Gallo Family Recipes
My mom’s sauce, Ann’s Sauce, is how I christen a new kitchen stove. The inevitable splatters of sweet red seep into the stovetop, down through the oven, and into the floor. My kitchen floor. The first shopping list is always the same: two medium onions, two cans of San Marzano puréed tomatoes, a bottle of olive oil, a head of garlic. Back at my apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, where I am living while interning in New York City for the summer, I pluck six large leaves of basil and a branch of rosemary from the forest on my window sill. I retrieve glass jars of sage, oregano, and thyme that my dad dried the previous summer from a to-be-unpacked, cardboard box transported from my previous kitchen, and place them on the counter. Finally, I remove the square of packing tape from the metal spout embedded in the side of my box of cane sugar.
Too late into chopping the onion I remember to turn on the cold water to carry the stinging away from my eyes and down the sink. My dad, Joe, always uses the onion goggles that Ann got for me one Christmas to protect himself. I leave those at home for him. Needing only three-quarters of an onion per tomato can, I reserve the remaining half an onion for the next day’s dinner.
The generous serving of olive oil coating the bottom of my saucepan begins to sizzle. This olive oil comes from a moderately sized, glass bottle – a dramatically scaled-down version of the massive tin vessel that houses the substance in my parents’ pantry. My seasoned chef’s knife scrapes the diced onion into the oil, following quickly by two halves of a garlic clove, crushed from the removal of the clove’s skin. I stir. Pinches of salt and pepper disperse to coat the beige mosaic. Cooking onions smell like Thanksgiving stuffing and homemade pizza.
My can opener is an extra from Ann’s kitchen. It doubles as a bottle opener. When my family moved full-time into our summer home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts after I graduated from a suburban high school 40 minutes outside of Boston, we found ourselves with three of every kitchen utensil. Ann and I dedicated several hours of a mild, early summer afternoon after my freshman year to accumulating a beginner’s kitchen arsenal of tools, including a whisk, slotted spoon, and spatula. We packed them like Tetris blocks into a cardboard file box that my dad then drove to meet me in New York.
A second wave of the cooked onions’ aroma alerts me to their impending translucence. I hasten my opening of the puréed tomato cans. Someday, I will live longer than six months in a single kitchen and feel confident enough to purchase my own food mill – then I will be able to buy diced and whole canned tomatoes. San Marzano is the only brand I will ever use.
I crush two palms-full of each dried herb into the pan and sprinkle in the finely chopped, fresh rosemary. Sweet smells of summer in the Berkshires of Massachusetts fill my nostrils, carried by warm steam, and I see the infinite shades of green and purple and white and yellow that weave together across the Cobble hill and yards of our little valley. Stir. Liquid tomatoes follow, not quite fluid enough to produce a smooth surface. I rinse the cans with warm water and pour the watered-down coating into the pot as well. Puréed tomatoes require extra liquid. But not too much. The basil I tear in next is always fresh; the silky leaves will breathe in tomato and out flavor throughout the coming hour of simmering. A palm-full of cane sugar, then a little more for good measure, follows, ready to tame the tomatoes’ acid.
A mesh screen to guard against splatters is also too bulky for my two boxes of kitchen supplies, so I tent a large piece of tin foil and balance it atop the pot. Splatters escape either end of the tent on occasion, and that’s okay. Once large bubbles are contentedly bursting on the Sauce’s surface, I lower the heat to a simmer and breathe in the essence of home. The smell also carries odors of dark wooden dining tables, kept rich by a special cleaner in a red spray bottle, and I feel the cool touch of my silver napkin ring engraved with F.G. on my fingers. Ann likes to squeeze her slightly lighter and smaller ring in her eye socket between her eyebrow and cheek like a pirate, which used to drive her mother nuts. I can never seem to do it with mine. Candlelight casts flickering shadows across my plate and illuminates my sisters’ faces across from me. The meal is one of silent smiles.
Straining the cooked Sauce (since I don’t have a food mill) takes a large spoon, ladle, or rice paddle and medium sieve I use for everything, from sifting flour to straining pasta. An appropriately sized receptacle remains impossible to find. Sauce dribbles down the flat edges of my improvised vessel – a tall, square Tupperware container. I smear it with my finger, spread it across my tongue, and allow the taste to fill my soul. Limp onions, soggy basil, and powdered herbs go into the trash. Two weeks' supply of Sauce fill four to five small, plastic Ziploc bags destined for the freezer, with a portion and a half left in a glass Pyrex dish for my first dinner. The smell will linger into the evening.
Siri, call Ann Gallo home. I sit at my kitchen table as the phone begins to ring.
Ann used to make two types of tiramisu: one “normal” with espresso for the adults, and one with Nesquik chocolate milk and extra cocoa powder for my sisters and I (the kids). Both were served in tall, glass bowls, circular and rectangular respectively, that allowed us to marvel at the uniform layers which together comprised one of the best desserts in the world.
The ingredients are simple. As Ann recently proclaimed, following a flurry of collective compliments mumbled between mouthfuls of decadence: It’s just mascarpone, guys. Fourteen ounces of mascarpone. That, along with two egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks, and four egg yolks beaten with 150 grams of confectioners’ sugar – all folded together. Eggs for the best tiramisu come from our flock of chickens, raised with love, innovative names, and lots of kitchen scraps. The different sizes and colors that the eggs come in is part of the charm. Ann takes care of the chickens; they’re her chickens.
I had vertigo one Thanksgiving when I was tasked with making the tiramisu. As I began laying down the alternating layers of savoiardi biscuits dipped in fresh espresso, mascarpone cream filling, and grated chocolate, I felt like I was floating above myself, seeing the warm glow of the kitchen lights cast across the marble countertop, listening to Ann and my sisters chatting contentedly at the kitchen table from inside a tank of water several rooms away. Tiramisu is a labor of love – you need to be in the moment to make it taste just right.
As with most family foods, tiramisu always seems better when my mom makes it. The dessert seems to taste better, of course, made from the tried and true recipe of the Silver Spoon Italian cookbook. But, more tangibly, Ann always manages to coax the brittle savoiardi into absorbing just a little more moisture than I can. I learned my method directly from her, but I can’t seem to get it right. The key, she told me recently, is to dip each savoiardi biscuit into the espresso on both sides, but not to let it soak for more than a second. The moisture comes from the espresso, not the cream. The three, or better twelve, hours of refrigeration between her tiramisu’s preparation and consumption are also critical to its transformation from an assemblage of layers into a single dessert of creamy filling and tender
The grated chocolate and generous sprinkling of cocoa powder that top the final mascarpone cream layer complete this Italian, specialty dessert. I have always preferred Gallo-made tiramisu, both because of the subtle flavor of home that infuses it, and because many restaurants and Italian bakeries confuse the espresso flavor by adding rum to further moisten the dessert. Plus, when the still over half-full dish returns to the fridge after our first helping of homemade tiramisu, several days of sweet cream and coffee for breakfast, lunch, and dinner ensue.
I love to sit at the kitchen table and watch Ann think through the recipe that she has followed hundreds of times, sometimes rising to help with the exhausting manual labor of beating the egg yolks, and certainly to help “clean up” any extra savoiardi by using them to scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl. The creaks of the table leaves as I lean into my perched elbow mix with the rhythmic sounds of metal whisk striking against the metal bowl. Ann wears her uniform: slouchy, blue jeans, cuffed at the bottom, indoor Birkenstocks, and an Everlane t-shirt. The warm embrace of espresso lingers in the air, carrying traces of chocolate and apricot. The sunlight bathing the kitchen tastes like the wild thyme that paints the grassy hills around our Berkshire house each summer. It warms my face just enough to be comfortable. Home, like this, is comfortable.
Nanny’s Pineapple Whipped Cream Cake
Nanny must have found her Pineapple Whipped Cream Cake recipe on the back of a pineapple can as a homemaker in the 1960s. Pure fat, dairy, and sugar, the recipe is mindlessly easy. Somewhere in his bimonthly updates to his parents about the grandchildren, Joe apparently let slip that pineapple was one of my sister Phoebe’s favorite fruits, so that each time we made the trek from New York or Massachusetts down to the Sunshine State, a glorious cake awaited us (along with a jar of Pop Pop’s biscotti and ice cream sandwiches in the freezer, because kids love ice cream). All these sweets presented by our diabetic grandmother.
Though Ann refuses to visit Joe’s parents in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida anymore, Nanny’s Pineapple Cake is one of her favorite desserts, and she demands I prepare it for her birthday each year. We have spent Ann’s summer birthdays at our weekend home in the Berkshires since this tradition began, and Ann and Joe now live there full-time. My parents have owned the little white house with its big red barn since 1999, but the town still calls it the Reber House, after the General who took residence there for over fifty years before we arrived.
Thus, each June, I faithfully return from the Big Y supermarket with two eight-ounce blocks of cream cheese (reduced fat, as the recipe so healthfully instructs), Highlawn Farm heavy cream (produced on an idyllic hillside two towns over), lady fingers (usually only attainable by asking directly at the grocery store bakery counter for two packages from their freezer), and two small cans of crushed pineapple. Like the interior of Nanny’s Floridian condo, the cake is beige. Beige is also Ann’s and Phoebe’s favorite color for food – mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, polenta, and rice are their special kind of food heaven.
Each time I measure the sugar into the cream cheese, to be beaten together with a handheld mixer from the 1990s, I engage in the internal battle of whether to skimp on the measurement for the sake of health and peace of mind, or to load it in as Nanny surely did awaiting her grandchildren’s arrival each year. I usually skimp. Nanny doesn’t make Pineapple Cake for us anymore when we do visit, which is rare. It has been a decade since the German-Irish-Italian pair ventured north to see the kiddos. Instead, as we’ve grown older, they’ve continued to sit at their pristine, white kitchen table next to the sliding glass door that stays closed because It’s too cold outside!, and lament to Joe over the phone about how they never get to see us anymore and barely remember what we even look like.
When I asked Joe, sitting on our Reber House screened in porch last summer, how Nanny and Pop were really doing, and how he was really doing, he apologized that they stopped being real grandparents to us so early. He said that he’s been trying to come to terms with their deaths as parents to him for years. That he and his sister, my Aunt Susan, work not to resent their parents’ lack of empathy as the elderly couple refuse professional care and lifestyle changes through falls down the stairs and into the front bushes, over-age-eighty driving down the Florida expressways, and refusals to follow up on oncologist appointments. There’s always something going wrong down in Palm Beach Gardens, and, ever the fix-it guy, Joe finds the space in his family, work, and personal life to go down and repair the damage.
I whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks before folding it into the cream cheese, along with the vanilla and one can of pineapple, strained into the sink before its addition. Phoebe and I went with Joe in January to visit Nanny and Pop. No longer driven by the excitement for indulgent desserts of our childhoods, Phoebe and I dutifully awoke with Joe at 8:00 each morning of the visit, ate a real breakfast in the Marriott cafe room on the ninth floor, and drove down the PGA Boulevard, past the security guard across from the manmade pond, along the courses of the PGA National Golf Club, through streets of identical condos with their screened-in back patios, and into a visitor parking spot to eat a second breakfast at 517 Prestwick Circle. There, as we picked at meager bowls of cornflakes and strawberries, pretending it was our first meal, we replied to questions about the weather, our hotel, Ann, and school that we had answered during previous minutes or days. We counted down the hours until lunch, when Joe would set us free to the beach while he stayed behind to attend to matters of managing Nanny’s diabetes and Pop’s rental properties in Connecticut. If we stayed for lunch, it was cold cut sandwiches. No cream cheese.
Pineapple Whipped Cream Cake takes its final shape in a spring form pan, lined with lady fingers and filled with two layers of cream cheese, separated by a thin barrier of more lady fingers. Atop I spread the second can of drained pineapple, a mellow sunshine landscape of mountain peaks. Joe always takes a picture of me with the completed masterpiece to send to Pop for him to print and hang in the garage. Once they put a picture up, they don’t take it down. My life, from when they stopped visiting, around fifth grade, through last year’s cake, is displayed in still images on printer paper taped around the mildew-y garage and spotless kitchen. So are my sisters’ and cousins’. Nanny and Pop love having grandkids and showing the pictures to anyone who comes by the house. They’ve just never quite figured out how to be grandparents.
Each birthday, Christmas, and Easter for as long as I can remember, my parents and each of my sister’s and I have received a carefully selected Hallmark greeting card and monetary gift in a pastel envelop signed Two kisses from Florida. Since high school, the writing of the supplemental note within each card has changed from Nanny’s loopy handwriting to Pop Pop’s jagged scrawl. I used to imagine Nanny spending hours in the pharmacy card aisle, picking out the perfect design and punchline for each distant granddaughter. When she was last down there several years ago, my cousin was in charge of purchasing that year’s Easter cards. And this Christmas, I received the same card as last year, with the enclosed check featuring Joe’s blue pen handwriting and address stamp in the corner. Joe is also in charge of transferring the money from Pop’s account to his own to reimburse himself for the gifts.
A serving of Pineapple Whipped Cream Cake is measured by ladyfingers: one finger is for the health-nut guest who clearly doesn’t understand the importance of this dessert, two fingers is for the controlled eater who will probably go back for a third anyway (or else nibble off the other plates), and three is for the Gallo who knows that we only eat this masterpiece about once every year. And that you can’t get it anywhere else, including Nanny’s house.