When Nina Barone's big Italian-American family settles in for their Thanksgiving feast, the menu starts with a traditional dish:
"Every single year since I've been born we've had sauce and ravioli as our first course for Thanksgiving dinner," said Barone, The News' November Cook of the Month. At Barone's table, that means handmade pillows of pasta stuffed with seasoned ricotta cheese, swaddled in tomato sauce that simmered all day, and dotted with meatballs.
"Then we eat a whole regular, traditional Thanksgiving dinner," Barone said. That means roasted, locally raised turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed and sweet potatoes and more, drawing heavily on Barone's subscription to the Porter Farms community supported agriculture service.
Sometimes, she admits, they have an intermission before dessert.
The pause is strategic, not only aiding digestion, but giving someone like Barone, her mother, Debbie Cimino, or her grandmother Connie Capuano time to whip up struffoli.
Struffoli are sort of the Italian answer to Timbits, little round doughnuts of rich, eggy, lemon-scented dough that puff up and crisp in hot oil. Then they're drizzled with honey sauce and rainbow-colored sprinkles.
It's a Neapolitan specialty, her grandmother's recipe. The dough could probably be made ahead of time, as long as it comes to room temperature before frying, Barone said, though she always has seen it made fresh. Though Barone likes to whip up stir-fry as well as pastas, tradition figures prominently in Thanksgiving, Christmas and Sunday menus, she said.
"I'm 100 percent Italian and so is my husband [Web designer Nick Barone]," she said. So now that the big family gatherings have moved to the Barone house, Italian food finds its place at each holiday table.
Growing up in Kenmore, where she attended Kenmore West High School, Barone enjoyed making desserts with her mother and grandmother, plus pasta sauce, and other Italian classics. "We make about 14 or 15 kinds of cookies every Christmas," using recipes gathered by all three women.
Barone started blazing her own path in the kitchen in 2003 or 2004, when, as a Canisius College undergraduate, she decided to make her own contribution to a holiday dinner. It was a rib roast with cherry gorgonzola sauce.
"The house smelled amazing, and it took about three hours to make, so it gave that feeling that something special was coming," said Barone. "I was really glad everyone liked it. It had a delicious sweet and salt combination and was just the right amount of rich and comforting."
Since then, she's avidly collected new recipes to try. "Every time I saw a recipe -- in a book, in a magazine or on TV -- that I thought looked good, I would bookmark it or write myself a note, and try it."
The marketing director for Nichols School, Barone also shares her cooking accomplishments and recipes at BuffaloFoodie.com, her food blog. She originally started it to fulfill recipe requests from friends and family members who liked something she cooked.
In Barone's kitchen, the dry-erase board beside the stove is her on-deck circle. That's where she lists new dinner contenders and other dishes she plans to make. On a recent day, it included her macaroni and cheese for a gathering of Nichols students and French onion soup for the office.
It's the perfect ending for some of the seasonal bounty Barone gets from her farm share. "At this time of year," she said, "I always make a lot of French onion soup."
For the dough:
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Zest of 1/4 lemon
1 tablespoon Limoncello
For the topping:
1 cup honey
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon colored nonpareils
3 to 4 cups canola oil
In a food processor, pulse eggs, vanilla extract and salt; add Limoncello and lemon zest, and pulse again. Add flour gradually, just until combined well enough to form soft dough.
Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead.
Divide dough into fourths; lightly roll each piece with hands to form 1/2 -inch thick rolls.
Cut dough with pastry knife or butter knife into 1/4 -inch long pieces.
Heat oil until shimmering in a deep saucepot. Bring to about 365 degrees F.
Drop in about 10-12 pieces of dough at a time and cook for 3-4 minutes. They will be done when they are a golden brown and float to the top. Using a sieve or handled colander, scoop them up and place on paper towels on a plate.
Meanwhile, add honey and sugar to a small saucepan on low heat. Warm while frying dough.
When all dough is cooked, add pieces and honey to a large bowl; toss with a large spoon to coat all pieces and add sprinkles. (Don't use colored sugar crystals, Barone said, because they'll melt.)
Pile into a serving dish or on a platter in a circle. Serve warm or at room temperature.
> CHEESE RAVIOLI
For the dough:
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour, plus more for rolling dough and dusting wax paper
6 tablespoons cold water
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Romano cheese
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
Beat eggs; add salt. Add flour gradually; then add water as you gently combine with hands until soft dough forms.
Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead. Do not overwork dough.
Roll dough out on a board to a 1/8 -inch thickness.
Drop filling in heaping tablespoons on dough, leaving an inch or two between side to side and about 3 inches of dough "above" to flap over to make pouch.
Cut off dough along the end of each row and between raviolis; fold dough over each piece and seal with a fork that has been pressed in flour.
With a cocktail fork or a knife, poke a few small holes on top of each ravioli when sealed.
Place in a box, lined with wax paper and flour. Line each new layer with wax paper and flour. Freeze until ready to use.
When cooking, bring a pot of water to a low boil. Salt.
Cook for 12-15 minutes at a low boil, or until tender and floating on top of water.
> Name: Nina Barone
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to instant meal: Pasta, like Alfredo
Guilty pleasure: Romano's Cassata cake