We lost Mom 7 years ago today. She loved the blooming flowers and trees, and spent endless hours in the yard planting and trimming. When we lived in Southern California, she planted succulents everywhere, a place where flowerbeds were harder to maintain due to the droughts, water restrictions and heat. Knowing I was going to move into a newly constructed home with no trees, she took a piece of her Drake Elm and nursed it for months and then gave it to me to plant in my yard. Before the construction of my house was completed, she was diagnosed with a form of cancer, a cancer so aggressive the doctors could only offer treatment to extend her life for six months, of course shocking all of us. She did get to see me move into my house, but I didn’t find the courage to plant her little tree until about a year later when it had grown a little larger and stronger. I worried it wouldn’t make it, but like Mom it has proven to be determined and resilient. Seven years later, it’s the first tree to fill with leaves when there’s just the slightest hint that Spring is on the way, almost as if she’s sending a message that she is still there swaying in the breeze watching over me.
A tradition that takes place in mid-March each year that she also loved is the Feast of St. Joseph referred to here is south Louisiana as St. Joseph Altars. At some churches or someone’s home, a line of people from the surrounding communities wait patiently to be served a plate filled, usually with a variety of Italian dishes and fried fish. Often held in school cafeterias, long tables with chairs are arranged for sharing the feast, followed by a visit to view the many baked breads, cakes and cookies placed around an altar with a statue of St. Joseph. As you exit the building a table with a couple of parishioners are stationed with the “little coveted bags” containing a variety of little Italian cookies, a plain or sometimes gold painted dried Fava bean (said to make you prosperous if you carried it in the coin section of your wallet or in a pocket), a small piece of thin, sliced, stale bread that has been blessed by the priest (meant to place in your freezer for protection against hurricanes) and finally a St. Joseph’s prayer card.
Among the little Italian cookies, were Mom’s favorite, the fig cookies as she called them, with a little sweet glaze and festive colorful sprinkles. A group of Parish ladies worked weeks before the day to make large quantities of cookies, cakes and other food as part of “the feast”.
Today I made a batch of Italian fig cookies (Cucidati) for the first time in her memory. For some reason I imagined they would be more difficult than they were to make. I had convinced myself there was some special mystery to making them. The only thing they needed was time, and fortunately I found a recipe I had saved on Pinterest. I read through the recipe and instructions on Friday evening in order to take inventory of the ingredients and make sure I had everything I needed. The dough required refrigeration after being made from 3 hours to overnight. I had already taken some butter out of the fridge anticipating making some kind of cookies. So I quickly made the dough before going to bed and placed it in the refrigerator as instructed. (See recipe link below the photo of cookies).
I had to find some dried figs and buy a small pint of orange juice, but I had the other dried fruits in my pantry. Later in the afternoon I began to chop the dried fruits and place everything into a pot to stew as instructed and then set it aside to cool. I waited about a half hour to allow the fruits to completely cool and then took out the dough as per the recipe above, and let it sit for 15 minutes. I did not deviate from the recipe, but my only suggestion would be that once you place the line of filling in the center of the dough pieces, place the tray in the refrigerator for about 15 to 20 minutes to allow the dough to firm up again. This avoids tearing and having to patch where the dough doesn’t come together when pulling the sides up to overlap over the filling. I had to bake mine about 3 minutes longer (every oven is different) to achieve a little more of a golden cookie.
A traditional St. Joseph’s altar.
Once they were all cooled and the glaze was set, I divided them up and placed batches in sealed plastic containers to bring some to my brother, give some to a couple of friends and bring a batch to Dad. Dad can’t wait for me to bring his little container to eat! This was not only Mom’s favorite, it was a family favorite.
In addition to my Annual Mothers Tea (that had to be cancelled last year, but I’m in the process of planning for early May this year), I think I’ve found a way to remember Mom during the month we lost her that she would love from this annual celebration she enjoyed so much at her Parish Church. We miss you Mom, but have many memories of you!