For some of us, the holiday season means a blending of traditions from various cultures, some borrowed, some our own. We visited a bakery on the city’s south side where the owners’ Italian heritage fills the air.
Rosa Canfora welcomes me into the mouth-watering warmth of her shop on East Oklahoma. We walk past mountains of cookies and Rosa tempts me with a still-warm apple cinnamon concoction.
“Oh my son-in-law made it, it’s so good,” Rosa says.
She’s been up since 5, first preparing herself. “I never come here without makeup,” Rosa says. And then organizing her kitchen to show me how she creates buccillata, a traditional Christmas cookie from her native Sicily.
“That’s 10 pounds of flour, and then I put three pounds of sugar,” Rosa says.
This is not a project for the faint of heart or small of mixer.
“And then you put in 24 eggs,” Rosa says.
That’s two dozen eggs, followed by about a quart of milk. This batch will produce about 400 cookies. Rosa squeezes a bit of dough between her fingers. That’s how she tests it.
“You don’t want it too soft and you don’t want it too hard,” Rosa says.
It takes two strong people to haul the dough to the work table. Rosa fetches a big aluminum bowl from the walk-in frig.
“I need my figs,” Rosa says.
She’s already mashed up figs and dates, added ground almonds, folded all that together with honey. Then there’s a sprinkle of pine nuts.
“Pieces of candied fruit, chocolate chips and cinnamon and that’s it,” Rosa says.
“And that’s the traditional filling,” I ask.
“Yeah,” Rosa says.
Rosa spreads a dollop of fig filling on a plump rectangle of dough, then pinches the edges together. In a flash, she’s rolled it between her fingers to form a long snake-like rope.
“Then we cut em in little strips. And then we get a little knife and we do like a little, we work a little design in it,” Rosa says.
As she slides the first cookie sheet into a preheated oven, Rosa tells me about growing up in her grandmother’s house in a small coastal town, called Trappeto, on the coast of Sicily.
“I was three years and my grandpa died and my grandma said, do you want to come with me, do you want to stay with me. You know, my mom had so many kids, she didn’t have time for me,” Rosa says.
Her grandmother didn’t teach Rosa to bake, but she was strict and expected Rosa to work hard.
“I am what I am now, because of her,” Rosa says.
For years, verging on 30 years in the bakery business, Rosa and her husband, Carlogero, have worked different shifts. He bakes bread through the night.
“That’s his specialty, whatever you wanna call that. He loves that,” Rosa says.
Rosa works days.
“I learn as I go along, you know, I learn cakes, I learn decorating cakes. All kinds of cookies, you know,” Rosa says.
Her husband slips in through the back door. Carlogero says he won’t stay long, he’s just here to check on Rosa.
“So you doing okay? You don’t need me right,” Carlogero says.
Carlogero was 10 years old when his family left Sicily and settled in Milwaukee.
“We happened to rent a house next door to Sciortino Bakery So it was easy for me to go there after school and help the old man bake,” Carlogero says.
He graduated from watching over cookies being baked to learning the art of bread baking. I ask him about the grueling schedule, working every night in the bakery.
“You know, like any profession, if you put a passion into it, it’s easy then,” Carlogero says.
I ask how he met Rosa. At 20, Carlogero says he returned to visit his hometown.
“She happened to be a friend of my niece. She lived across the street. She caught my eye,” Carlogero says.
“Yeah. I was very young and he came to Italy and we got to know each other a little bit and we got engaged. Going to America was far. My dad didn’t like the idea, but he liked my husband, so he said okay,” Rosa says.
It’s time to pull the buccillata out of the oven. They’re fragrant and pale.
“The way they look now, they’re like a woman with no makeup, so once you put the makeup on,” Carlogero says.
Carlogero leaves Rosa to dress up the cookies. She dabs them deftly by hand with a mixture of powdered sugar and water. Rosa likes to keep it simple.
“The flavor’s going to come from the figs and the dates and all the other stuff. I just put a little bit of orange flavor on the icing,” Rosa says.
And a sprinkle of colored candied.
“People come just particularly for these. Like yesterday, a lady came. She say, could you please make me some with no sprinkle. I said, do you a little bit of cinnamon on it. She goes, that sounds very good,” Rosa says.
On Christmas Eve, after the last loaf of bread is sold, Rosa will be preparing a traditional Sicilian feast for her husband, children and eight grandchildren.
“And my kids all sleep over. My grandchildren all wake up at my house, I like that,” Rosa says