P’s mother’s younger sister Vincenzina never married. She had the chance, she says, when she was around 18 — meaning her family had chosen someone for her — but she wasn’t interested. Instead, she’s become the favorite aunt of all her nieces and nephews, as far as I can tell. She travels to Australia, France, Rome, and beyond, to spend time with her brothers and sisters and their families, and she’s always the first person they come to see when they visit here.
Zia still walks to her campagna and back nearly every day — a good hour each way, mostly uphill. And she still carries back her bounty on her head, arms resting comfortably at her sides unless the load is exceptionally wide and requires balancing. As I’ve found out “pian piano” over the years, Zia is also the one who keeps the family history alive through photographs, stories, and age-old recipes.
Zia is truly a woman after my own heart.
We didn’t really bond until I was leaving for America a couple years ago, when we got to talking about a relative of theirs who had gone to America and kept in touch until the late 1950s, she said, and then the letters stopped. She thought he went to “Nuovo York,” she said — New York — until she showed me the last letter she had received from him. Postmarked Kulpmont, PA — on the same street that my brother now lives.
I did some research online, and discovered he had died not long after that last letter. But to imagine that as late as 1960, my Lithuanian grandfather (who grew up in Kulpmont) and P’s uncle could have been friends, drank at the same bar, passed each other in the post office — in Pennsylvania? Amazing.
The more deeply I dig into my and P’s roots through stories, habits, and food, the more connected I feel to this terra.
I’ve spent a lot more time with Zia since then, and I’ve learned so much of their family history that P didn’t even know. It’s always exciting to come home and share with him what I’ve learned as he loves the old tales too. Such was the case this past week when I learned the family recipe for cuzzupe, an Easter specialty around here. Recipes for cuzzupe vary greatly — this one produces a sweet somewhere between a cookie and a cake, while other types of cuzzupe are more bread-like, and you may find whole eggs baked into them as well.
The Fabio family factoid I learned this time has to do with these baking trays:
These were handmade by Zio Giacomo, who now lives in Australia, from the large tins of tomatoes, tuna, and the like — quite a long time ago, as you might imagine. Can you imagine how many cuzzupe they’ve seen?
Cuzzupe di Pasqua – Calabrian Easter Cakes
(makes about 40 loaves — feel free to cut recipe in half!)
- 10 large eggs
- 2 cups olive oil
- About a cup (un bicchiere) of lemon juice
- 1/4 cup of lemon zest, chopped finely
- 2 kilos flour*
- 1 kilo sugar
- 500 ml milk
- 2 packets of ammoniaca**
- 2 packets of vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C*** and lightly grease (olive oil works well) and flour baking pans.
2. Crack eggs into large mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Stir in olive oil and lemon juice.
3. In a medium mixing bowl, mix together milk that has been warmed and sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved.
4. Stir ammoniaca into milk mixture and watch it bubble.
5. Pour milk mixture into eggs and combine well. Stir in lemon zest.
6. Add flour a little at a time to egg mixture until it’s all combined well and batter-like. It should be slightly thicker than pancake batter.
7. Spoon cuzzupe onto baking sheets in the forms preferred (see photos for guidance).
8. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Store these in paper bags inside plastic bags, and they’ll last for quite a while — but definitely best the first day. YUM.
*Check out this handy baking conversion chart if you’re not used to kilos and such.
**If you are in Italy and perhaps other European countries, this type of rising agent is what Zia says works best with these. If you can’t find it, baking powder, or in Italy “lievito per dolci” should work too (although Zia insists “non vengono bene” (they don’t come out well) with an outward swipe of the index and middle fingers under the chin). Remember in Italy, if you use the lievito per dolci that has vaniglia, you won’t need the vanilla packets.
***Zia baked these in her forno a legna (wood-fired oven), so I have no idea what the temperature was — I’m assuming very hot. I’m sure they could be made at a lower temperature, so I’ve guesstimated on that as well as baking time– so watch your cuzzupe carefully!
Buon appetito e Buona Pasqua!