Christmas 1981. I remember it well. More or less.

It was my second Christmas in Boston – and a lot better than the first!

My first Christmas was fairly miserable. I had moved from Lake Tahoe about a month before.  Hyatt had screwed up my transfer (actually, a new Personnel Director had given my job to someone else) and I was living in a rooming house in East Boston – bath down the hall, communal kitchen – for $45/week. I could barely afford it and a T pass to get to work in Cambridge – as a Banquet Steward. A far cry from the Restaurant Manager/Executive Steward I was in Tahoe.  The awesome house, the fabulous roommates, Susan, Clare, and Michael…

But things got better. I was introduced to Dana and we became roommates. Meanwhile, my old roommate, Susan moved from Tahoe to Boston. Dana graduated from Law School and eventually moved back to St Louis. Then Susan and I moved into a great flat on Mission Hill with another friend, Gordy.

The job had improved and I was making much better money, but flying home wasn’t in the cards that year. We went kinda goofy with the decorations, and somewhere along the line, I picked up a Charlie Brown Christmas mug. Susan and Gordy both made it home that year, and I was alone. But not for long.

We lived in a typical Boston 3-decker. Our landlords lived down the street from us.  We had the first floor,  and their daughter lived on the 2nd, and her aunt – our landlady’s sister – lived on the top. Evelyn – the aunt – threw a Christmas Eve party every year that was spectacular. Food and drink for days. And days.

I was dragged upstairs and forced to eat and drink until I could barely walk. THEN we went out to visit all the other relatives. We hit a dozen different homes and had even more to eat and drink. I think we poured ourselves in about 3am. Maybe later. Everything gets a little fuzzy after about midnight…

And here I am, 32 years later, making dough for Christmas cookies in the Philadelphia suburbs and drinking coffee from the memorable mug, remembering the night I was an honorary African-American, eating chittlin’s and doing shots in the Blue Hill Avenue projects. To say I’ve led an interesting life is an understatement. And I have a 32 year old mug that brings a smile to my face every time I see it.



Onto baking…

We have found over the years that it is easier to make the various doughs over the course of a week or so – and then do marathon baking and get as many done as we can over a weekend. Then we just fill in with things here and there. It’s a great system!

We have our standard cookies we make every year – Aunt Emma’s Apricot cookies, several different biscotti, thumbprints, pizzelles… but we also like to throw in a few new ones every year.

This year, I grabbed my worn copy of Carol Field’s The Italian Baker and started looking for new ideas. I came across a couple recipes I hadn’t made before.

The first one is a cornmeal cookie.


adapted from The Italian Baker

  • 3/4 cup dried currants
  • 2 tbsp rum
  • 5 1/2 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups flour plus 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup polenta
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

Toss the dried fruit with the rum – or other liquor of choice – and set aside.

Beat together the butter and sugar until smooth and creamy, about one minute. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla, beating until incorporated.

Whisk together the 1 1/2 cups flour, polenta, baking powder, and salt. Mix the dry ingredients into the beaten butter mixture until incorporated.

Grain the currants and dust with the additional 2 tbsp flour. Stir into batter.

Pinch off pieces of dough about the size of a small walnut, and roll into balls. Place them evenly spaced on the prepared baking sheet and press them down gently with your hands to partially flatten them.

Bake the cookies in a preheated 325º oven about 12 minutes, rotating the baking sheets midway during baking, until the cookies are very light brown on top. Remove the oven and let cool completely.

You can also form the dough into logs and refrigerate. Slice the cookies into 1/4-inch slices and place them evenly spaced on the prepared baking sheets. Again, bake for about 12 minutes.

We’re not baking until the weekend, but this dough tastes fantastic! I used Amaro Massagli – a liquore we picked up in Lucca for the soaking. Yum.

The next are Stazzate. These are a crumbly chocolate and almond cookie with a half-cup of Strega, an Italian herbal liqueur. The recipe says you can substitute Galliano, but I chose the Amaro Massagli, again.

The only time I ever really had Galliano was for a Harvey Wallbanger.  And probably the last time I had one of those was while watching Harvey’s blow in 1980. Yes, I was part of the crowd out there watching as the bomb exploded – drinking Harvey Wallbangers, of course!

But I digress…

I figured any liquore would work – especially since I wasn’t making them for anyone who would know the difference!


  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 1 ¾ cups finely ground, plus 2 tbsp roughly chopped, almonds
  • 1 ½ cups plus 2 tbsp. flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp chocolate chips
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ cup Strega or Galliano liqueur
  • ⅓ cup coffee, at room temperature

Heat oven to 325°. Grease 2 parchment-lined baking sheets with butter and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together baking powder and 1 tbsp water until dissolved.

Combine ground and chopped almonds, flour, sugar, chocolate chips, cocoa powder, oil, and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the baking powder mixture, liqueur, and coffee to form a wet dough.

Divide the dough into 1-oz. portions. Roll into balls and transfer to prepared baking sheets spaced about 1-inch apart. Bake until set, about 30 minutes.

Transfer cookies to racks and let cool to firm before serving.

There are quite a few more recipes that we’ll be making, but several of them require the dough to be made and baked right away. We’re not quite ready for baking, so…

Stay tuned.

I’m sure I can come up with a few more fun Christmas stories – like 1972 in the Gulf of Tonkin…