When Mary Ann Improta was a little girl, Good Friday meant going to Niagara Falls to spend the day with her grandmother, Theresa Scalzo.
Scalzo was from the Italian region of Calabria, and she carried out a Lenten tradition that was part cookie-making, part religious fellowship. She would make a batch of faintly sweet cookie dough and use it to sculpt a doll-like figure, topped with a cross and complete with "swaddling clothes." It was centered around a hard-boiled egg.
After the doll was decorated with icing, Grandma Scalzo would take Mary Ann visiting friends with the pupa con uova (Easter doll, or literally, "doll with egg"). "We would put a blanket around it," remembered Improta, The News' April Cook of the Month.
"Then we would go to each of her friends' houses" -- companions from the old country, who all lived within walking distance. "A slice would be cut off and everybody would share it, for this event of Easter."
Today, Improta has her own pupa con uova tradition. On Good Friday her grown daughter comes to Improta's Tonawanda home with three of her girlfriends, and all of their children. Then Grandma Improta gets to make smaller, individual-serving pupa con uova, with them -- almost enough for a village.
"On Good Friday, we are 20 in here," Improta said of the crowd. Together, they make 90 of the smaller pupa, each with its hard-boiled egg tucked under a cookie-dough cross and iced. Everybody gets one, Improta said, and she takes them to work.
She has worked as a phlebotomist for Millard Fillmore Hospital, then Kaleida Health, for nearly 40 years, so by now her office mates know the seasons of Improta's baking, and they are waiting for their pupa.
Improta and her husband, John, have been married 43 years, and raised two children, Tara and John Jr. After decades of working at Buffalo restaurants, including the Cloister, John works as a food director for AVI Food Systems.
To this day, the Improtas' home is the center of the family's Easter celebrations.
With some help from family members, Mary Ann Improta turns out an Easter feast that usually includes Italian wedding soup or pasta with fresh marinara from her own home-canned tomatoes. Then comes the leg of lamb.
After the butcher debones it, Improta stuffs it with parsley, cheese, bread crumbs and seasonings. "Then I roll it up, like a roulade, and tie it," she said. "I put olive oil and fresh lemon on it, and I stuff the outside with garlic. It's wonderful."
She also makes braided Italian bread crusted with sesame seeds on pans that are a tradition themselves. The battered metal baking sheets and loaf pans were owned by Maria Agro, her father's mother, who came from Sicily. By now they have the patina of age and use, but they are irreplaceable -- virtually nonstick, she said.
Even the big bowl for mixing bread dough is third-generation. The vat, which can hold up to 10 pounds of flour, is "all bent, but I would not think of making my bread dough, pizza dough in anything else. I guess I have a superstitious thing it would not come out if I didn't," Improta said. "That must be the Sicilian in me."
Her mother, Kay Agro, still cooks at 86, Improta said. Without her and mother-in-law Carm Improta, she couldn't have become the cook she is today, she said.
They thought ahead to feed their families, and thrived on the work of feeding their loved ones. Her cooking is her therapy, Improta said -- which explains her downstairs freezer. It's crammed with about 40 apple pies, plus red raspberry, peach, blackberry and mixed berry pies. Ask her if the crusts are homemade, and she gives you a look. "I never bought crust in my life."
That's just the way she works, daughter Tara said. "She'll call me exhausted from work, and say 'I'm going to relax now, and make a batch of cookies.' "
"That is my relaxation! I could be dead on my feet, but this is my passion," Improta said.
"I love cooking; I love baking. That's just the way I am."
> Pupa con Uova (Easter Dolls)
10 heaping tablespoons vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
6 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup whole milk
16 hard-boiled eggs
8 to 12 cups of flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix shortening, sugar and beaten eggs in large bowl until creamy. Add vanilla and milk. Beat well. In a small bowl, mix baking powder and 4 cups flour, and add to creamy mixture. Mix thoroughly.
Transfer mix to a large bowl and add more flour, stirring, until mix is not sticky. Use just enough flour to make the dough rollable; there may be leftover flour.
Take a handful of dough, about 1 cup, and roll into a log. Make a curl with one end, then stand the hard-boiled egg on end on the curl. Wrap the rest of the rolled dough around the egg, creating a "nest," and pinch the end to the dough to hold in place. Roll another 1/4 cup of dough into a log, break it in two and use those pieces to make a cross over the egg; smooth the ends into the dough base.
Repeat until you have used all the eggs. Place dolls on greased cookie sheets and bake for 25 minutes, until dough looks golden. (Look at the dough closest to the egg. If it still looks raw, continue baking for another 5 minutes.)
When done, remove dolls and place on wire rack to cool to the touch, about 50 minutes, before frosting. Apply frosting liberally and sprinkle with nonpareils.
2 pounds confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/4 cup half and half
Pastel nonpareils, for decorating
Mix all ingredients by hand until all lumps are gone from the sugar and frosting is smooth.
Cook's note: Make sure to frost the cookie cross on top of the egg. Then sprinkle with pastel colored candies.
Name: Mary Ann Improta
Dish: Pupa con Uova (Easter Dolls)
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to dish: Spaghetti with zucchini and garlic
Guilty pleasure: My own lasagna