Pizzelle, piazelle or pizzele. However you spell it, to Italians, there is no feast without them.
Another holiday season is approaching, and with it will be stacks of gorgeous golden pizzelle. As we bite into this crispy confection and gorge on three or four biscuits before dinner even begins, we should take a minute and consider what this cookie has meant to families for millennia.
The pizzelle’s often misspelled, mispronounced name, comes from the Italian word “pizze” meaning “round” and “flat”. Many other cultures have adopted versions of the thin cookie and renamed it accordingly. The Belgians have the lukken, and the Norwegians call it krumkake. But the central Italian region of Abruzzo is credited with creating the first pizzelle, and on a grander scale, what is thought to be the world’s first cookie.
Centuries ago, families would have pizzelle irons customized with their family crests or other meaningful designs. The irons would be passed down for generations. Modern day pizzelle makers are still called irons because the first ones were just that — metal irons forged by skilled blacksmiths. The irons became a popular wedding gift, since they could be personalized with the couple’s initials.
But how did pizzelle come to dominate Italian festivals and holidays?
According to legend, in 700 BC, snakes had infested the south, central town of Colcullo. Local shepards appealed to the god Apollo for help. His advice was to capture and domesticate the snakes by draping them around his statue before releasing them into the wild again. The advice supposedly worked, and with the snakes banished, the townspeople celebrated by eating pizzelle. Eventually Christian gods were favored over Greek gods. Apollo became Saint Domenica and modern day touches like fireworks were added to the annual spring celebration. To this day, pizzelle are a symbol of the Festival of the Snakes, now known as the Feast Day of San Domenico.
Pizzelle have a more prominent role in a separate tradition held annually in the town of Salle, located in the Italian province of Pescara. A July feast is held to honor Beato Roberto, a 12th-century monk. As the feast begins, villagers bring food to into town and some people attach pizzelle to tree branches and parade down the street with them as an offering.
And so were planted the seeds of eating pizzelle at significant moments in life — a trend that for Italians carries through to this day. Christmas and Easter continue to be the most popular time for pizzelle sales and baking in Italy, the United States and other countries with large Italian populations.
Today, nearly every family with Italian heritage has pizzelle traditions they carry on. It might not be in the form of a monogrammed family iron. But maybe it’s having the long-standing argument over whether vanilla or anise is best (for the record, anise all the way!). Maybe it’s how thin or thick they’re made. Maybe it’s the plate they’re served on. Or maybe the tradition is the person that makes them.
My grandmother, Gin, used to love receiving tin coffee cans, the large size. Not because she loved coffee, but because she loved storing her pizzelle in the perfectly-sized, tough-wearing tins. In her baking prime, she had a basement full of cans brimming with pizzelle waiting to be doled out.
Visitors from out of town? A tin for you.
Birthday? A tin for you.
Death in the family? A tin for you.
Holy Communions, weddings or holidays? Dear God. She would be in the kitchen for weeks stocking up.
I never got the chance to make pizzelle alongside her, but I did keep her recipe and learn from my aunt the secrets of perfect pizzelle making. (Hint: There aren’t too many.) The classic Italian cookies are incredibly easy to make. All you need is patience and a lot of friends and family to help eat your more than 8 dozen pizzelle — this recipe is made for sharing!
Gin would just give you a can full of pizzelle if she was alive today, but I know she would be thrilled that I’m passing along her recipe, so yet another generation can enjoy this delicious age-old symbol of Italian celebration.
Gin’s Perfect Anise Pizzelle recipe
Makes about 8 dozen+
Time: about 3 hours
- 1 dozen eggs
- 1 3/4 cups Mazola Oil
- 3 cups sugar
- 6 1/2 – 7 cups flour
- 2 tbsp anise seeds
- 3 tsp pure anise oil
- In a large bowl, on slow to medium speed, beat eggs. Add oil. Continue to beat. Add sugar. Continue to beat.
- Slowly add flour and mix until combined.
- Add anise seeds and oil. Beat another 30-45 seconds or until seeds are distributed.
- Make sure the pizzelle iron is hot. If using standard iron, spray with cooking spray. Use a brush to work into the grooves of the iron. If using non-stick iron, no need to spray.
- Spoon about 1 tbsp of batter into the center of each cookie mold. Press mold together and leave for about 15 seconds. Check pizzelle for color. They should be golden brown. It too light, press mold down for another 10 seconds. Repeat until desired color achieved. I like might pretty light, so 15-20 seconds usually does it.
- Carefully remove from iron using a dull knife or small spatula.
- Place finished pizzelle on cotton tablecloth covered table to cool.
- Repeat until all the batter is used up.
- Store in tin cans, boxes, Tupperware or whatever you prefer. Cookies will store for quite a while — that is, if they don’t get gobbled up immediately.
- Mangia! (That’s eat in Italian.)