Actually, I never called my father “Papà.” I know he would have preferred it, but at some point after “Giulia” was changed to “Julia,” unofficially but permanently at the insistence of an elementary school teacher, he became “Daddy.” His name had also been anglicized, much earlier, at Ellis Island, from Giovanni della Croce to John Dellacroce. Still, he was more Giovanni than John when it came to most things. Born in Toritto, Provincia di Bari, Regione di Puglia, Italy, on April 13, 1908, he died a couple of months shy of 100, on my birthday.
My father had an extraordinary life that spanned nearly a century, from the times of Theodore Roosevelt to the present day. The threads that ran through it were pluck and courage, heart and loyalty, earnestness and honesty, vigor and passion. From immigrant to student, cowboy and stone mason to journalist and entrepreneur, he lived his life to the fullest. I like to remember him the way he looks in a photograph taken c. 1926 in the “Wild West”—by his accounts, it was still wild in those days—where he rambled as a young man to nurse a broken heart. He was handsome and vibrant, wearing a cowboy hat and riding a mule, a keg and rifle slung across his saddle. The setting was a sheep ranch in Montana, one of his many gigs as he bummed across America, riding the trains as a stowaway along with the hoboes he loved to tell me about when I sat on his lap for a good story.
He loved the Apulian food he grew up on, the sweets especially. These traditional cookies from Puglia, taralli dolci, or sweet taralli (there are savory versions) were an obsession. The recipe originated with his mother, but my aunt, Nettie Messina, a talented baker, fiddled with it until her sweet taralli were even better than my grandmother’s. They’re the best and lightest I’ve ever had. She would send big boxes filled with them on his birthday and for Christmas, and if my mother didn’t ration out the cookies and then hide the box, I think he would have eaten them all at once.
Here’s to you, Daddy, wherever you are in the Great Beyond, a sweet remembrance.
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Aunt Nettie’s Sweet Love Knots (taralli dolci)
Makes 8 to 9 dozen cookies
From Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books, 2010)
5 cups unsifted flour, plus additional
1½ cups sugar (1¼ if you like it less sweet)
6 teaspoons of baking powder
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons pure vanilla
For the glaze:
1½ cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup water or milk
Equipment needed: as many baking sheets as your oven will accommodate, bakers’ parchment
1. Preheat an oven to 350°F. Line the baking sheets with parchment.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and baking powder. Cut the butter in the flour mixture as if making pie crust. If mixing by hand, make a “well” in the center of the mixture.
3. Beat the eggs with the vanilla and pour them into the well. Gradually add the flour into the eggs until it is all incorporated. Wash hands well and mix and knead the dough until smooth. You may have to add more flour until the dough is soft but workable. Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured work surface. Keep adding a little flour to the surface, as necessary, as you are shaping the dough if it sticks.
4. To form the cookies, take a piece of dough the size of a walnut and roll it with your hands on the work surface to form a log about the size of your middle finger. Then take one end of the log and place it over the opposite end so that a small hole remains in the center. Place the “love knots” on the lined cookie sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake until lightly browned, about 18 minutes. Transfer them to racks.
5. While the cookies are baking, make the glaze. In a medium bowl, whisk the confectioners’ sugar with the water until smooth. While the cookies are cooling, brush the tops with the glaze—it should have a thick consistency, as it will melt on the surface and form a thick glaze as the taralli cool.