Joan D’Agostino keeps Old World traditions alive for a new generation when she bakes in her Leawood kitchen. A mother of four, D’Agostino is passing along her Italian heritage to her four grandchildren, including 20-month-old twins Angelina and Luca Casanova of Leawood.
A native Kansas Citian, D’Agostino grew up with the tradition of helping prepare an annual St. Joseph’s table on March 19. This practice started in the Middle Ages in Sicily as part of a large feast to honor patron St. Joseph or San Giuseppe, whom Italians believe protected the people from starvation during a severe drought.
Q: What does the Feast of St. Joseph mean to you?
A: St. Joseph was Jesus’ father on Earth and was the protector of the Holy Family. A severe famine centuries ago in Sicily caused many in Italy to starve. The Italians prayed to St. Joseph, and when the famine ended, the farmers honored San Giuseppe by covering an altar with an abundance of food in gratitude.
Originally, St. Joseph’s tables were family open houses, but today in the United States, the most elaborate tables are prepared in Catholic churches. The food placed on the St. Joseph’s table and served to guests is meatless because this commemoration always falls within the Lenten season. All of the food is sold from the St. Joseph’s table and proceeds are given to help the poor.
Q: Are Mayme’s Biscotti going to find their way onto a St. Joseph’s table?
A: As the oldest girl of 11 children, I remember making food for the St. Joseph’s table at Holy Rosary Church in Columbus Park with my mother, Mayme DiMaggio D’Agostino. That parish still has a wonderful St. Joseph’s table tradition, and many Italians go back to the neighborhood to buy the authentic cookies.
Around 2010, I became involved with sharing the St. Joseph’s table tradition with the largely Hispanic population of parishioners at Guardian Angels Church in Kansas City. Like St. Joseph, who was a simple carpenter, so many work hard and volunteer their talents to make this celebration happen for the church, regardless of their heritage.
For a donation, people can partake in a meatless meal, the most traditional being Pasta Milanese with sardines. Everyone is welcome, and no one is ever turned away from the bounty of the St. Joseph’s table. And, of course, I will be making these special biscotti for Guardian Angels’ table in honor of my mother.
Q: Tell me of your sainted mother.
A: There are so many beautiful Italian traditions that my mom passed along to me, both in the kitchen and outside it. She died in 2003, but a cookbook put together featuring her dishes called “Traditional Italian Recipes” is a way we all keep the memory of her alive.
Since I could only select one recipe to share, I had to choose Mom’s delectable version of the famous biscotti cookie, because hers are uniquely made with pecans. Biscotti are Italian twice-baked cookies, which are typically filled with almonds.
My mother was an excellent cook, from her delicate manicotti, to her distinctive moist and tasty meatballs. My cooking and baking background was filled with a Mediterranean nuance that permeates everything from our pastries to breaded fish and fresh vegetables or salads dressed with olive oil and herbs.
Q: As many mark St. Joseph’s Day as a day of celebration, what does being Italian mean to you?
A: Being Italian is like being part of one big, extended family. It is a blessing to be able to pass these values of faith, family and friends to the younger generation. Cooking for and with my children, and now my grandchildren, is the greatest joy.
I always make these biscotti right before I go to bed and allow them to sit in the turned-off oven overnight with the door ajar. It is a special time for me, because I feel the thread of connection to my mother and my ancestors by making these cookies. Food is an important part of building families and communities. It’s what feeds all of us.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Guardian Angels Church St. Joseph’s Table
11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday at Our Lady of Hope school cafeteria, 4232 Mercier (next door to Guardian Angels Church). A spaghetti dinner with traditional Milanese sauce is available for a donation. Homemade Italian breads and cookies will be for sale. 816-931-4351.
Makes about 2 dozen, 4-inch cookies
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or almond extract
1 cup finely chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside dry ingredients.
In a separate, large mixing bowl, mix canola oil, sugar and vanilla or almond extract using an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. After sugar has been incorporated, add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.
With mixer running on low, slowly add dry ingredients and mix until a thick dough forms. Stir pecans in by hand until evenly incorporated throughout.
Divide dough into 2 equal parts. Shape each into a 6-inch-long roll, about 4 inches wide. Place rolls onto prepared baking sheet at least 3 inches apart.
Bake about 20 to 25 minutes until moderately firm to the touch, but not hard. Dough will flatten as it bakes, but do not bake to the point of the surface turning dark brown — the cookies will be overdone.
After removing from oven, with the aid of a wide spatula, carefully remove baked rolls from sheets and place on a cutting board until cool to the touch.
When cool, using a serrated knife, cut each roll into 12 segments that are 1/2 -inch thick. Place cut cookies lying flat onto same baking sheet and return to oven for another 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow biscotti to cool completely before storing in a cookie jar for up to a week. The more the cookies are exposed to air, the harder they become.
Per cookie: 234 calories (51 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 25 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 77 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.