The Cooking School of Gram by Angela Marinelli
You’re Never Too Young to Start Cooking
It may not have official accreditations. But it should.
It may not be nationally known. Perhaps we can change that.
I started cooking with Gram at six years old. One day, the summer between Kindergarten and first grade, I packed an overnight bag and my Charlie’s Angels lunchbox for an overnight stay with Gram. Like Luke traveling to study with Yoda, I returned home two weeks later.
That first two-week stay launched my culinary school of Gram learning. What could a six year-old and a 59 year-old have in common, you ask? Yoda’s like 800 years old, and I totally would’ve hung out with him, too.
I followed Gram around, well, everywhere, but mostly in the kitchen. That’s where Gram loved to be, and that’s where I loved to be with her. Thirty-five years ago she began to teach me her ways, her secrets, her methods, everything her mother and mother-in-law taught her. From special ways to twist Italian cookies, to seasoning sauce, tricks for homemade pasta, to pies and pot roast: she completed most lessons with, “that’s how we do.”
Gram loved her sweets and she loved to bake. Her Italian cookie towers became legendary, stories of them told near and far. Stacked over a foot high and wide, with Italian candy almonds nestled in between all those cookies, when it entered the room, I think it floated. On its own. It would have had that power. It Jedi’d itself. It was glorious.
The biggest VIP at any wedding, shower, or special event, everyone waited for Gram’s Italian cookie tower. Then, like a gun at the races, people shot off to fill every purse, napkin, or MacGyver’d makeshift doggie bag at the first sighting. I failed to secure one cookie at my own wedding. My fault, too busy chatting it up with guests. Only sad shards of cookie shrapnel remained when I finally got to them.
Gram and I at her 90th birthday/Carnivale, the Italian feast before Lent where we make and eat hundreds of homemade ravioli.
The first thing Gram taught me to make? God-given, glorious cookies. It’s probably why I developed a somewhat unhealthy attachment to them, a food blankey sort of love. There are worse vices, right? Who doesn’t love a cookie? Maybe someone soulless and wrong. In my family, cookie love is in our blood.
The first cookie I made with Gram: chocolate chip. What is better than a hot, gooey chocolate chip cookie? Not much.
But Gram upgraded me to the next cookie lesson right away, my favorite Italian cookie of all time: Tarralls. I have no clue if that is the real name or how you spell them. That’s how they show up in Gram’s old recipe box. They also are named “5 Egg Cookies” in there, so your guess is as good as mine.
As with most of Gram’s “recipes,” for the ones she even has, they pretty much consist of a list of ingredients. Instructions – you’re on your own. She assumes that if you’re making her food, you know how to cook. If you don’t, good luck. If anything, you may see a line that says, “make like a pie,” or “bake til done.” Hence the need to cook with Gram to learn her food. A never-ending learning that evolved over decades.
The secret to the Tarralls isn’t as much the mixing or the baking. Although Gram will be sure to tell you that if you screw those things up your cookies won’t come out right. It’s the twisting of the dough that keeps them soft, cake like. She first taught me how to do this sometime around 1980. I still make them today.
All Gram’s cooking lessons included more than a recipe and a demonstration. She let me do it. “You gotta get your hands in there, Angela.”
She showed me how the dough should feel, because ingredients, temperature, and environment may vary. You need to adjust accordingly based on how the food should taste, feel, look, react, and respond. “How’s a recipe gonna teach you that?” she’d furrow her eyebrows and ask.
Gram giving me a scrippele lesson, showing me how to pour and cook the crepe.
Without saying a word, just by watching her work, Gram taught me that a love and respect for the food, her joy, somehow made it better. Granted, my hypothesis has yet to make the science journals. Even still, I carry no doubt about the impact of it on Gram’s cooking. If anything, over the years, the importance of this lesson has grown larger. The energy you put into something is the energy you get out. Cooking School of Gram 101. A lifelong lesson that never tires and never gets old.
The passing of this cookie proved so monumental, many of my great-aunts circled around Gram’s long, wooden, kitchen table, watching this lesson take place. They looked so proud, a little Italian in training, who would pass on the family traditions.
Gram and my great-aunts treasured few things more than knowing that the younger generations would carry on their traditions. It kept their life’s work alive. I think it gave them purpose and comfort to know that “how we do” would nourish generations to come – if passed down. Not just the food, but the stories that go along with them. As my culinary Jedi skills grew, I realized that keeping “how we do” alive ran much deeper than the food.
“How We Do” Inspires “How I Do”
Set the DeLorean to 1995. I’m the model Italian granddaughter, learning “how we do,” from a young age, so I can pass on all Gram’s awesome food, our family traditions. (Angels singing on high. Look at me go.)
Along that road, I managed to gain 100 lbs and rack up a bunch of unexplained health issues. Too many chocolate chip cookies? I did consider them a food group at that point in my life.
After 296 doctor’s visits (not really, more like 20), food allergies figure four’d me into a complete diet transformation: no wheat, milk, eggs or sugar.
What Italian can’t eat bread, pasta, cheese, milk, and eggs? Tony Soprano would wack me on general principle. Could I argue with him? And crap, what would Gram say??
Looking for sympathy (totally stupid on my part), I got more of a “Gee Ricky, sorry your Mom blew up last night,” kind of response from Gram. With a confused, “puzzled up” look, she said something like:
“No pasta? Pasta’s good for you. Who can’t eat bread? There must be some kind of pasta and bread you can eat.”
I was busy throwing a “Danger, danger, Will Robinson,” tantrum, and Gram was already thinking about what pasta and bread I could eat.
I told her about the awful food, choking down non-dairy boxed milk, scoffing at dense baked goods, and turning my lip up at flavorless food touted as healthy. “Why does healthy food have to suck,” I complained. Gram said, “So make it better, Angela. You can cook.”
As always, Gram was right. Inspired, I started with food I knew. Gram’s food. Which happens to be the most awesome food. Ever. (I’ll throwdown with anyone who challenges it.)
I swapped wheat, dairy, eggs, and refined sugar for healthier ingredients. I made it my mission to recreate it, not just into food I could eat, but into food anyone would love it eat – food that’s just as good as Gram’s. In the meantime, I lost 100 lbs., and got my health back. Maybe I was onto something?
My confidence in my food comes from my foundation of “how we do” with Culinary Yoda. We cooked together from the time I was six until she passed in 2009. For years Gram and I sat at the table, tasted my recreations, and she gave me feedback. Honest feedback.
The Cooking School of Gram closed in 2009. I am so grateful for the 31 years I attended. Even though I’ve earned formal degrees, I can honestly say, no other education can match my time with Gram. I utilize what she taught me every day. Stuff like:
“Food doesn’t wait, Angela. You do. And it doesn’t rush to get anywhere. You’re on its timetable.”
“No one wants to eat ugly food.”
“Don’t serve food until it’s ready.”
“Make it taste good.”
“Don’t give anyone anything you don’t want to eat.”
“Get your hands in there.”
“Know how it should look.”
Just some of the things Gram passed to me. Now, I share it with others. “How we do” lives on Gram, even if some of the ingredients get transformed for a healthier today.
“How We Do” + “How I Do” = a Cookbook
I have hundreds of recreated recipes, many inspired by Gram’s original ones (some written down, some not so much). I’m compiling them into a cookbook, telling the story of how Gram’s food and cooking with her, inspired me to recreate the recipes. Delicious, dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, vegan, and refined sugar-free food. Food just as good as Gram’s!
Years ago when I told Gram I planned to create healthier chocolate chip cookies she tilted her head, pursed her lips, looked a little doubtful, and said, “Ok, Ange, you let me taste them.”
Gram loved her sweets. And she didn’t like you messing with them. But I knew I could win her over. I just needed time to get the recipe right. Very supportive, Gram critiqued countless iterations over the years. Little did I know, however, that it would take 15 years until I was totally happy with this recipe, a year after Gram passed. I know she would love them. I hope you do, too.
Who says cookies without bad stuff in them don’t rock? The gluten-free version tastes great, too!
Sample Cookbook Recipe: Chocolate Chip Cookies
Dairy-free, Vegan, Refined Sugar-free, Wheat-Alternative, Gluten-free Option
1/2 cup non-dairy butter substitute (I like Earth Balance Original)
1/2 cup non-hydrogenated shortening (I like Spectrum or Earth Balance)
2/3 cup palm sugar
6 tbsp high quality light agave nectar
1/2 tsp molasses
1 ½ tbsp vanilla extract
2 1/3 cups spelt flour*
1 cup almond flour (I use Honeyville or JK brands, no blends)
3/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/3 cup dairy-free chocolate morsels
*For Gluten-free Variation:
Use 2 cups Carol’s Dairy-free Gluten-Free, all purpose pastry flour in place of the spelt flour.
Ahead of Time:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper.
Cream non-dairy butter substitute and non-hydrogenated shortening with a mixer on medium low to medium speed until fluffy. (30-60 seconds)
Add palm sugar, agave, molasses, and vanilla. Beat on medium low to medium speed until fluffy and all ingredients are well incorporated. (30-60 seconds)
Mix together dry ingredients. Fold them into batter until just incorporated. Fold in chocolate morsels.
Drop batter in tablespoon size balls on lined cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart (about 12 cookies per tray). You can use a tablespoon scoop to get a consistent size. Lightly press cookie down just slightly. Bake for 11-13 minutes or until golden brown and desired doneness.
Store in an airtight container. Makes 3 – 3 ½ dozen.
Copyright: Angela Marinelli, M.S., M.Ed., Nourishment Connection, http://nourishmentconnection.com/, 2013.
ABOUT ANGELA: After 20 years as a Marketing professional in high tech, education, and owner of her own consulting firm, Angela Marinelli now owns Nourishment Connection. A food blogger and health/cooking/food consultant, she creates dairy-free, wheat-free, vegan, gluten-free, refined sugar-free food that tastes like real food. She’s earned masters degrees in nutrition and education, and is working towards an online culinary degree from Escoffier Online International Culinary Academy. She’s compiling a cookbook that will tell the story of cooking with Gram, learning about food allergies, and recreating recipes for healthier, delicious food. Here’s to getting published!
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