For over a decade, Lidia Bastianich has hosted popular PBS television series, Lidia’s Italy. She is an accomplished best-selling author of seven books including recently published, Nonna Tell Me A Story: Lidia’s Christmas Kitchen. In this beautifully illustrated children’s book Lidia shares her humble but meaningful family traditions with her grandchildren.
I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Lidia about how to incorporate family traditions during the holidays. I found her to be introspective and her answers insightful – not as a highly respected culinary expert but as a grandmother of five children that inspired her to write this book. Here’s our interview:
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and advice on family traditions. Can you tell me how your grandchildren inspired you to write a children’s book?
Telling my grandchildren stories of my growing up is some of our favorite times spent together. They want to know what it was like, and what I did as a child. They seem to be especially interested in the organic and simplistic setting I grew up in. I lived close to my grandmother who grew and raised just about everything we ate. From the wheat to make flour and then bread and pasta, to the olives which we made into olive oil, the grapes which were harvested and fermented into wine, to potatoes, beans and tomatoes. Then we had all the courtyard animals; from chickens to geese, ducks, rabbits, pigs, goats, donkeys and more. It if this life, how I played what we ate and how communal family life played out that interests my grandchildren and so I decided to share the stories and my family with other children.
You grew up in Istria where you you and your family grew up with little material possessions, yet you found joy in being a family, cooking, and working together. What advice would you give to parents about helping their own children see the value in being together during the holidays over how many presents are under the Christmas tree?
Values, in most cases, are passed on by example not by predicating. I feel that the best thing one can do is spend time with your children, and the kitchen is the perfect place! Make gifts meaningful by putting the time in creating them, whether baking and cooking, or in making arts and craft. It will all have more meaning for the giver and receiver.
Your book is filled with traditions and recipes from your childhood. What is the importance of carrying on these traditions with your family today?
Traditions are our roots, and a profile of who we are as individuals, and who we are as a family. They are our roots which give us stability and a sense of belonging- they ground us.
Have you started new holiday traditions with your family?
I think traditions change and modify with each generation. With new members joining the family, their customs and traditions have to be respected and combined with the exiting traditions. And, the children that follow are part of that new evolving tradition, and as they grow, will have input that will in turn continue to evolve that tradition.
The adage that “sometimes less is more” can certainly be applied to the holiday season, when families often stress over buying material goods for everyone on their shopping list. What advice would you offer for making the holidays less stressful and more about family and friends and the real meaning of the season?
I think that one can focus on being together, gathering at the table and the pleasure of cooking and sharing love through food. Make the important part the visits, and the meals and the preparations leading to it. Make children an important part of creating the setting, and preparing the food for the communion of family and friends.
For parents who did not grow up with rich family traditions as you did, yet want to start their own, what type of advice would you share to help them get started?
I would say to start with the memories. Once you’ve got your memories firm in your mind, match up recipes to those memories. Make a mental note, record them, and build upon them as you and your family enjoy and celebrate the holidays by cooking and baking- bringing those memories to life, and sharing in them at the table together.
In your book you share a story of making little wreathes from dried figs and bay leaves with fresh fruit that you tied to the tree. Is this a tradition you celebrate with your family today?
Yes, we still love dry figs, and have them in the house during the winter. We stuff them with almonds, use them to bake cookies, make fig bread and wreaths during the Christmas season.
Final Question: The recipes you’ve included in your book are very family-friendly. Which one is your favorite?
My favorite recipe in Nonna Tell Me a Story is Crostoli, the Fried Ribbon Cookies. We make it for the Christmas holiday season, but also during the rest of the year for family gatherings.
Thank you Lidia for sharing your beautiful family traditions with us.
Visit Lidia Bastianich’s site, Lidia’s Italy, for more information about her books, recipes, videos, and restaurants.
To purchase the Nonna Tells A Story hardcover book, DVD, or book/DVD set or Lidia’s Italy cookbooks and DVDs, and SAVE 20% OFF YOUR ENTIRE ORDER, go to shopPBS.org and enter code KITCHENEXPLORERS during checkout. Offer valid through 6/30/11.
Recipe: Fried Ribbon Cookies (Crostoli) Recipe
A cookie recipe from Lidia Bastianich's cookbook, "Nonna Tells A Story."
- 6 tablespoons very soft unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 3 tablespoons orange juice
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Finely grated zest of a lemon, about 2 teaspoons
- Finely grated zest of an orange, about 2 tablespoons
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
- 6 to 8 cups vegetable oil for frying, or as needed
- 1/4 cup cup confectioners' sugar, or as needed
- Blend butter, sugar and salt in the food processor. Add milk, egg and yolk, citrus juices and citrus zests and process everything together until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, dump in all of the flour, and process in pulses until the dough comes together. Clean the bowl again and pulse a few more times to mix thoroughly.
- Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead briefly into a soft smooth ball. If it is sticky, knead in more flour in a small amounts. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and chill for 30 minutes to 1 hour. (You can keep it refrigerated up to 1 day but let it return to room temperature before rolling.)
- Cut the chilled dough in half and work with one piece at a time. Flatten the dough on lightly floured work surface and roll it out to a rough square shape, approximately 16 inches on a side. Trim the edges of the square and with a fluted cutter, divide it into 10 strips, about 1 1/2 inches wide. Cut across all the strips in the middle to form 20 ribbons, each about 7 inches long (though they shrink after you cut them). One at a time, the each ribbon into a simple overhand knot. (When tying the crostoli, leave the knot very loose so there will be a gap for tying a ribbon for hanging once they are fried.) If necessary, stretch the ends gently so they're long enough to knot. Place the knotted crostoli on a sheet pan lined with parchment or wax paper, leaving room between them so they don't stick to each other. Roll out the second piece of dough; cut and tie the same way.
- Meanwhile, pour vegetable oil in the pan to a depth of 2 inches. Set over medium heat to gradually reach frying temperature. When you're ready to start frying, raise the heat and test the oil by dropping in a scrap piece of dough: the fat should bubble actively around the dough, but it shouldn't get dark quickly. (If you have a frying thermometer, heat the oil to 350 degrees F. And be sure to use long handled tools, hot pads, and caution when deep frying.)
- Using long-handled tongs, quickly drop the first batch of crostoli in the fryer --raise the heat to return the oil to the frying temperature. Don't crowd the cookies --fry only 10 or 12 at a time in a 10-inch diameter pan. The cookies will first drop to the bottom but will soon float to the surface. Turn them frequently with tongs and a slotted spoon, to cook evenly.
- Fry the crostoli for 4 minutes or so, as they color gradually to dark gold, Adjust the heat as needed to maintain the olk temperature and prevent rapid browning. When crisp and golden all over, lift them from the oil with a spoon, drain off the oil, then lay them on layers of paper towels to cool. Fry the remaining crostoli in batches the same way. Store in a sealed cookie tin or plastic container and keep them dry. To serve, pile the crostoli on a serving plate in a heaping mound. Put the confectioners' sugar in a small mesh sieve and dust generously over the cookies.