Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas is in the air!

This is the exact design of my great-grandmother's pizzelle iron!
There are two weeks until Christmas, and the excitement is building. The outside lights have been up for over a week, the foyer is loaded with stuffed animals, the nativity is displayed in the living room, and the tree is decorated. While our eyes are full of the sights of Christmas, I have not started playing Christmas music, and the traditional aromas of Christmas are not in the air. Not yet.

Many experts tell us that our sense of smell is the most powerful when it comes to triggering memories. We can be transported to our childhoods in an instant with a single whiff of peppermint or pine. To me, Christmas smells like oranges and anise. 

The citrusy smell of oranges seems out of context for December in Pennsylvania, but I remember reading the Bobsey Twins books and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. In both, the children were thrilled to find an orange at the toe of their stockings. My father delivered boxes of oranges to family, friends, and clients at Christmas, and those oranges always tasted better than the run-of-the-mill fruit from the A&P. They were huge and sweet and juicy, and they left the house smelling fresh. Their aroma lingered longer than the scent of fresh pine.

But the official smell of Christmas came from pizzelles. My mother would make the dough, and my grandmother would preside over baking them, using the iron my great-grandfather ordered for his bride when they got to the new country. We made Christmas cookies in the basement kitchen with its gas stove. Mom Mom would heat the iron over the gas flame and decide when it was ready for baking. My mother and I greased our palms, and rolled the dough into tiny orbs, and placed them in concentric circles on a white Pfaltzgraff plate, waiting to be cooked. When the iron was sufficiently hot, the work began. Open the iron, place a ball of dough in the exact center of the design, close the iron, fasten the clip, say a “Hail Mary,” flip the iron, say another “Hail Mary,” unfasten the clip, open the iron, flick the cookie off the iron and into a pile, and repeat. We counted out a dozen cookies per stack, and once the cookies were completely cool, we would move them into the old potato chip can reserved exclusively for pizzelles. While the rite of passage for most teenagers was getting a driver’s license, for me it was when I was finally old enough to command the pizzelle iron.

The recipe, like many of the ones handed down from my great-grandmother, was based on the egg as a unit of measure. As in we’re baking a dozen eggs of pizzelles. Or with nine people for dinner, we should make ten eggs of homemade pasta. A dozen eggs of pizzelles was usually enough for our family, twenty dozen, more or less, depending on how large we shaped the little balls. My grandmother loved to make pizzelles tiny. Sometimes my mother and I would lose patience and scoop up huge balls of dough, but Mom Mom was right—the smaller pizzelles were prettier, and somehow tastier. With their crenelated edges, they looked like snowflakes. I loved to nibble around the cookie, nipping off each point, and I looked forward to the little crumbs that fell to the bottom of the can.

The pizzelles we made back then were crisp, and sweet, and full of anise flavor. We used real anisette in the dough, never seeds or extract, and sometimes we sipped the licorice-flavored liqueur as we worked. Soon the whole house smelled like pizzelles, and the aroma lingered throughout the Christmas season.  

Eventually, we retired the old pizzelle iron in favor of an electric machine. With two spaces for cookies, we were able to finish twice as fast. Our shoulders didn’t ache from lifting and turning the heavy iron. We said fewer “Hail Mary’s.” We could sit in comfort in front of the television instead of standing in front of the gas stove. It was no longer a family affair, bringing together three generations of women, united in a common task. It is far easier to make pizzelles today than it was when I was growing up, but I miss the old days conspiring with Mom Mom and my mother as we prepared my favorite Christmas cookie.

And that is why I wait until the week before Christmas to make my own pizzelles. I want the house to smell the way it used to on Christmas Day so that all those memories will tumble around me, and so my own children will experience a similar flood of nostalgia fifty years from now when they sniff the familiar aromas of orange and anise in late December.

Isabella Petrilla’s (aka Grandmom’s) Recipe for Pizzelles

For each egg, add one spoon* of oil and two heaping spoons of sugar. Beat well. Add anisette. Add enough flour to make a stiff dough. Bake.

*Not just any spoon, this was Grandmom’s other unit of measure. I have her spoon in my kitchen, along with her pizzelle iron.

What are your smells of Christmas? What are the stories behind those smells? Please let me know!


  1. Oh, you might want to find a more comprehensive recipe to make your own pizzelles!

  2. Oh yum! I love pizzelles! I used to make them over Christmas break with Eric Nalbone. I've since been on a mission to find a good pizzelle maker... apparently they don't make them like they used to! My family makes a Swiss cookie called Schenkli - a slightly sweet almond dough that we deep fry. You can imagine the delicious smells that fill the house on Schenkli day! The best part for me was managing the fryer. The little cousins usually enjoy shaking the cooled cookies in bags of powdered sugar. :)
    ~Christine M.

    1. The smell of almond must have been wonderful. They sound delicious. If I say that they don't make pizzelle irons like they used to, I just sound like an old fogey. I think Fante's sells a good pizzelle iron, but the texture from an electric iron is different from the old iron pictured above. I have the family iron, but the last I used it was a couple of decades ago, even though I have a gas stove.Let me know if you find one you like.

  3. My Aunt Lucy, who married an Italian (DiLuigi), always made pizzelles and would give us some every Christmas.
    Also, my neighbor, Grace DeLoretta, made pizzelles and when I was a kid, sometimes let me help her. She also made homemade spaghetti. She put a huge mound of flour on her kitchen table, made a crater and poured in eggs, then folded it all together by hand. I loved when she let me put the dough through the hand-cranked pasta maker. She also made her own "gravy," as she called it.
    I love the smell of the annisette pizzelles, too.
    I wish my new kitchen was more conducive to bakingi--and cooking. Maybe it's just me :)