Cook this: Nonna Gemma’s buttery, salty French toast

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I miss my grandmother. It still feels weird to talk about her in the past tense, that she doesn’t “exist” anymore. I don’t like writing that she “was” a big part of my life; she still is. She helped raise me. She taught me to knit and hand stitch in her sewing room. She taught me to pick out good produce at the market, and cook it like a pro. She made outfit after outfit for me, including the veil I wore on my wedding day. She gave me crap for my ripped jeans, asking if they needed mending, and telling me I looked ridiculous. She always started phone conversations by asking if I’d eaten (no, it’s not some Italian joke, she legit asked every time), and how Marley, my dog, was going. After she’d told me off for not answering my phone earlier in the day (sorry Nonna, I’ve been at work. “Why?!” was her response, most of the time – I could never tell if she was serious or not).

Anyway, I married a teacher, so I observe the comings and goings of the school terms. With the mention of the school term about to end, a memory filled my head and took over for a second, like one of those crazy movie flashbacks… I was a primary school aged kid again, at Nonna’s house. I’d usually stay at her house a few nights every school holidays, so we could just hang out together and do stuff that mum wouldn’t let me do. I was sitting at the bench in the kitchen, on the wooden stool you can see in the picture below, where we had breakfast together, watching her cook French toast for us. And I felt my soul crack a little. It’s cracking again right now, as I type this.

Nonna would work SO intently at her little stove top, making sure our breakfast was just right. Everything had to be perfect for her grand children, especially the food. Our favourite breakfast was French toast, made with thick, fresh Italian bread, cooked in an absolutely ludicrous amount of butter, with more than a sprinkle of salt. It was always perfectly crispy and golden without ever burning. She was a master, really.

Yes, it’s indulgent, and no, it’s not going to benefit your health to eat this regularly. But sometimes when your soul is crying out for a hug, comfort food is where it’s at. Here’s my best attempt to re-create Nonna’s French toast.

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It was pretty simple – a few eggs and milk whisked together, dip the bread in (I went a la Nonna and used a loaf of Italian bread, bought from the Preston market, sliced myself with the crusts removed) and fry up on a non-stick pan containing a small ocean of butter. And yes, I added some fruit to try to justify all of the butter and carbs. If you need a pick me up too this weekend, whip yourself up a plate of this buttery deliciousness this weekend – trust Nonna Gemma, it’ll make you happy!

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Photo Journal: Nonna Gemma’s frittelle

I’ve tried to start this post a few times, and haven’t been able to do it right. Haven’t been able to do it justice. There’s too much history to tell, too many stories. So, let’s try to keep it simple.

 

My Nonna Gemma was one hell of a woman. She was my grandmother, and I, her first grandchild. We had a special relationship and meant a lot to each other. She taught me to knit, to sew by hand, to speak Italian, to cook, to clean, and to stand strong and fight. She herself fought through four enormous brain tumours, the first of which presented towards the front of her head, the size of a grapefruit, a few years ago now. They kept coming back and she kept fighting. She fought them off over and over again, but last June, sadly, her fight was finally over. We didn’t want to let her go, but she fought with all of the dignity and grace of warrior princess, and she had certainly and finally earnt her peace in Heaven.

 

When I think of Nonna, I think of her little wooden kitchen with the beautiful green plants outside the window. I think of her sewing room where I’d happily sit for hours on the tiled floor with a bucket of buttons, a scrap of material, a needle and thread, sewing away, oblivious to the world. I think of the spare bedroom where I used to sleep, with her jewellery box sitting on the dressing table, sparkling in the light, where I’d dream of the day I’d be old enough to be a lady in jewels. I think of her taking me along to visit her friends on school holidays, where they’d hug me and pinch my cheeks and send me home with biscuits. I think of the tree in the driveway that I used to climb to the first branch of, and sit, and look at the garden. I think of her dry sense of humour, ridiculous sarcasm and ability to make any of us six grandkids feel like damn fools, while she laughed at us, with that “don’t give me your young-person sass, I’m your grandmother” look on her face, glass of pink champagne in her hand, sitting at the head of the table like the queen she was. She’d waltz into any party, be it her actual birthday or someone else’s birthday or Christmas, and just command the attention of the room without an ounce of effort. It was incredible! God, she was funny though. Even the boys, as they got older, couldn’t hold it with her. She’d take the mickey out of you for anything and everything, and for a kindly, old, Italian grandmother, she took no prisoners and made no apologies. We loved it! And God help the new boyfriends and girlfriends we took home to meet her – she had an absolute field day with them!

There is so much to know about her, and no words could ever do her justice, but the most important thing to know about her was that she loved her family more than anything else, and she loved to have us all sitting around a table, sharing a meal that she’d prepared and having a good time. That’s about all I can write without bursting into tears, so let me show her as I remember her; bossing Nonno around the kitchen, cooking and laughing together, in the kitchen I spent so much time growing up in, making their infamous frittelle…

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014