My earliest memory of Santa Claus was when I was 4 years old. Yes, I met Santa. He came to my bedroom when I was sleeping and woke me from a sound sleep. Gave me a gift that I unwrapped, still half asleep, as my mother,father,brother and sister watched. It was a western shirt. I thought Santa brought toys to little boys and girls. Why did I get a cowboy shirt? After my mother gave Santa a glass of milk and a cookie he wished everyone a Merry Christmas and with a Ho-Ho-Ho, he left. I went back to sleep, not quite sure about what just happened.
It wasn’t till many years later that I found out that Santa was my friend Anthony Merola’s father, Mr. Merola, or Joe, as my parents called him. Joe Merola was that kind of guy. He would dress up as Santa and visit the children on the block and bring them presents that their parents set him up with. What a nice thing to do.
Joe Merola was also a musician. He played the trumpet. And every Christmas Eve when I was older he would stop by my house and recruit me to go caroling. I would bundle up in my heavy coat, hat and gloves and join the merry gang of carolers. He gave me a glockenspiel to play. A glockenspiel is like a xylophone, except the keys are made of metal instead of wood. I knew how to play the piano, so the notes on the glockenspiel were easy to find. We were a group of about five or six, it varied year by year. Each of us played something, bells, tambourine, etc. Mr. Merola played the trumpet and I played the glockenspiel. We would go door to door and start singing. The occupants of the house would come out and were thrilled with the songs. Deck the Halls, Joy to the World, Noel, Jingle Bells, Hark the Herald Angels, were all part of or repertoire. Some neighbors gave Joe a shot of spirits, kept his lips in tune. We would get hot chocolate, sometimes a shot of espresso….hey, it was 77 Street, Brooklyn.
We would go up one side of 77 Street and down the other, stopping at every house along the way. All the houses were lit with Christmas lights and you could see the Christmas trees all lit up inside the homes. What a great way to help celebrate Christmas. All the neighbors would come out and clap at the end of the songs and that great feeling of the spirit of Christmas went through every fiber of my body. We always picked up a few more carolers along the way. Some years we had snow, which made it all the nicer. By the end of the night my hands and toes were freezing from being out in the cold, but I didn’t care. We were spreading peace and joy throughout our little part of the world.
At the end of the night we all wished each other a Merry Christmas and I went back into my house and down my basement where all my family was gathered around the table. My grandfather, father and uncles were playing cards at the table as they cracked roasted nuts and drank small glasses of wine. Some of those card games got very loud as the winner of the pot reached for the nickles and dimes. In the kitchen my mother and grandmother were preparing the desserts and coffee along with my aunts. My cousins were roaming around the house with my brother and sister, trying to sneak a peek at the gifts that were under the tree upstairs in our front porch. We would wait until Christmas morning before we opened them.
Aunt Mary came out of the kitchen carrying a huge pot of coffee and my mother followed behind her with my aunt’s cassata cheese cake. I heard knocking on the basement window as more relatives and friends came to join us. Christmas Eve was a special time at my house that were filled with fond memories that will last a life time.
Struffoli was a traditional Neopolitan desert made for Christmas. Italians from Calabria and Sicily made these little honey balls but added red wine to the mixture which added another dimension of flavor to these honey cookies. They also shaped them a little different. Instead of the traditional little balls, the red wine struffoli was shaped like a gnocchi, like a little barrel.
Red Wine Struffoli
- 2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1 /4 cup plus 2 tablespoon red wine like burgundy or chianti
- vegetable oil for deep frying
- 1 cup honey
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- nonpareils to sprinkle over the top
In a large bowl measure the flour and add the salt. Mix well. Add the the eggs and red wine and mix with a spoon until all the ingredients are incorporated. When it gets too hard to mixwith the spoon place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead for about ten minutes until smooth.
Cover the dough and let rest for 15 minutes.
Cut off a piece of dough and on a floured surface roll out to the thickness of your index finger. My index finger might be thicker than yours so lets say to about the size of a pretzel rod. Cut the rod into 1 inch pieces.
Roll the pieces of dough on the back of a fork to form ridges on the dough. Place the little barrels off to the side and use up the rest of the dough this way.
Place about two inches of vegetable oil in a large heavy pot over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, about 350 degrees, add the struffoli. Do not over crowd. Make them in batches. They almost turn themselves when they are cooked.
When they are golden brown on both sides remove with a slotted spoon and place on a plate lined with paper towels.
In a large frying pan or pot large enough to hold all the fried struffoli, add the honey, sugar, and water. Bring to a rolling boil. Be careful, the mixture will start to foam. Lower the heat if the foam starts to over flow. When the foam subsides and the mixture is clear and amber remove from the heat.
Add the fried struffoli to the honey mixture and mix well, covering all the struffoli with honey. Work quickly before the honey cools.
Place the struffoli on a plate and mound into a pyramid. Sprinlke with nonpareils before they cool so they will stick. Allow to cool before serving.