Papa handed me my apron. His dark eyes danced. This family baking day was the start of Christmas – the beginning of the season – even more important than decorating the tree or wrapping gifts.
Nonna and Mom got out the ingredients for the pita piata – our special Italian pastry filled with flour, cinnamon, sugar, salt, oil, and more. Daddy wiped off the table so we would have a clean surface to roll out the blobs of dough. My little brother, Paul, ran around the room acting like a crazy man. He knew something big was going on.
“Come here, you little monkey,” Papa called, trying to catch Paul as he ran through the dining room. “I’m going to get you.” Paul squealed with glee, escaping Papa’s big arms.
While they goofed around, I brought the bowls of chopped walnuts and raisins to the table. I sneaked a golden raisin. I looked over at Papa who pretended not to see me.
Nonna and Mom began to measure the ingredients into our giant bowl. Daddy and Papa took turns mixing the dough. They really had to get their muscles in there to mix it. I peered over the edge, watching the flour and sugar as it became wet and sticky from mixing it with water and a bit of wine.
When it was Papa’s turn to mix, he took the sticky mound and began to make it hop and kick on the table. I imagined it dancing the tarantella. Hop, kick. The accordion music played faster in my head. Whirl your partner. Hop, kick. Papa had the tarantella rhythm down. I could see him dancing in my mind with his hands on his hips. I swished my skirt this way and that, dancing with him. Finally, he took the mound of dough and made it into a fat, long roll so we could cut it into portions.
Daddy got out the big knife with the sharp teeth. Mom did the cutting making sure the portions were even. In the end, we had fourteen perfect disks of dough. Mom removed two so we could begin the rolling.
Daddy rolled out the dough. He loved the challenge of making it paper thin.“Your daddy is the best roller around,” Papa elbowed me, “even if he’s not Italian.” I smiled. I knew that was a big compliment. I shook cinnamon on top of the dough while Papa spread the sugar around. I imagined we were Christmas angels throwing stardust over the night sky on Christmas Eve. Papa’s eyes twinkled and he nodded. It was time for the oil and then my favorite part – the raisins and nuts. Nonna poured the oil on top and mixed it in. Papa got down on his knees and helped Paul mix the oil with the cinnamon-sugar on the dough. They made circles of oil with their fingertips. Paul giggled and licked his fingers. Mom gave him that look and sent him to the bathroom to wash his hands. I sprinkled the raisins and nuts. Finally, it was time to roll up the dough. “Papa, can you teach me?” I asked. “How old are you?” “You know I’m 7!” I answered. “I guess you’re old enough now,” he said. We started from opposite ends. Papa began to roll his end. I followed. We met in the middle, creating a double pastry roll. “And now we join the circle,” I said, knowingly. He put his big arms around mine and showed me how to join the ends of the dough in a wreath shape without any of the cinnamon-sugar-insides falling out. Nonna placed our pita piata on the baking sheet and secured it with toothpicks. Into the oven went! Before long the house filled with that mmm-I-can-taste-it smell of sugar, cinnamon and dough. Mom sliced into the first pita piata after it cooled. We all leaned in for our first bites. As the years fly by, I find myself in that same spot each year only now with my own three daughters, my husband and a host of cousins discovering their roles in the baking. This tradition marks our commitment to gathering, to eating, and to communing together. The circle continues.