By Gretchen McKay

Nonna Lidia Bastianich tells an endearing holiday story

Categories : Food

Tradition plays a huge role in most Italian homes during the holidays, both in the family activities that define the season, such as decorating the tree, and the favorite foods that show up without fail on the Christmas Eve and day dining room tables.

Natale con I tuoi; Pasqua conchi vuoi,” goes the popular Italian expression. As in: “Christmas with your family; Easter with whomever you wish.”

Lidia Bastianich, for one, can’t imagine Christmas dinner without at least a few of her five grandchildren in tow and a roasted loin of pork stuffed with prunes in the oven, along with a side dish of brovada, a sort of turnip kraut made with shredded pickled turnips sauteed in a pan.

“And we always have capon soup,” said Ms. Bastianich at a lunch last month in her Strip District restaurant, “and lots and lots of vegetables,” a testament to her childhood in Istria, a peninsula in the northern Adriatic that once was part of Italy but today is Croatia.

As recounted in her charming new children’s book “Nonna Tell Me a Story” (Running Press, Oct. 2010, $15.95), it also wouldn’t be the holidays in the Bastianich household without the intoxicating scent of roasting nuts in the air, or homemade sugar cookies hanging from pretty ribbons on the tree. Both culinary traditions are among her most vivid memories of the simple but oh-so-wonderful Christmases she experienced at her grandparents’ farm in the rural Adriatic countryside, where Nonna Rosa was such a good organic cook that even the pigs got a daily hot meal (potato peels and other table scraps).

With a half dozen cookbooks and as many restaurant openings under her belt, Ms. Bastianich has proven herself a pretty darn good cook, too. When there’s grandchildren in the house, though, even the most delicious batch of cookies will only get you so far. Kids also tend to like grandma’s stories. Told over and over and over again.

“Every sleep-over, it’s the same thing,” she said, laughing. ” ‘Nonna, tell me a story!’ ”

This year, she decided to commit those memories to paper, and with winning results. Written in a voice that perfectly captures Ms. Bastianich’s down-to-earth personality and always-present smile, it pairs sweet illustrations by Laura Logan with the heartwarming tale of what Christmas in Italy’s old country was like: in a nutshell, more about family togetherness than presents under the tree. To that end, the author and her brother scout the best juniper bush for a Christmas tree, make cookies for decorations and string wreaths with fruit, dried figs and bay leaves.

The tale Ms. Bastianich tells is so endearing that her grandchildren, who in real life consulted on the illustrations, decide they want the same kind of Christmas celebration at the end of the book.

Meant to be read aloud, “Nonna Tell Me a Story” is best suited to young children. Most of its 16 holiday recipes (primarily cookies), however, will require an adult helper in the kitchen. But that’s the point of the holidays: to create memories by doing things together.

Ms. Bastianich said she hopes the book will encourage readers to pass down their own family traditions to the next generation.

“If you communicate those ideas early,” she said, “kids will get it.”


PG tested

These stuffed crepes are just as good for dessert as they are for breakfast. We made them with frozen strawberries (thawed, of course) and fresh whipped cream. Yum!

  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup club soda
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) melted butter, cooled slightly
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, for frying

For serving: melted semisweet chocolate, apricot jam, confectioners’ sugar, whipped cream, berries, chopped walnuts

In a bowl, whisk the eggs. Add milk, club soda, sugar, salt and vanilla. Whisk well until the sugar has dissolved. Gradually sift in the flour to form a batter about the thickness of heavy cream. Stir in the melted butter and the citrus zest.

In a 6- or 7-inch nonstick pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over a moderately high flame, pouring off the excess. Tilt the heated and oiled pan at a 45-degree angle to the floor and pour in a scant 1/4 cup batter at the top. Twist your wrist in a circle and allow the batter to cover the bottom of the pan in an even layer.

Return the pan to the heat, reduce heat to medium and cook the crepe until lightly browned, 45 seconds to 1 minute. Flip it carefully with a spatula and cook the second side until brown spots appear, another 30 seconds or so. Flip the crepe onto a plate and repeat with the remaining batter, lightly brushing the pan with oil as needed.

Fill crepes with desired filling, then roll or fold into quarters. Top with confectioners’ sugar, whipped cream, berries or nuts.

Makes about 2 dozen small crepes.

— “Nonna Tell Me a Story” by Lidia Bastianich Running Press, Oct. 2010, $15.95)

Chocolate Star cookies

PG tested

If you want to hang these chocolate butter cookies on the tree, use a drinking straw to punch a hole on the cut cookies before baking. If you prefer a dusting of confectioner’s sugar to royal icing, be sure to sprinkle it on while the cookies are still warm.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2- or 3-inch fluted star or snowflake cookie cutter

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in yolk and vanilla. On low speed, mix in flour mixture just until a dough forms. Divide the dough in half, flatten each piece into a disc and then chill them, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, for 2 to 3 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with racks in top and bottom thirds. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out 1 piece of dough between the sheets of parchment paper into a 14-by-10-inch rectangle (1/8 inch thick). Cut out as many stars as possible, reserving and chilling scraps, then quickly transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, arranging them 1/2 inch apart. (If dough becomes too soft, return it to the freezer until it is firm.)

Bake cookies until firm and slightly puffed, about 10 minutes. Cool cookies on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. (The cookies will crisp as they cool.) Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps, rerolling scraps only once.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

— “Nonna Tell Me a Story” by Lidia Bastianich (Running Press, October 2010, $15.95)