Explore different holidays and customs at your holiday dessert table | Holiday Guide | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Explore different holidays and customs at your holiday dessert table

“I think almost every family has some recipe from grandma.”

The only thing better than a warm, filling meal surrounded by loved ones on a cold winter’s night are the sweet treats that follow it. But there’s more to the upcoming holiday season than just cookies shaped like Santa and Blitzen.

If you want a nice hearty dessert, Amargie Davis says a slice of sweet-potato pie, a staple of Kwanzaa, might be in order. The holiday, meant to celebrate African-American heritage, runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. 

Davis, who is co-founder of the Community Empowerment Association in Homewood and serves as the director of youth and family services, says pie is a staple of soul-food cooking. Davis says you can always buy a pie, but the real magic is in making it yourself.

“I think almost every family has some recipe from grandma, some secret recipe,” Davis says. A typical pie, she says, should be spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, with its filling whipped to a smooth texture.

Similar spices are also found in Poland’s traditional Christmas desserts. Marta Nutini was born in Poland, then moved to the United States at 22. Now 38, she has spent the past two decades as a manager at S&D Polish Deli, in the Strip District.

She points to a poppy-seed roll called makowiec as the typical treat. It consists of softened poppy seeds, mixed with rum, raisins and a little orange zest, as a filling in a soft pastry. Traditionally, it’s a dessert served at Christmas and on New Year’s Day. 

In fact, in Polish custom, it’s good luck to eat poppy seed around the New Year; eat it, as the story goes, and you’ll come into wealth.

Adam Hertzman, the director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation, says the holiday dessert table needs a Hanukkah staple, such as deep-fried sufganiyah, a type of jelly donut.  “The miracle of the oil lamp at Hanukkah — oil expected to last for one day lasted for eight — led to the miracle of fried food for Hanukkah,” Hertzman says. While it’s possible to buy them at bakeries, Hertzman suggests frying them fresh at home, and adding a generous dusting of powdered sugar. 

Finally, no dessert table would be complete without some Italian pastries, according to Tony Moio, a second-generation Italian-American who runs Moio’s Bakery in Monroeville.

The bakery started in 1935 in East Liberty before moving into the suburbs. Moio, now 47, has worked there since he was 12.

For Christmas, he says long-time customers still stick to their roots and typically order pasticciotti, a pastry filled with ricotta cheese or egg cream. There’s also sfogliatelle, which offers almond paste or candied citrus peel inside a flaky crust.

The bakery is also filled with Yule logs and a variety of Italian pastries, including cannolis. “Christmas is everything,” Moio says. “Everything we make sells. Everybody’s table is different.”

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