TOPSFIELD - On a sunny Saturday earlier this month, Anthony Pascetta is working outside maneuvering a 10-pound cast-iron griddle with 2-foot-long handles over flames in his gas grill. Fortunately, the weather obliges. The five-hour project produces about 10 dozen thin pizzelle, the waffle-like cookies that are an Italian tradition at Christmas.
For the past three years, Pascetta, 53, a health teacher in Malden, has made the holiday treats, which he brings to his mother’s home in Highland Falls, N.Y. The cookies will be featured on holiday dessert platters on Christmas day and dozens will be given to family members.
While most modern electric pizzelle irons are operated indoors and turn out round cookies, this one makes 3 1/2-by-7-inch rectangles. The iron dates back to 1938 and was made for his grandmother, Domenica Catalano, by a local blacksmith in San Valentino, her village in Abruzzi, Italy. The tradition was to engrave initials in the center of the grid, so you can see DC and tiny wheat plants also etched into the iron. Many years after his grandparents and parents settled in the Hudson River Valley in New York, Pascetta’s grandfather Luigi would steady the iron over the gas stove-top in the kitchen. In Italy, his grandparents made pizzelle in the fireplace.
When his grandparents died, the iron sat untouched in Pascetta’s mother Maria’s home. “A lot of years went by when pizzelle making never happened,’’ he says. Four years ago he inquired about the griddle’s whereabouts and the following year he became the family’s pizzelle maker.
He follows his grandmother’s basic formula: For every egg, he adds 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and about 5 tablespoons of flour. The only instruction he has is that the batter should be “not too thick and not too runny,’’ he says. “It’s so ambiguous, but it’s what they all say,’’ he says, referring to the advice he received from his mother and a few cousins in Canada.
This year he added anisette, the licorice-flavored liqueur, to the batter. “My grandmother used to use it,’’ he says. Depending on the cook, pizzelle can be flavored with vanilla or almond extract, lemon or orange rind, anise flavoring, or whiskey.
On this Saturday, Pascetta’s routine is interrupted every so often when a pizzelle sticks to the crevices of the old iron. He has to pry the delicate cookie from the grid with a fork. The finished cookies go into a foil-lined box, which is kept in a cool, dry place until Pascetta and his wife, Margie, make the drive to his mother’s home on Christmas Eve.
After church on Christmas, he says, people come to visit and the cookie platters come out. After dinner, there are more guests and more cookies. His mother used to bake other family favorites such as almond crescents, whiskey balls, and buttery rounds brushed with honey, but Margie now makes most of the sweets. “About five years ago, I began taking over for Anthony’s mom,’’ she says. She makes chocolate chip cookies, thumbprint cookies filled with jam, and chocolate coconut meringues.
Pascetta likes using this 73-year-old pizzelle iron. “It makes me really happy to continue the tradition of what my grandmother did in Italy,’’ he says. When he arrives at his mother’s home bearing the beloved treats, he probably feels a little like Santa.