When I was growing up during the 60’s and 70’s, it was tradition in my family — and in many families throughout The Coal Region — to spend every evening in the week leading up to Christmas Day and between it and New Year’s making the rounds from house to house “visiting”.
The routine pertained to friends, relatives, and neighbors often seen on a daily or weekly basis throughout the rest of the year as well as those seen only during “The Holidays”.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sisters piled into our little miner’s shack; sometimes just a few at a time, sometimes it was standing room only. The next night, it would be my immediate family’s turn to make the rounds — sometimes we made one, two, even three stops a night. And on it went.
I often enjoyed the chance to spend time with folks we only saw once a year, especially cousins of my own generation. But sometimes, the visits involved sole elderly relatives of my Nana and Pappy’s age. On such occasions, I’d find myself sitting in the corner swallowed up by a musty, over-stuffed chair, curls of blue-gray smoke swirling around my head. (Everyone, it seemed, had a cigarette in their hands back in those days. And how was it that the color of the smoke inevitably matched Aunt Whoever’s hair?)
While the “grown ups” tossed about names of relatives I never knew existed and would likely never meet, chatted about the weather, and discussed their latest health issues, I waited patiently for “the goodies” to appear.
Everyone presented their guests with “goodies”. It is how you showed hospitality in The Coal Region — you hauled out plates of food and offered up beverages (like our beloved boilo). Admittedly, not all “goodies” are created equal. Some hosts could barely break open a sleeve of crackers, but others knew how to really make a visitor feel welcomed!
I, as a child connoisseur of Coal Region comfort food, had critiqued the gamut of usual hangouts, made my list and checked it twice every Christmas season. Several households always presented some of my favorite cookies like pecan tassies and kolacky, so they held perennial coveted high spots on the list, but in the very top spot was a cousin that lived in Hazleton (PA).
Now, to a kid from a town of 300 people in western Schuylkill County, Hazleton was the other side of the world (it was, after all, in a whole other county!). A reasonable drive north-east led to the town that always captured my heart and imagination with its blocks of downtown department stores and bakeries, bustling holiday shoppers, beautiful churches, and houses bedecked in holiday lights,
“Cousin” through marriage, this woman could cook! One of several daughters from a very traditional Italian family, she could turn out one of the best spaghetti sauces on the planet. The rest of her dishes had nothing to be ashamed of either!
Christmas “goodies” at her house was the epitome of special to me. No ham, turkey, or sweet potatoes among the offerings; instead it was piles of pasta, ooey-gooey squares of lasagna, sausages, peppers, fish…oh, my!
But to the kid with stars in her eyes, the shining light that beckoned to me from its honored place on the buffet table was the mound of golden pizzelle. Crisp, slightly sweet, and tinged with anise, these cookies from my cousin’s kitchen took the coveted top spot on my favorites list.
Though my grandparents then parents passed away and the tradition of “visiting” during the holidays waned, my love affair with pizzelle has never faded. Over the years, I found acceptable-in-a-pinch versions in grocery and specialty stores, but nothing compares to homemade in my opinion — so a pizzelle iron found its way to my Coalcracker Kitchen. It became one of the best purchases I ever made. What’s better than pizzelle on demand?
Pizzelle (singular “pizzella“) are traditional Italian cookies made from flour, eggs, sugar, butter or vegetable oil, and flavoring (usually anise or anisette, vanilla, rum, or lemon).
This cookie predates Christmas itself, the holiday during which they appear on cookie trays across The Coal Region. It is said this is the oldest known cookie recipe on earth, dating back to the eighth century BC. The name shares an etymology with the Italian word pizza. Many other cultures have developed a pizzelle-type cookie, for example, the Norwegian krumkake.
Pizzelle are popular during the Christmas and Easter seasons. They are often found at Italian weddings alongside other traditional Italian cookies and pastries.
In the past, presses (irons) for these cookies were constructed from cast iron. To cook the batter, the press/iron would be heated over a fire or directly on the stove.
Those vintage and antique irons can still be found, but today’s pizzelle makers often prefer electric irons which are easier to use and can be found in kitchen supply shops, department stores, and online. Typically, the iron stamps a snowflake pattern onto both sides of the thin cookie.
Tips and hints
Thinner, crisper pizzelles are less likely to get soggy than thicker ones. If humidity is affecting your finished pizzelle, place some on a baking tray, slide them into a pre-heated 350F degree oven and bake them for a couple minutes. Heat from the oven will dry them which will help keep them crisp.
Lightly mist the plates of your iron/press with non-stick cooking spray or with a paper towel saturated with some oil (oil is preferred — non-stick spray can leave sticky residue). Wipe off excess grease with a clean paper towel. Do this in the beginning as the press/iron is pre-heating; you should not need to repeat due to the amount of oil or butter already in pizzelle batter. A non-stick surface iron/press can be treated the same way.
It is normal for the first few pizzelle to be a little “off”. You may have to adjust the amount of batter you add to the cavities of the press to get full-sized cookies or cut back if you experience over-flow. It can take a few tries to get it right.
A wooden skewer provides a great tool for removing pizzelle from the hot iron. As with waffles, pizzelle are usually done when steam stops coming from the press.
The best way to store pizzelles are in an air tight container on your counter for up to two weeks. Cool completely before storing.
PizzelleCourse: DessertsCuisine: Coal Region, ItalianDifficulty: Intermediate
Makes about 3 dozen
3 whole extra large eggs
2/3 cups of granulated sugar
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon of anise extract (OR vanilla, rum, lemon)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (or as needed to resemble a drop cookie dough)
1 teaspoons baking powder
Generous pinch salt (omit if using salted butter)
- In a large bowl, Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and extract and mix until smooth.
- Add 1/2 the flour, plus the baking powder, and salt, and stir in. Add remaining flour, a little at a time as needed to get a dough that resembles a drop cookie dough.
- Drop by teaspoon onto center of pre-heated grid. Cook per your press’ instructions until golden brown. Remove pizzelle and allow to cool on a cooling rack or clean kitchen towel.
- Cool completely before storing in an AIR TIGHT container for up to 2 weeks on the counter.
- Recipe by Palmer, maker of pizzelle irons