Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.
“Buono!” exclaimed Fernanda, breaking off a golden corner of my first, freshly baked pandolce, a traditional holiday cake from Liguria, the Italian Riviera. She examined the crisp, cookie-like surface and tender interior of the dessert, as the sweet aroma of toasted anise and candied orange filled the kitchen. “This is good. Actually good!”
“Grazie,” I smiled back, letting the “actually” slide.
I knew it wasn’t the backhanded compliment it sounded like. Contrary to all stereotypes, my Italian mother-in-law adores me, and even thinks of me—an American!—as a fabulous cook. Besides, we were too invested in saving Christmas from the desolation of yet another lockdown to waste time bickering. We both knew that any other year we would have spent the day bustling around Genoa, popping in and out of shops, arms loaded with food and gifts, our final stop at one of the city’s ancient pastry shops for an expertly made, impeccably wrapped pandolce.
This compact cake studded with candied fruit and pine nuts is obligatory in and around Genoa during the holiday season, much like panettone is in Milan. And, like panettone, almost no one makes pandolce at home. Instead, the cakes are bought from the city’s many pasticcerie (pastry shops), where they are stacked high on top of display cases, wrapped in colorful paper, and tied with silk ribbon.
According to legend, pandolce was invented during a contest among the city’s pastry chefs in the 16th century, when the Doge challenged them to create a dessert representative of Genoa’s wealth and grandeur. Traditionally, before being served, a sprig of bay leaves is stuck into the middle of the cake and then brought to the table by the youngest member of the family. The oldest at the table would cut the first slice, wrap it in a napkin, and give it to the first passing alms-seeker.
Understandably, my mother-in-law, Fernanda, was genuinely surprised that anyone would make a pandolce at home, much less a Texan who never really wanted to spend Christmas in Italy in the first place. Although I have been an expat for 17 years, I am still deeply attached to my family of origin and our traditions. I hate to miss the holidays on the ranch with my parents’ old hippie friends, sipping eggnog and singing carols around the campfire. Even after I fell in love with my husband and followed him to Italy in my early 20s, I always went home for Christmas. I missed weddings, funerals, births, and just about every other important occasion, but I never missed Christmas.
My husband is equally attached to his own family traditions in Genoa: a long, loud table of cousins, aunts, and uncles, plus an endless lunch that stretches into dinner, accompanied by plenty of wine and, naturally, pandolce. So we spent the holidays separately until we had kids—after that, we started alternating the holiday seasons between the two countries.
While at first, I was reluctant, even a little sad, when we spent the holidays in Italy, I grew to deeply appreciate our Italian traditions as well. A few days before Christmas, we pack up the kids and the gifts from our home in Milan and drive 90 minutes to Genoa, where my husband grew up. This ancient port city, while always fascinating, reaches new levels of enchantment over the holidays. The dark, twisting alleyways sparkle with Christmas lights; artfully decorated shop windows beckon, full of meticulously prepared cakes, colorful candies, and overflowing gift baskets.
With each Christmas spent there, I fall deeper in love with the city, and I understand my mother-in-law a bit better. I always go food shopping with her in the historic Soziglia district, which is packed with tiny, marble-floored shops that have been selling the same products for centuries. Following her petite frame through the bustling carruggi, the narrow passages of the maze-like city center, she transforms before my eyes. She navigates the streets like an alley cat, her feet having long ago memorized every cobblestone and shortcut, her composed, proper demeanor slowly transforming into something much more interesting. She elbows her way into the tiny shops and haggles over the price of salt cod with the gruff vendor. Grabbing my hand on the way out, she chuckles with equal parts disdain, mirth, and respect for the shrewd businessman, “Che ladro!” (What a thief!) She glances at me to make sure I understand the banter, as if to say, “This is how we do it here.”
But this past year was different. December 2020: Texas was completely out of reach, and Genoa was locked down tight following another COVID surge. My mother-in-law was hunkered down, all alone, in our summer home in Moneglia, a tiny beach village on the Ligurian coast. So we subjected ourselves to nasal swabs and packed up the car, but this time we passed the exit for Genoa and headed down the coast to Moneglia. Large gatherings were strictly forbidden in the zona rossa (red zone), so there would be no long lunch with a tableful of cousins in Genoa, no slow parade of elaborate dishes over hours of jovial conversation.
There would be no waiting in line, shivering, outside the tiny old pastry shop Profumo for one of their famous cakes. Despite myself, I had become deeply attached to our Christmases in Genoa, and the pandolce that came with it. Of all the things COVID took from so many of us, I can’t really claim that a Christmas cake was such a big loss, but it was just another symbol of something beautiful stolen by that dreadful year. I was determined to make Christmas work no matter what: for my kids, for myself, and for my mother-in-law. And I would start by making pandolce.
Of all the things COVID took from so many of us, I can’t really claim that a Christmas cake was such a big loss, but it was just another symbol of something beautiful stolen by that dreadful year. I was determined to make Christmas work no matter what: for my kids, for myself, and for my mother-in-law. And I would start by making pandolce.
Though Fernanda is an excellent cook, it’s not something she loves to do, and she tries to spend the least amount of time as possible in the kitchen. She’s always appalled that I am willing, eager even, to pass hours putting together a festive meal or fussing over some dough. On Christmas Eve, she watched skeptically as I studied the recipe and gathered the aromatics: orange blossom water, fennel seeds, candied orange peel. I hummed Christmas carols as my hands worked the sticky mass of dough into a ball, batting away the bittersweet thoughts of a farther-away-than-ever Texas campfire. She peeked over my shoulder as I gently scored a triangle into the surface of the dough, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, and I noticed a tiny nod of approval. Neither Fernanda nor I had made pandolce before, but we both knew how much it meant. We were finally on equal footing, navigating the dark alleyways of a COVID Christmas together. I looked back at her reassuringly, as if to say, “This is how we do it here, now.”
As the cake slowly baked in the oven, the house filled with an unmistakable aroma. It was the smell of a memory being made, the beginning of a tradition. Perhaps this was the first pandolce we had ever made together, but it would certainly not be our last. When it came out of the oven, golden, puffed, and perfect, Fernanda broke off a tiny corner and put it in her mouth.
“This is good,” she grabbed my hand and smiled, her eyes filled with gratitude and love. “Actually good!”
See what other Food52 readers are saying.