The family combines Italian and Portuguese customs in their holiday celebrations.
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photo by Cornell Watson
THANKSGIVING TURKEY AND MORE
Michelle California-Aguiar, the youngest of four siblings, took on her father’s role as holiday cook and coordinator after he died of cancer in 1999. Each Thanksgiving Day, with rare exception, Michelle and her husband, Davide Aguiar, drive with sons Nuno Aguiar, 20, and Rui Aguiar, 16, to Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. They join Michelle’s mother, two brothers, sister and their respective families for a long weekend. That’s 16 people at her mom’s modest home in a steel mill town 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh.
The first task upon arrival is to shop for salted codfish in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, a former industrial neighborhood turned international grocery community. “The boys love going there,” Michelle says about buying specific ingredients for bacalhau com todos, a Portuguese dish served on Christmas Eve in the Aguiar household. “I never liked it until I met Davide,” Michelle says. Davide is from Portugal, and Michelle’s heritage is Italian. “I like good pasta, good olive oil and good cheese.”
A “traditional” Thanksgiving meal of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy is followed by Michelle’s handmade gnocchi and red sauce the next day. “We’ve now divided [the food] into two days because none of us can handle that much in one day,” she laughs. “It’s kind of fun, but kind of a lot of work. My mom’s 88, so she doesn’t do much of the work anymore. I’ve kind of kept that tradition going. Everyone comes, but I do the cooking. … It’s my family. I love having my kids say they can’t wait for Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition for them that they love. And as long as they’re loving it, and everyone can still get together, then hopefully we’ll keep doing it.”
CHRISTMAS FEAST OF SEVEN FISHES
After Thanksgiving, the Aguiars abstain from eating meat on certain holy days per their family’s tradition, “so Christmas Eve is all about the fish,” Michelle says. “Davide’s bacalhau is a huge Portuguese thing where I probably wouldn’t even cook it if it wasn’t for him.” Davide’s favorite recipe requires the salted cod they bought over their Thanksgiving break to soak for three days with frequent changes of water to desalinate and soften the fish meat before boiling it with potatoes and a couple of hard-boiled eggs and topping it off with oil and vinegar. “Not my favorite,” Michelle says, preferring a different recipe called bacalhau com natas: “You cook the salted cod, break it all up into little pieces, and you make some french fries – cute ones, like fried potatoes. Add onions and cream, and you make a big casserole out of it. That’s my favorite.”
Another favorite family recipe is cioppino, a seafood stew with squid, mussels, clams, shrimp “or whatever fish I want to put in,” Michelle laughs. “I used to do seven different things, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, none of us will eat [all] of this,’ so I started putting more fish into one thing.”
Bacalhau, cioppino and – wait for it – fried smelts. “These are teeny-tiny little fish,” Michelle says. “They look like guppies, basically, and you can eat the bones and everything.”
JESUS, MARY, JOSEPH AND SHREK
While Michelle is busy in the kitchen, Davide and their sons tackle a tradition popular in both Italian and Portuguese cultures. The presépio is a Christmas nativity scene of sorts. Nuno and Rui hunt for interesting rocks and moss mounds that Davide sculpts into a small-scale landscape where he places figurines of different animals, plus baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Davide regularly mists the presépio before he places it beneath the Christmas tree, where gifts appear only on Christmas morning.
One year, Michelle was arranging the gifts under the tree when she noticed a new figurine in the presépio. “Shrek was sitting on top,” Michelle says. “Now he has to be there every year. It’s our fun little tradition, one of those little things that just makes us laugh. … Shrek is always protecting Jesus and Mary. I think the boys will end up doing that with their kids someday.”
Michelle says a favorite holiday party among her suburban mom friends began as a friendly cookie exchange about 20 years ago.
“When the kids were really young, all our husbands would get together and take the kids to do something,” Michelle says. The moms would then take turns hosting, jumping at the chance “to hang out, drink and bake cookies all day. It’s seven women making tons of cookies in one oven. We start with bloody marys and work our way up through the day, drinking and baking. … The cookies never turn out well.”
Each person brings their own mixer, bowls and enough ingredients to make a few dozen cookies. Depending on the number of moms, they can end up with 400 cookies or more.
“And then the kids come back with the dads, and they all just eat the [heck] out of the cookies,” Michelle says, adding that they give one another joke awards to celebrate their mistakes and triumphs. “Everybody brings their own tins,” Michelle says. “You pack up your cookies and put them in the freezer till Christmas.”
Last year amid the pandemic, the moms made and boxed their own cookies. They set up tables outside and took turns swapping their boxes. “Honestly, last year was the first year we had the most cookies we’ve ever had because nobody was eating them while baking them,” Michelle says, grinning. “And we sat outside around some fires and did our cookie day a little differently, but we still had a cookie.”
(makes about 3 dozen)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
3⁄4 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp. anise or vanilla extract
2 tsp. baking powder Powdered sugar, optional
Preheat a pizzelle iron and lightly coat with nonstick cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, butter, eggs, extract and baking powder. Drop slightly rounded tablespoons of batter onto pizzelle iron and close. Bake until golden brown, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Using a nonstick spatula, remove each pizzelle and put on a cooling rack; repeat with remaining batter. Cool completely; dust with powdered sugar, if desired.
Rosemary-Lemon Shortbread Cookies
(makes about 3 dozen)
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3⁄4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
1 tsp. vanilla extract
11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, minced 3⁄4 tsp. salt
Sanding sugar for rolling, optional
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add lemon zest, vanilla and egg and beat until incorporated. In a medium bowl, whisk together both kinds of flour, rosemary and salt. With the mixer on low, gently add dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Mix until ingredients are well combined and a stiff dough is formed. Cut two 12-by-16-inch pieces of plastic wrap. Divide dough in half, placing one- half of the dough on each piece of plastic wrap. Use your hands to form two 11⁄2-inch diameter logs. Open the plastic wrap and sprinkle logs with sanding sugar (if using) and roll a bit more to coat the logs well in the sugar. Wrap logs tightly in the plastic wrap, place on a baking sheet and freeze logs for 1 hour or until firm. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Remove dough logs from the freezer and remove the plastic wrap. Slice dough into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices and place on prepared baking sheets 1 inch apart. Bake until cookies are just golden at the edges, about 16-18 minutes. Allow cookies to cool on wire racks. Store cookies in an airtight container for up to four days.