Diane Alessandra grew up baking with a Sicilian grandmother who, as part of her weekly labors, made sure her husband never ate store-bought bread.
"Grandpa never ate bought bread," because her grandmother, Rose Perrello, baked twice a week, she said. "Guess who bakes the bread and pizza now," said Alessandra, The News' December Cook of the Month.
Her pizza is Sicilian style, just like grandma's, an inch of bread dough spread with a thin coat of homemade tomato sauce and a dusting of grated pecorino Romano cheese. "Grandma never put pepperoni on her pizza," or mozzarella, either.
When relatives of her husband, Jack, plan their Fourth of July party, that's the pizza they ask for, Alessandra said.
Don't even mention the possibility of using tomato sauce from a jar, or warming up a supermarket pie for dinner. "I'm a scratch person, kind of OCD," she jokes. "No bought pies walk through this door."
As the weather gets colder, though, Alessandra slips into a cookie frame of mind. In November, during time off from her job as a full-time licensed practical nurse, Alessandra starts to make batches of the traditional Italian cookies that are her pride and joy.
Given a stretch of spare time, she'll put on a little Frank Sinatra or some Christmas music, and get out her mixing bowls and cookie sheets -- baking as therapy. "Jack loves it, especially on the weekend," Alessandra said. "He's watching the football game, he smells the aroma of baking cookies, he's a happy man."
The cookies make her happy, too. When her daughter Christine was married earlier this year, Alessandra baked the entire spread of Italian cookies offered to the 300 guests. "My goal was to get them done before her shower in the spring," she said. "By Easter they were all done, frosted, frozen."
Wrapped securely and thawed promptly, no one knew the difference, she said.
For Christmas, Alessandra makes seven to 10 kinds a year, probably more than 1,000 a season, all told. "I bring them pretty much everywhere I go," she said. Her friends at the assisted living facility where she works mentioned the cookie platter after Thanksgiving. "They're like, 'We're looking forward to these cookies.' "
Her masterpiece for Christmas is called cuccidati, a Sicilian fig cookie that in Alessandra's kitchen also includes oranges, apricots, cranberries and nuts in its filling.
"The recipe has some flexibility," she said. "You can use which dried fruits and nuts you like."
Coarsely ground and steeped for days in liquor, the filling is scooped into a pastry bag, and piped onto rolled-out dough. The dough is folded over the filling and cut into pieces; Alessandra uses an inherited ravioli crimping wheel with a zigzag edge.
"The cream cheese dough is easy to work with, tender but it holds together," she said. You could fill it with fuit jam or another filling as well. "It puffs up a little bit, and becomes flaky."
Another favorite, an Italian cookie rolled in toasted sesame seeds, can be made by rolling the dough into long snakes, then chopping it up. Then the dough balls are dipped in milk and rolled in seeds.
Alessandra likes doing it the slow way, rolling each segment into a ball before the milk and sesame coats. "It's a little tedious, but I like the way they come like this," she said. "I love doing this."
Here's some of Alessandra's top Christmas cookie tips:
Do not overbake; stick to the times and test a batch that's cooled. "That's a big one," she said, especially with the Italian chocolate cookies, whose recipe can be found, along with the sesame cookie, on the News food blog, at blogs.buffalonews.com/hungryformore.
"Don't go by how they look," she said. "They'll firm up as they cool."
Measure out everything carefully before you start. You don't want to have to go to the store in the middle of a batch.
Use butter. "I believe in butter," Alessandra said. "These are cookies you're going to present to people. Besides the taste, margarine has water than can throw recipes off."
Use your freezer. Stored in tins or airtight plastic containers, in single layers between sheets of waxed paper, cookies can be stored months without suffering.
> Cuccidati Cookies
For the filling:
2 large oranges (use entire orange)
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups cran-raisins
1 1/2 cups dried apricots
1 1/2 cups dried pineapple
6 to 10 dried figs (soaked overnight in water)
2 cups nuts: pecans, almonds, walnuts
2 cups of brandy, whiskey or combination
For the pastry:
5 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cup butter, chilled and cut into pieces
6 ounces cream cheese, chilled and cut into pieces
2/3 cup ice water
For filling, grind together the fruits and nuts. You can also add any other dried fruit you like. Add liquor, mix and refrigerate, covered. (Please note that I prepare this filling up to 1 week prior to baking. The longer the filling sits, the better it tastes.)
For pastry, sift together dry ingredients first and then add butter and cream cheese. Cut into flour. The mixture will resemble cornmeal in texture. Next add ice water. Mix gently until the dough can be formed into a ball. Set aside, cover and chill.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350. Roll out dough into a rectangle.
Take filling and spoon into pastry bag. Squeeze filling the length of dough, in a line about two inches from long edge. Fold dough over filling, then cut with pastry wheel to seal edge, and cut into small segments 2 to 2 1/2 inches long, sealing edges with pastry wheel during cutting.
Repeat. One rectangle of dough will make three or four strips of cookies, depending on how thick the bead of filling.
Bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes until golden brown.
Frost with a powered sugar and milk frosting. (2 cups confectionary sugar whipped with 1/3 cup milk and a tablespoon softened butter.)
Yield: About six dozen.
Name: Diane Alessandra
Dish: Cuccidati cookies
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to-instant meal: Chicken cutlets
Guilty pleasure: New York style cheesecake