In addition, the bakery makes something they call “tres chocolats bûche de Noël,” a sumptuous dessert made of three different flavors of chocolate mousse. Boxes of holiday truffles—handmade by Vincent with no additives or preservatives and—are priced from $9.50 to $62.
When Dagmar Ratensperger moved to Connecticut from Bavaria in 1995, she discovered a dearth of baked goods from her homeland. “[Bakery offerings were very heavily Italian and you really couldn’t find a good German cake,” she says. “I saw a niche here, and started doing some custom baking, just using my mother’s recipes.” In 2009, Ratensperger opened Dagmar’s Desserts in Old Saybrook, specializing in the Bavarian holiday desserts she grew up with—like stollen, strudels and crescent cookies—and they were an instant hit.
“People tend to like strudel because they remember it as something that grandmother used to make. They want to taste it again,” she says. Ratensperger makes delicious flaky, fruit-filled stollen in three sizes (ranging in price from $10.95 to $34, as well as the ever-popular raspberry-filled linzer torte (11-inch is $29) and linzer cookies (75 cents each) throughout the holiday season.
In Jamaica, where 80 percent of the population is Christian, Christmas is a big occasion for celebratory eating. In Hartford, folks make a beeline for Scotts’ Jamaican Bakery, to get authentic Jamaican Christmas cake, a dark and dense fruitcake made with rum. Co-owner Gordon Scott says the holiday favorite is a variation on the British fruitcake and is also popular—with its very long shelf-life—at weddings.
The cake is available all year long, he says, but is in high demand in December, when they will “bake as many as we need.” It sells for $9 per pound.
With its sizeable Portuguese population, Connecticut is home to dozens of bakeries and shops featuring authentic breads and desserts. Chaves Bakery in Bridgeport (and many other locations) is known year-round for its breads and filled cakes, but at Christmas, you’ll find more traditional Portuguese delicacies there, including rice pudding, custards and other egg-based desserts.
And if it’s good old-fashioned American sugar cookies you’re after, The Bakery of Southbury is your best bet. They’re available in all the classic shapes—reindeer, ornaments, candy canes and Christmas trees are the most popular—for $1.50 each. The shortbread-style cookies are usually simply dusted with sugar, but can be custom-ordered with icing and more detailed decorations. Gingerbread, another American holiday staple (although it has roots that go back to ancient Greece and Egypt), is baked all year long, with holiday gingerbread cookies both decorated (large: $2.25; small: $1.75) and plain (large $1.35; small: 89 cents) going on sale right after Thanksgiving.
“Our customers absolutely love them,” says baker and bakery manager Karla Urban. “It’s the tradition, definitely. Plus, parents like them for bringing to school because they’re not made with any nut ingredients, so they’re safe for kids with allergies.” Typically closed on Mondays, this year The Bakery of Southbury will be open on both Dec. 24 and 31. But “as always, it’s a good idea to order in advance, if you have your heart set on something,” Urban says.
Share Your Stories!
Whenever I think of growing up in the embrace of my Sicilian family, I think of food. When Christmas rolls around, my head fills with visions of desserts with lyrical names: struffoli, sfince, cucidati. For weeks on end, my mother, grandmother and countless aunts and cousins turned these out these treats from their tiny kitchens (without Cuisinarts!) like nobody’s business.
Several years ago, after my mother passed away, I unearthed some of her recipes. They were printed on yellowed sheets of looseleaf paper; they were hard to read and even harder to understand. Really just sketchy notes to herself, most were missing critical pieces of information (like quantities). But I was determined to honor her memory and introduce my own kids to the foods I grew up with. So after a lot of research and even more trial and error, I was able to devise a few recipes for holiday treats that come really, really close to hers, and I make at least one of them every year. You’ll find a few on our website, at connecticutmag.com/tasteofhome.
In the spirit of the holiday season, we invite you to share your stories and memories of special desserts from your childhood—and the recipes, if you have them.
Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll post them on this site. Thanks and happy holidays!
Hungry yet? Here's where to find the bakeries mentioned in the story:
Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop
139 Wooster St., New Haven
Isabelle et Vincent
1903 Post Rd., Fairfield
47 Main St., Old Saybrook
Scotts’ Jamaican Bakery
Three locations in Hartford:
144 Albany Ave., 860/247-3855
3381 Main St., 860/246-6599
630 Blue Hills Ave., 860/243-2609
The Bakery of Southbury
77 Main Street South, Southbury
1365 State St., Bridgeport
2471 Albany Ave., West Hartford