Yesterday I celebrated another trip around our sun, another ride on planet earth. This wasn’t always something that I looked forward to, but I’m grateful to say that my relationship with birthdays has evolved over this past decade into a better one. What felt like an estranged friendship for many years changed when I turned thirty and decided that I am the best person to celebrate my life, that birthdays are in fact deeply personal. That year I threw myself my first birthday party in my adult life, hosted friends and made for them an offering of food, a thank you for being a part of my world as I reflected on entering a new decade of life.
Birthdays have for me become less about acknowledgment and more about reflecting on my personal new-year. I also think about the people involved in getting me here — generations and generations of ancestors. As I’ve connected more with my ancestral work, it has also become a time of deeper love for my ancestors, gratitude for the galaxy of complex humans who are the reason I am here today living this life. My thread in the great tapestry. As I age, my rituals grow quieter, more intimate, more personal, more ordinary. As I learn more about and feel into my lineage, I find magic in everyday practices like cooking a meal, spending an afternoon in the garden, or setting the scene to host a good gathering. All things that now feel like a simply delightful way to celebrate life.
The Greatest Form Of Celebration (IMHO)
Food is central to my celebrating. A great meal is essential to honoring life. On birthdays I feel it is of utmost importance to feed the bodily vessel that which brings it the most joy, the provokes memory, that offers comfort. One of my most favorite quotes (said by Mary Beth Bonfiglio) is “your body is an altar to your ancestors”. As I reflect and hold gratitude for my life on my birthday, I ask myself, what offering do I want to make to my ancestors in thanks? Don’t my ancestors want me to revel in joy? Wouldn’t it make them happy if I were also reminded of them, or a time in my life when I was the happiest? Isn’t it their greatest pleasure to know that I am well nourished? Food holds the power to transport me to all of these experiences. It is through food that I maintain the strongest connection to my ancestors.
On The Cake: Bake It Yourself
As much as I enjoy the occasional five-sensory experience of dining out, the best meals I’ve had have been home cooked. Cooking is a big part of the final offering of food. For me, this preparation time in the kitchen is where the magic happens, where the remembrance is felt, where the ancestors are present. I feel the most connected — to myself and all that extends beyond me — when I am creating. On my birthdays, I almost always bake my own dessert. The pinnacle edible representation of the day I like to take into my own hands. It’s an ode to myself to create the thing that (quite literally) celebrates the sweetness of life.
Food Is For Sharing: A Recipe
For the past few years, I’ve been baking birthday biscotti. Not your traditional birthday treat, I know, but one that is a nod to my ancestors, a food to remember them by that brings me joy and offers comfort. For many, family recipes are a top secret thing. Or I’ve heard for some who do decide to share, they’ll conveniently leave one ingredient out. I’ll admit I debated with myself about whether or not to share this, but truly, I think the joy of something delicious is meant to be shared.
The following recipe is not revolutionary. I expect someone else’s Nonna (or great grandmother’s cousin, as Alice is to me) out there makes the same. Regardless, I think my ancestors would be happy to know that this recipe is still active and delighting taste buds.
[My great grandmother’s cousin, Alice — baker of these Almond Anise Biscotti which I’ve been making for my birthday as a way to give thanks to my ancestors.]
Alice’s Biscotti All’Anice | Anise Biscotti
*as translated by my great-grandmother
2 cups flour
1 cube butter, melted
2 tsp baking powder
1 shot whiskey or anise *I assume this means anise extract. I use about 2 tsp anise seed because that’s what’s often available near me and just grind it up a little in a mortar and pestle — they still come out delicious!)
1 cup sugar
Chopped almonds *quanto basta, as much as you want.
*I like to add a pinch of salt and a dribble of vanilla extract
From here, I’ll elaborate on my great-grandmother’s notes because they are quite abbreviated and don’t take into consideration the first-time biscotti baker.
In a mixing bowl, measure out all dry ingredients and stir together. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and add the eggs, sugar, butter, anise/whiskey, and vanilla and mix until combined. Then add the chopped almonds and stir until evenly distributed.
Divide the dough in half and with moistened hands transfer the dough onto a greased and floured baking sheet. Shape each piece into a log approximately 12” long x 3” wide.
[above: the biscotti loaves after the first round of baking.]
[above: slice the loaves at an angle into 1/2” pieces which will then be payed flat and baked for an additional ten minutes to crisp.]
Bake for 35 minutes or until the logs are firm to the touch. Remove pan from oven (keeping the heat on) and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
With a serrated knife, cut each log into 1/2” sections. Lay the slices back onto the baking sheet and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove from oven, let cool for a few minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.
[Alice’s Anise Biscotti, left, next to my grandmother’s specialty, Chocolate Biscotti — another recipe for another time, perhaps!]
My great-grandmother says they pair well with coffee or wine. I take mine with a hot cup of tea. However you choose to enjoy yours, I hope this family recipe offers some sweetness to your life this season.