February 26, 2024

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How the internet helped one woman decipher a forgotten family recipe

How the internet helped one woman decipher a forgotten family recipe

Natasha Contardi of Montreal, Canada has been painstakingly documenting her grandmother’s recipes over the years, translating handfuls of flour into standard measurements by repeatedly making the dishes with Nonna herself, to get the “right feel and smell and learn the muscle memory.”

Recently though, she found a bit of a slippery mystery in her family’s recipe box, in very old handwriting on even older paper. She couldn’t read enough Italian cursive to make heads or tails of it, so she asked her grandmother for help. Unfortunately, with the onset of some dementia, Nonna didn’t recognize it.

Natasha Contardi’s nonna making gnocchi. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

And that’s where the internet comes in.

Contardi posted photos on Reddit’s r/Old_Recipes subreddit, hoping someone could help her translate, and she found exactly what she was looking for. Rhiannon Gammill, food historian and chef-owner of The Cultured Milkmaid bakery + creamery in Mexico, recognized the word “serpentone,” or snake, and wondered whether her family could be from Umbria, Italy, where there’s a namesake pastry. They are from a village near there, Contardi responded — Pergola — and this recipe was handwritten by her grandmother’s sister-in-law, Rosa, many years ago.

It turns out that serpentone alle mandorle is not just an old recipe, but a very old recipe. Different versions of the recipe available online report it to date back to about 400 A.D., when it was created to commemorate Saint Anatolia’s miraculous escape from a serpent-based execution. Though the earliest use of this almond pastry was limited to Saint Anatolia’s feast day on July 10, Serpentone is now made at other special holidays as well, like Christmas or Passover.

Other Reddit users were able to translate the whole recipe into English, listing eggs, sugar, lemon and cocoa in addition to almonds.

Redditor r/weriov provided the first translation of the handwritten Italian recipe. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

Redditor r/weriov provided the first translation of the handwritten Italian recipe. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

One respondent refined some of the details with knowledge of the Umbrian dialect in particular.

Native Umbrian r/middlemist-camellia was able to offer prep and ingredient details. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

Native Umbrian r/middlemist-camellia was able to offer prep and ingredient details. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

The conversation is a real lesson in cooperative problem-solving. Respondents worked out confusing phrases together, so that the proposed “check to make sure it rises” was better understood to mean “check to be sure the heat isn’t too high.” One translator thought that “put the eyes and the tongue” must have been figurative, to look and taste for doneness, but another points out that those are decorating instructions — to literally place the eyes and tongue into the snake! Some think this recipe is only a filling to be used with an unrecorded pastry, while others say to just press the almond flour dough into shape and top with beaten egg whites.

With a 1,600-year history, it’s no wonder there’s variance in how different people have made it over time. Both almonds and wheat stretch back in that area at least as far back as that, so although Contardi’s recipe turns out to be complete, some other recipes do include a wheat pastry with an egg and almond filling. They also call for all manner of decoration: Incised or candied almond scale patterns, sprinkles, coffee bean eyes and slivered almond teeth are common.

The Contardi recipe for serpentone alle mandorle calls for a coating of browned meringue for decoration. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

The Contardi recipe for serpentone alle mandorle calls for a coating of browned meringue for decoration. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

Contardi’s is the only one we could find with chocolate, though. With prompting from Redditor translations, Contardi’s grandmother was able to remember asking her sister-in-law to write down her special version, along with details of preparation that she hadn’t been able to access alone. Contardi gave it a shot this week, topping her own effort with egg white meringue as directed.

She tells us her “giant” Italian family often gets together to cook a big batch of special dishes, though since the pandemic began, the gathering size has “calmed down a bit” to only 20 to 25 people. They make a point of including even very young children so that they learn the recipes, and more importantly, that they cement family relationships.

Even Contardi’s daughter Teagan gets in on the culinary action with her grandparents and great-grandparents. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

Even Contardi’s daughter Teagan gets in on the culinary action with her grandparents and great-grandparents. (Courtesy Natasha Contardi)

Contardi has fond memories of her grandfather’s cooking, too, such as enough sauce from his garden tomatoes to last the family for winter, or his home-preserved capicolo and prosciutto. Other Contardi family favorites still in heavy rotation are a cheesy yeast bread called crescia di pasqua, crostata with strawberry jam or marmalade, and ciambelloni, a traditional breakfast-y Bundt cake, made with apples or pears from their own backyard. Nonna’s favorite “feeling fancy” addition? Nutella.

The sweetest thing about this story, though? Contardi tells us that the collective detective work has sparked memories and conversation on two continents and across four generations. “Food is the love language of our family,” she says, “My nonna put it in us.”

Contardi’s Serpentone alle Mandorle Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 egg white

  • 4 whole eggs

  • 500 grams powdered sugar

  • 500 grams almond flour

  • 100 grams cocoa powder

  • pinch of cinnamon

  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced

  • almond slivers, for decorating

  • 1 maraschino cherry, for tongue and eyes

Preparation

  1. Separate egg white; set aside.

  2. Combine all other ingredients (except for almond slivers and maraschino cherry) in the food processor until smooth.

  3. Place sticky dough in the shape of a snake on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

  4. Bake 30 minutes at 350 F.

  5. Whip egg whites to stiff peaks.

  6. Remove baked snake and top with whites and decorate.

  7. Broil until browned.

  8. Decorate as desired with almond slivers and maraschino cherries.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com