Monday, January 3, 2011

My Three Magi

There they are. My three Magi. Kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus on Epiphany. Only in my case, it was three Queens. And it was New Year's Eve. Can you stand one more story - if I am succinct? And I promise a delicious recipe at the end? And if you prefer the recipe to the stories, just scroll down!
I am entrenched in my Italian childhood - I grew up surrounded by Gresios and my father was the honorary Italian. Who had a Scottish mother and a Ukranian father (who is cousin to Otto Schmidt, the Russian explorer which was always a cool fact for me).
I love the Legend of the three Magi. It has special meaning for me. Memories are part family lore and part shadows in your brain. I have heard the oft-told tale of me sitting on Santa's knee and asking him to bring home my sister from the hospital for Christmas. I am told Santa teared up. And looked helplessly at my mother who was astonished. I was 4-1/2. And I have no memory of that.
I do have the memory of my six month old sister coming home for Christmas and our Christmas together. And then in a flash - she was back in the hospital. Very sick. My young brain was well aware of that. I was funnelled to the Italian aunts. The week was a blur. Children my age couldn't visit family members in the hospital in those days. Parents couldn't stay over night. And so went Christmas week.
New Year's Eve came. My parents were both home. Open presents lay neatly under the tree. My sister's baby toys awaited her return. My parents were considering take-out pizza for the greeting of the New Year. We lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Queens. My parents slept in a hide-a-bed in the living room and I had the large one-bedroom which I was to share with my sister.
When the doorbell rang. On the other side of the door were my two great-aunts - Aunt Elsie and Aunt Helen. They lived in the Bronx and it was quite a trek to get to Queens from the Bronx. Two subways and two busses. So you can understand that Aunt Elsie and Aunt Helen never just "showed up" on our doorstep. But there they were outside the door, on a snowy New Year's Eve bearing gifts - just as the three Magi had done. Only they arrived six days after Christmas instead of 12 days later.
They each carried two sturdy shopping bags and Aunt Elsie was balancing a small bag. They knew my parents did not have the heart to ring in the New Year with their baby in the hospital. Aunt Elsie and Aunt Helen had devised a plan with my great-grandmother. A plan to lift their spirits and welcome the New Year with optimism. They walked into the dinner-less kitchen and took over. Aromas of spice filled the air. My parents stood immobile. Stunned.
"Come on, get the oven going. This will need to be reheated a bit. Set the table. It's New Year's Eve. Don't just stand there!"
And from the bags emerged a large sauerbraten roast. A roast that had marinated for days under the careful tutelage of my great grandmother. It was cooked to perfection. A bowl filled with red cabbage came next. And then the dumplings - that got my four-year old attention. I knew what I liked to eat and I loved dumplings. And then the gingersnap-spiced beef gravy emerged. Savory and sweet. This was Christmas all over again.
As the preparation for rewarming the dinner began in earnest, my Aunt Elsie let me see what was in her small bag. I took a sniff. And pulled back. It was definitely not to my liking. Which was a good thing. It was a chilled pitcher of Manhattans - concocted in the Bronx and hand carried to Queens. Age four was definitely not the time to start having a cocktail hour.
"This pitcher got attention on the subway, I can tell you that," agreed my aunts. "There was a gentleman who kept trying to peek inside. But I shooed him away."
And the aunts poured a cocktail for themselves, for my parents and a glass of milk for me. We toasted my sister, her health, the New Year and my great grandmother who devised the meal but could not make the long journey from the Bronx to Queens. My aunts were an oasis. A balm for frazzled nerves. A small refuge from the sadness that engulfed my family. My great-grandmother was blind but her loving hands left imprints on the meal. It was she who guided the sauerbraten meal. She who tasted and formed the dumplings and it was she who directed the cooking according to taste and aroma and feel. Her presence was real. She was with us during that meal.
Hours passed and we were sated and warmed. My aunts had to leave. They would not think of staying over night although my parents would have happily let them sleep in the hide-away bed. They would not leave my great-grandmother alone. And the snow was now falling in earnest. My father insisted on driving them and after protestations, it was agreed that he could drive them to the subway station. My aunts were formidable. They could take care of themselves on the subway on New Year's Eve. My father first brought them to the hospital where they visited my sister (after visiting hours! oh the nuns who were nurses must have fluttered!) and then went home as planned - via the subway.
Before they left, there had been many hugs. When my mother and I were alone, my mother found a crumpled ten dollar bill in her apron pcket. Sneaked in during a hug. And under the tree were two Christmas presents - one for me and one for my sister. My three aunts, my Magi who brought gifts on New Year's Eve. Gifts of food, gifts of drink, gifts of strength and gifts of love. My sisters gift remained under the tree. The tree would soon be a memory. But the gift was waiting for her when she finally did come home.
A few years later - a happier Christmas even if we look very serioso.

And today (my sister is the stunning one).
And the recipe: This was my father's birthday dinner every year. I have photobooks filled of us toasting him and no photo of the actual roast. We did not make the dinner last year, but I will this year. And I will use Great-Grandma's recipe.
Sauerbraten: serves 6-8
*Great Grandma's Tip: Use a good roast - don't go for chuck here - it will shrink away to nothing. It's a celebratory dinner!
  • 3-4 pound beef roast
  • 1 pint vinegar (white is fine or a red wine)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 15 peppercorns
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1 sprig chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons flour seasoned with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 butter
  • 1 cup sliced onions
  • 1-1/2 cups thinly cut carrots
  • 12 gingersnaps - smashed into fine crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  1. Pat meat dry.
  2. Place in a non-reactive bowl.
  3. Add vinegar and then if necessary, add some water to completely cover roast.
  4. Add bay leaves, peppercorns, cloves and parlsey.
  5. Cover and put in fridge for 3-4 days turning the meat once each day.
  6. Drain off liquid and reserve for sauce.
  7. Rub meat all over with seasoned flour.
  8. Brown it in butter.
  9. Add onions, carrots and 2 cups of the spiced marinade.
  10. Cover and gently simmer for 2 hours - until the meat is tender.
  11. Remove meat to platter and cover to keep warm.
  12. Make gravy in the same pot or pour into a saucepan.
  13. Add gingersnap crumbs and sugar to the liquid.
  14. Simmer for ten minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired.
  15. Pour sauce over meat and serve. Serve with potato dumplings and red cabbage.
That sauerbraten meal was a turning point in our family's life.
`In 2011, remember all the kindnesses.


Whats Cookin Italian Style Cuisine said...

Your very stunning...your sister is as well.. your personality charm and amazing kindness exudes in your writing and caring for others. I love coming here and reading your comments, I always feel good. Now I can see your whole family is where it started, your a product of an amazing sense of love and caring for others! You said it all in this post...god bless you all... you have been blessed with such a gift!

Bo said...

I can only imagine how flavorful this is with all the vinegar, spices, and gingersnaps.

Beth-Italian by marriage said...

Wonderful story. I wouldn't think of skipping to the recipe. Your gift for storytelling matches your gift for cooking - well, I can just the cooking only from the recipes and photos, but the storytelling, that is absolutely unquestionably an amazing gift.

Vibey said...

Not only could I stand the story, I devoured it and felt the warmth. Thank you for sharing and reminding us that food is sustenance in so many ways.

chow and chatter said...

oh Claudia I adore your stories they make my day thanks so much for sharing

your so sweet


Kate @ said...

Great story...I began to swallow my tears so I started praying for a happy ending! Thank you for sharing!

And that beef roast - wow!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful and touching family story, Claudia! Thank you so much for sharing your memories and your Great-Grandmother's special recipe with us.

Loren said...

Love the stories, good recipes are a dime a dozen, but a memory like the one you shared is a gem. That said, the Sauerbraten looks wonderful. I've enjoyed it many times, but never made it. I've saved this one and we'll give Great Grandma's recipe a try.

Sandra said...

Amazing story! I read it with such a joy! Photos are lovely, and both of you look fabulous! Wonderful recipe too

Lyndas recipe box said...

What a wonderful story Claudia-I teared up just like santa.
You have such a rich heritage and I love coming here to read your stories and memories.
The recipe sounds delicious too;I'm glad you are making it again.

Island Vittles said...

Food traditions shape our lives, and make for great stories. You are a wonderful storyteller. I hope you enjoy that roast on your Dad`s b-day. Theresa

3 hungry tummies said...

Happy new year Claudia. Thanks for a wonderful post and a family recipe. :)

whatsfordinneracrossstatelines said...

Claudia your stories always rival your food for me! I never can decide which I like better. I just bookmarked this one, I want to celebrate with this roast. I think you and your sister are both beautiful. Starting the year like this, you can't help but have a good one!

Liz That Skinny Chick Can Bake said...

You weave a beautiful glad it had a happy ending.

FOODESSA said...

Today was your turn to leave the imprint. One of which gathers others to feel the true amazing spirited soul that you are. We certainly do have a lot of baggage and thankfully...there are some great positive aspects that come out of more difficult times.
It's always nice to get to know my foodie friends just a tad more ;o)

Buon appetito and hope 'La Befana' is good to you this year!
Happy New Year and all the very best,

Heather S-G said...

That was so beautiful. You really touched something inside (my nose is running like crazy and I can't see through my tears)'re such a wonderful writer, Claudia. Family is always something to be thankful for. I wish you an amazing new year :D

Mister Meatball said...

Succinct it ain't.

Grand it is!

Great story, great family.

What else can i say?

Kita said...

Great story. I am glad you remember that New Years Eve and the great love of your aunts and great grandmother. Very sweet :)

My Little Space said...

Your aunts were such loving & wonderful persons. I am so touched by your story. Can't believe it that they actually brought in a full course meal for your family. And also gifts & money! Sounds like Santa Mamas! :o) Yeap, your sis looks stunning alright! Hope you're having a wonderful time.
Blessings, Kristy

Mary Bergfeld said...

You've made me weepy. What a lovely remembrance of family and the holiday season. The sauerbraten ain't half bad either :-). I hope you have a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Oh Claudia - Where to begin? I love everything about this post - except your statement that you are not stunning. You are BEAUTIFUL. But what really struck me was the story and your talent in crafting it. I was teary, hoping that it would not have a sad ending. And I'm so glad it turned out the way it did. I LOVE YOUR AUNTS - What wonderful memories you have and the ability to relate them in such well-written fashion. I look forward to branching out from my typical mode of cooking pot roast and trying the sauerbraten recipe.

Unknown said...

Claudia, I love this story! What a great family. So nicely written too. Sauerbraten with all the fixins is one of my favorites. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water!

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Claudia this was such a sweet family memory and one of your most touching stories. It really described what being a family is all about. True love, concern support and ... food! I'm so glad that all turned out well after your aunt's visit and that your sister is here with you now. You are both beautiful!

I had a Uncle that lived in the Bronx so I do remember how long a trip it was for my family to go from South Brooklyn to East Tremont Ave! Even then the subway went through some and rough areas.Your Aunts were true angels on a mission that night.

Now I feel even more connected to you know that I know you also have Ukrainian roots! What a wonderful nation we live in that so many of us share a multitude of nationalities. I actually made a version of sauerbraten on New Year's Day. (We had Italian "lucky lentils" on NY Eve)
I am intrigued by the use of gingersnap crumbs in your gravy as a thickener. How did that come about?

Laurie said...

Beautiful story as well as recipe!! And the fig and gorgonzola dolce.. to die for!
Happy New Year Claudia!!
Ciao and hugs.. Laurie

Reeni said...

You have this knack for telling stories that make me tear up! What a sweet and inspiring story. It makes me want to believe in all that I've stopped believing in. You call them magi - I call them angels.

Monet said...

Oh Claudia...what a touching post. This should be made into a movie. I was completely transported, and I don't think I could have ended my night with a more inspiring story. Family is so important...and women can have so much impact. Thank you for sharing this memory and this recipe of wholesome goodness. I hope you have a beautiful Hump Day!

Beth said...

Claudia, that was a beautiful story. I always love it when you share family tales, but this was one of my favorites. We need those magis in our lives when times are difficult. Your aunts sound wonderful. And I loved your suggestion to remember all the kindnesses in 2011.

Sprigs of Rosemary said...

Beautiful story! Such wonderful Magi . . . I love of food, family, memories connections. I will be making this roast. (BTW-- you are stunning, too.)

Nancy said...

A lovely story, and very glad to see it had a happy ending. You are both beautiful! And I'll bet that is a mighty fine sauerbraten, too :)

Torviewtoronto said...

lovely post and pictures

Kristen said...

I love your stories! I love your recipes, too. You have a great way of combining the two, making us all anxious to visit again and again.

Emily Malloy said...

What a fabulous Epiphany-filled post! What three lovely Magi you had in your life! :o)

Happy 2011.

Barbara GF said...

What a lovely story to herald the new year, Claudia! I love the three Magi being Queens. Food is certainly a balm that binds families, even through the hard times. I am glad it all turned out well, and, it's true, you also are stunning!

theUngourmet said...

I loved reading about your New Year's Eve memory. I can't imagine anyone getting away with bringing a box filled with Manhattans nearly so easily these days. :) Your aunts sound like such treasures. So glad you and your sister still have eachother! Happy New Year. Great looking recipe as well. :)

UrMomCooks said...

Luv every minute of ur post! And thankful to hear your sis grew up big and strong! (My dad always used to slip a little money into a coffee cup in my cupboard when he came to visit...your aunt's gesture makes me smile...) Happy New Year to you and your family!

Gera@SweetsFoodsBlog said...

Oh this is a beautiful story with lovely photos.
The beef recipe sounds outstanding

Have a Great 2011! :)



This is priceless, Claudia! What fantastic memories. Happy 2011!

Fresh Local and Best said...

This is quite a sweet post. I would have teared up too to hear about your Christmas wish. Your aunts are such incredible souls, and I'm glad to hear that the stay in the hospital was but a faint memory for your sis.

Debra "Deb" Dresden Disney-Dior said...

I can't think of ANYTHING better than family stories. You're a great "Story Girl," blessed with great family members. ::sighing::

"And today (my sister is the stunning one)."

Claudia, I beg to differ. You and your sister are equally stunning. You both possess great warmth.
I believe there's a LOT of Aunt Elsie and Aunt Helen in both of you. Lucky ladies!

denise @ quickies on the dinner table said...

Thank you, for such an evocative and touching story, a happy ending, and an heirloom recipe.

denise @ quickies on the dinner table said...

Thank you, for such an evocative and touching story, a happy ending, and an heirloom recipe.

Angie's Recipes said...

Both of you look so elegant! And thank you, Claudia, for sharing such a wonderful story of family with us.

Megan @ Foodalution said...

Dear Claudia! Charm me some more please! I will always have time for another one of your stories. So full of love! How cool is it that your aunties just "took over" - I love it! And sneaking the $$ into your mothers apron... that would have been my grandfather. I loved the story and love you have shared it with us - xoxo megan

Donna-FFW said...

You are both stunning!

My husband LOVES sauerbraten.. I make it one time a year only. Recipe similar to yours!

tasteofbeirut said...

Very touching; I wish I had had sisters, especially like that ! They were so thoughtful, so caring, so selfless. I wonder if people like this can be found today? I am sure, just not many of them.
This recipe with the addition of crumbled gingersnaps is also a loving one; I can tell because I have never seen this little touch anywhere else and i am sure it completely transforms the roast from ordinary into very special.

Jeannie said...

What lovely story about your childhood! I enjoyed reading about it:D

Vittle me this... said...

what a beautiful story! thanks for the recipe!

Unknown said...

Wow, what an amazing story. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it out and share with us. Dudette is 4 1/2 so I kept envisioning you as her and what the memories of a child that age would be. So much love in your family; it just flows through your words.

Thank you to for that legacy recipe.

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

You and my husband must be on the same wave length. He said just the other day "when are we going to have sauerbraten?" How fun to have your great-grandmother's recipe.

Chef Dennis Littley said...

thank you for sharing your memories with us, and that sauerbraten sounds delicous,
Have a great weekend!

art is in the kitchen said...

Just love your vignette on your three Magi!
Tasty, tasty beef!!! I heard they Germans make this with different meats like venison, mutton or even horse meat. Anyway, it's the vinegar that makes everything really tasty, I think.

sweetlife said...

OH truly touching story, I love your three wonderful it is to have family, really loving family who make every bad day seem to fade away with their kindness, you remind me of them, so strong and inspiring..I love the lat pic with your sister, both of you are stunning..a beautiful post to begin the new year, thank you for sharing..

Anna's Table said...

Claudia,it was such a joy to read your touching post. Beautifully written it transports you to another time and place. I truly lost myself in the retelling of that magical visit. Claudia this would make a wonderful screenplay. Thank you for sharing it, and the family's recipe.

Food Lover Kathy said...

What a beautiful story and beautiful food memory! I'm glad it had a happy ending. Love the last picture - you both are stunning! Thank you for sharing with us.

Debbie said...

Thank you for sharing that story. I enjoyed it and it was so heartwarming. What wonderful people. And the recipe sounds great too!

Anonymous said...

Have to admit my eyes were filled with tears when I did eventually get to the recipe-there is no way I would have skipped the story! Can so understand how you felt your great grandmohers presence in that sauerbraten. Very special indeed! The recipe and most of all the wonderful people that fill your childhood memories!

Jen_from_NJ said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story - wonderful and uplifting! I will try the sauerbraten recipe - it sounds fantastic. I love the advice to use a good roast!

La Bella Cooks said...

You both are stunning! I love how you take the time to research and post all about your family. It inspires me to dig deeper into mine.

Magic of Spice said...

Who could ever resist a story from you...and I must say this is probably the most heartwarming story I have ever read. From tears to laugher (the chilled Manhattans on the subway.
And then you top it off with a delightful recipe :)

OysterCulture said...

Don't ever stop sharing these stories they are incredibly special. What amazing aunts you had and I love how the family came together. How appropriate it was over sauerbraten, as I always think of it as such a communal dish. Have a wonderful New Year Claudia!

Diana's Cocina said...

Thank you so much for sharing your lovely story, so uplifting. Thank you for sharing with us.

Anna Johnston said...

I loved reading your story, kindness goes down a long long way doesn't it...., not only do you have such a wonderful memory but the recipe to share with us all. Thank you :)