Tag Archives: Cooking

The Official State Cookie of New Mexico!

Biscochitos - fresh out of the oven and on my dining room table!

Biscochitos – fresh out of the oven and on my dining room table!

Biscochitos!!!  Say this word to any Mexican and they will immediately begin to drool!  I kid you not!

These cookies are some of the best you will ever taste.  They are SO good that the New Mexico legislature named them the official state cookie in 1989!  Of course, the cookies go further back when the Spanish brought the recipe over from Spain to Mexico many moons ago…

My New Mexico Zuniga family makes the best biscochitos ever.  No lie…I always look forward to having a few at our family reunions…that is, if I can get to them in time!  They are in high demand and you really have to grab one when you can or they are gone in a flash!  Both my cousins Nelinda (aka Danda) and Hortencia (aka Wiro) each have their own unique recipes of this delicious cookie.

I’ve been doing a little research into the ingredients and decided to give this one a try for my annual cookie swap party.  I always make Mexican Wedding Cake cookies and one other in case a friend comes to the party and doesn’t have time to make cookies.  This year I decided on biscochitos as my “one other.”

Ingredients for my biscochitos...except for the cloves...I decided not to use those...

Ingredients for my biscochitos…except for the cloves…I decided not to use those…

One of the main ingredients in the recipe is lard.  Yep, LARD!  As my cousin Danda always says…when people see that the recipe takes one pound of lard, they get a little scared of these cookies!  I’ve seen a number of variations to this cookie but substituting lard for anything else is a no-no.  One of my cousins uses cloves in her recipe but I opted not to use this in mine.  One uses brandy in hers while my other cousin does not.  It’s interesting how a recipe can vary.  I decided on using the brandy and I can tell you…wow!!!  What a great flavor!

So let’s get started…

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Sift the 6 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon of salt into a bowl, and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together 2 cups of lard and 1 1/2 cups sugar until smooth. Mix in 1 teaspoon of anise extract (I over poured a bit), and beat until fluffy. Stir in 2 eggs, one at a time. Add the sifted ingredients and 1/4 cup of brandy, and stir until well blended.
  3. Roll dough into balls.
  4. Mix together the 1/4 cup of sugar and cinnamon; roll the balls in the mixture.
  5. Place cookies onto baking sheets and gently press down on the mixture so they aren’t perfectly round.
  6. Bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the bottoms are lightly browned.

Que bueno!!!  Here are a few photos of the prep work in a slideshow!

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La Storia…Birmingham’s Italian Community Exhibit

IMG_7794When I first moved to Birmingham in 1980, I was asked by several people if I were Italian.  I would say “no, why?” …and the person asking would say something like, “well, you have such dark eyes and dark hair.”  I had no idea at the time that there was a large Italian community in Birmingham and that this community has been present since the turn of the last century.

IMG_7807About a month ago, I received an invitation to attend a media event at Vulcan Park and Museum for an exhibit called “La Storia – Birmingham’s Italian Community.”  This exhibit tells the story of Italian immigration to Birmingham from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century.  Naturally, I was intrigued and anxious to learn more.  So on Thursday, Nov 13th, we gathered in the Linn-Henley Gallery and heard incredibly touching stories by Dr. Phillip Ratliff, Vulcan Park and Museum Director of Education and Mary Jo Gagliano, Chair of the Exhibit Steering Committee.  The gallery was filled with photos, storyboards and artifacts from the Birmingham Italian community – pulled together by the Italian American Heritage Society.  I couldn’t get enough of this exhibit!!!

IMG_7795We quickly heard where the Italian community settled in Birmingham and how quickly it grew. The population was at about 130 in 1890 and grew to over 2,000 by 1920, settling mainly in Thomas and Ensley (steelworkers), Blocton (coal mining), and East Lake (farming).  As is the case with most immigrant stories, the Italian immigrants were looked down on and took the lowest paying positions.  Because of this, they formed their own close-knit communities building their own churches and schools.  The Vatican sent Father John B. Canepa to Birmingham to help the community build three churches.  In fact, he preached his first sermon at Our Lady of Sorrows church in Italian when he arrived in 1904.  The Catholic faith was an integral part of their lives and continues to be today.

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Short explanation of St. Joseph altars

Another story that really peaked my interest had to do with religion and was the history of the St. Joseph altars.  I have to admit, when I heard “altars,” it had me thinking about the Day of the Dead altars from the Mexican community.  Mary Jo shared a different type of altar story with us and as a Catholic, I was surprised I had never heard of this tradition before.  Each year on March 19th,  the Feast of St. Joseph, Italian families prepare special foods to place on altars in their own homes. This tradition came from Sicily when after a serious drought, the Sicilian people prayed to their patron Saint Joseph for rain.  When the rains came, they pledged to distribute food to the less fortunate.  The tradition continues today and many believe that having a St. Joseph’s altar can bring good fortune!

I wondered why Vulcan Park and Museum would be hosting this exhibit and found out quickly that the statue (Vulcan) was designed by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Moretti.  In addition, the stone tower where Vulcan currently stands was crafted by Italian stonemasons when the statue was moved to Red Mountain 75 years ago.  The impact of the Italian immigrant community is felt all around us in our city beginning with the of the most visible icons – Vulcan.

As I listened to these stories, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the state of the current Hispanic immigrant community in Alabama. The struggles and yearning to draw acceptance is a common thread to these communities.  It’s common with any newcomer.  I had a chance to speak one on one with Mary Jo after the tour and she shared a few more personal stories that re-emphasized this point.  We both agreed how important it is to tell our stories and keep them alive.  We have so much to learn from one another…

This exhibit will run through September 2015 and there is a small admission fee for non-Vulcan Park members.  Along with the exhibit, there are a number of events that will be featured through next June.  I’m particularly interested in the March 12th Cooking Southern Italian – An Evening in a Sicilian Kitchen, where Mary Jo Tortorigi Gagliano of La Tavolo Sicilian cooking school and Chef Vizzina of The Vizzina Group will demonstrate techniques of Sicilian cooking.  If it’s about food, it’s going to be good!  Admission is $10 for this event.  May 31st will feature a Sunday Afternoon Tour of Italian Catholic Churches along with two cemeteries dedicated o Italian immigrants.  This event is $30 and will be presented by Dr. E. E. Campbell and world-renowned sculptor, Signoro Carlo Roppa.  There are several other events that can be viewed on the Vulcan Park and Museum website.  I hope I can get to all of them!

Meanwhile…here are a few shots from the exhibit…

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Dr. Phillip Ratliff, Director of Education at Vulcan Park and Museum leads the tour of the La Storia exhibit.

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Mary Jo Gagliano, Chair of the La Storia Exhibit Steering Committee added personal stories during the tour.

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Dr. Phillip Ratliff explains the importance of Father John B. Canepa to the Birmingham Italian community.

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Sculpture of Father John B. Canepa

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The significance of religion – the Roman Catholic faith – was a feature of the tour.

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Quotes of prominent Birmingham Italian Americans are featured throughout the exhibit.

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Italian neighborhoods in Birmingham are explained in this section of the exhibit.

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Documents of new immigrants are a part of the exhibit.

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A name that is well known around Birmingham is Brunos…this part of the exhibit showcases the different professions Italian Americans have had over the years.

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Outside the exhibit is a recognition piece dedicated to the Italian American members of the community who contributed to this exhibit. Tina Verciglio Savas (pictured here) remarked that it was like reading her high school yearbook – she recognized so many names.

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Photographing a photo of Giuseppe Moretti, the Italian immigrant sculptor who created Vulcan, the largest cast iron statue in the world that stands prominently over Birmingham from Vulcan Park and Museum.