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Recipes I Learned Over the Phone, Part 1: Nonna Lucia's Italian Birthday Cake

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

I’m not one for long phone calls. As a kid and a teen, though, I remember easily spending two to three hours on the phone after school and on weekends with friends, cousins, and crushes. My poor parents. I cherished my first phone: a transparent purple corded phone, just for me, in my room (sadly, no personal line). Once I started high school and had to take the metro there and back every day, I was gifted a Samsung E300. Phone conversations were easier when the alternative was T9.

Eventually, my purple phone became obsolete and cell phones came and went. Phone conversations started going straight to speaker so that I could multitask. And we reach today, to the realization that I’m just not one for long phone calls anymore. So it’s taken some adjusting getting used to the new normal, where my interactions with friends and family can only take place through phone conversations. And unlike teenage me, the first (and sometimes only) numbers I dial at the beginning or end of every day are: “home,” “Nonna Lucia,” and “Nonni Marsillo.”

One of the first questions my Nonna Lucia asks every single time we speak is: “Did you eat?” Our first conversation when she got back from Florida (a month early due to the Canadian government’s recommendations) and began her 14-day quarantine period was about food. Specifically, her groceries, which my parents had done for her. “It’s not enough!” she told me, “It’s not full like usual.” I laughed as I reminded her that her fridge didn’t have to be full “like usual.” She’d be cooking only for herself for the foreseeable future. I laughed even though this thought makes me sad and scared. My Nonna cooks for everyone. She lives above my parents and cooks for them almost every night. She literally cooks all day. Most of the miles on her car are probably from buying groceries. She organizes “zizi” nights, when my aunt, uncle, and cousin come over and we all crowd around the table upstairs eating a four-course meal. Thinking about this makes me ache because the moment when I can actually see them again still feels so far away.

I’ve realized through all these conversations about food that I’ve only ever learned recipes from her and my other Nonna through the phone. Things like tomato sauce and pasta e rapini, which I grew up on but had never learned how to make. Simple foods with few ingredients, but then it hit me: I literally don’t know what I need to do with, or how to combine, or in what order to make these three things. Sure, I can Google it, but I want to make it the way they make it.

The recipe I’m sharing with you today is one that I haven’t made yet, and that’s why I’m sharing it (you’ll see). A few days ago, I called my Nonna Lucia to ask her how to make Italian birthday cake. Italian birthday cake - or as my nonna called it that morning, “ah, the sponge with yellow cream and chocolate cream” - is iconic. It’s central to so many second- and third-generation Italian-Canadian and Italian-American childhood memories. My Nonna Lucia’s Italian birthday cake is soaked in coffee and always a little crooked. Her mother, Nonna Angelina, used to make it for Easter. Before it became a staple birthday cake, this is what it was typically made for in the small town where they’re from - Cantalupo nel Sannio, Italy - because they couldn’t afford to make it more often. When I asked my Nonna why they would make this cake, she answered: “Boh, like that.” I can just imagine her shrugging.

Continue reading on Historians Cooking the Past.

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