By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Sweet memories

Almond extract has always tasted like the most delicious, exotic, wonderful flavor imaginable to me, I think at least partly because it was never found in our home. My mother hates the flavor. But it’s used in Italian cooking, and so it was sometimes found in the baked goods my aunts and grandmother used to mail cross-country.

They used to mail all kinds of things, including, once, a telephone-shaped sponge cake which arrived in somewhat smashed condition. Also, pastries called pusties, filled with milk-based chocolate or vanilla pudding; how we never got food poisoning, I cannot imagine.

But their boxes were cause for great excitement among us children. There were such wonderful things in them! Not just the pusties, but other things, too: little cookies, Christmas fruitcakes filled with dates, maraschino cherries and Brazil nuts, and some kind of Easter sweet made of zillions of tiny fried dough balls stuck together with corn syrup or some such thing, mashed into an aluminum pie plate and topped with colored sprinkles.

What can I say, I was 10. These days, the thought of so much sugar is distinctly off-putting. For that matter, so is the thought of shaping and frying zillions of tiny dough balls. I like to cook, but there are limits.

The memories, however, remain magical. Almond extract, anise seed, fennel and sesame seeds topping dry, crunchy cookies still taste like something exotic and very special, a fleeting whiff of fragrance from childhood. Some of the recipes have made it down to me; some haven’t. I asked, once, about how to make the dough ball whatever-it-was. The answer: “Well, you fry your dough …” It wasn’t the most helpful instruction.

Other memories, equally wonderful, are not based in a sugar extravaganza. There was, for example, the pepper roll — hotter than Hades, but unbelievably good. It involved a great deal of crushed red pepper, strewn heavily over dough, generously spread with olive oil, rolled up and baked. Sometimes there was a layer of Italian sausage along with the pepper.

I don’t have an exact recipe for that one, either, but did have the opportunity, once, to watch my grandmother make it, so you can try it, too. You roll out your dough …

“Wait, what kind of dough?” you interrupt to ask.

Uh. Well, just use your favorite pizza dough recipe. My grandmother, who never used whole-wheat anything, would have made it from white flour, if you wish to be authentic about it. About as much as you’d use for one pizza. So, you roll it out into a round, just as if you were about to make a pizza.

Brush it lightly with a little beaten egg white, then sprinkle with tomato sauce. I know you don’t normally sprinkle tomato sauce, but she did. Spread it lightly, if you prefer. Then sprinkle it with plenty of crushed red pepper — using some care to adjust to your own taste buds, because I was not kidding about how hot this stuff is. She’d have discarded the seeds disdainfully, and just used the actual dried pepper.

At any rate, sprinkle some grated romano cheese over that, according to taste; my grandmother would not have used a thick layer. Substitute parmesan if you haven’t got any romano. Yes, they taste different, although they’re of a similar character and use. How much you care depends on how much of a purist you wish to be — or possibly on whether you have any Italian relatives standing within thwacking range of your ears.

Drizzle the whole mess with olive oil, and use a fork to sort of gently mix it all together, being careful of your dough. Roll it up — “not too tight,” my grandmother would warn — and curl it into a greased pie plate. Cover it with a clean cloth, let it rise well, and then bake about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Delicious. Doesn’t keep worth a darn, according to her, so you might as well eat it all on the first day, although you can freeze leftovers. I used to think I could happily live on the stuff, fried taste buds or not.

Or, if you’re in the cooking mood, you might try one of the recipes from your own childhood memories — with luck, they might even come with a real recipe. Even if they don’t, though, give yourself permission to play, to take a chance and try something new.

And if you’re lucky enough to still have relatives around who make traditional dishes, for goodness’ sake, make sure to ask for demonstrations and take notes. You’ll treasure those memories later.

Nicole Montesano can be reached at

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