MERRY CHRISTMAS! My gift to you.....
1. Virtual Cookies
2. A folk tale to go with them.
The Amaretti: An Adaptation to an Italian Legend
by Jackee Alston (c) 2010
The winter’s night air pricked at Lina’s nose like the powdered cinnamon from the spice vendor’s cask. She burrowed her face farther into her scarf. Snow fell in light flakes, muting the murmurs of passersby. Such were the nights in Saronno, cold enough for discomfort but no more. She would not be forced indoors. Besides, Giuseppe was waiting. Her steps quickened and she weaved between the crowds jostling each other.
“Osolina,” called Giuseppe, waving his arms, “here!”
He was perched at the base of a statue, balancing himself with one hand on the muzzle of Caesar Augustus’s horse.
Lina giggled and ran to him.
“There you are,” he said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t see you through this mob.”
“So you found a horse to see better.”
Giuseppe swung his free arm and bowed dramatically. “A horse and a knight at your service, milady.”
She giggled again. “Come down from there, my gallant knight.”
In three great leaps he bounded to her side. He was fit and agile for a baker, but what Lina loved most about him was his smile. It was impish and crooked, with one corner curling slightly higher than the other when he was up to something. He gave her that smile now.
“Have you heard the news?”
“There are too many people,” she answered, shaking her head, “I could not see well enough to read the notice.”
“Leave it to me, then.”
With that he seized her hand and dove into the throng. Lina in his wake, he plowed through the townspeople. At last they reached the wall where a small sign had been posted. Giuseppe planted her in front of it; apologizing insincerely to the people he had crowded out.
“Now tell me what it says.”
Lina read, squinting in concentration. Giuseppe was a marvelous baker, but had never been taught to read. Her skills were proficient and she vowed once she and Giuseppe were wed in the spring she would teach him as well.
“It says,” she told him, “that they will be at this square to preach. Midday on the morrow.”
The crowd behind her murmured mixtures of approvals and dismay.
“They will be hanged,” one said.
“The soldiers will imprison them for sure,” said another.
Giuseppe nodded. “And yet that will not stop them.”
He leaned forward and took Lina’s hand again.
“Come, we haven’t much to time to prepare, then.”
She waited to ask him what he was up to until they were away from the townspeople.
“All right,” she said when they were in a narrow alley, “tell me what this is about.”
He stopped, taking both hands in his. “Lina, the disciples of the Son of God are coming.”
“Yes, I know. I read the notice,” she laughed at his seriousness. He was rarely serious.
“So,” he said, walking again. “We must have a gift to give them.”
It was her turn to stop. Her stomach fell as a leaden hammer on an anvil.
“But, my love, we have nothing to give.”
It was true. They’d been carefully saving to be married, but even this was a great sacrifice. Already they were reduced to eating the stale or blackened loaves they could not sell and hadn’t been able to afford even a single tomato for weeks. Things were especially worse now that the townspeople had learned they were Christian. Long time customers had ceased coming. One man shouted all sorts of obscenities at Giuseppe. Lina hadn’t stayed to hear the insults but she caught the meaning: he thought them delusional. A little old lady whom Lina had always liked spat in Giuseppe’s face. Lina bit her lip at the memory.
“We’ll make do,” Giuseppe said, softly.
She hugged him. He was ever hopeful, she ever rational.
When they reached the bakery, he unlocked the door and together they climbed the stairs to his tiny apartment above it. Lighting a lamp, Lina raised it to search the kitchen cupboards. A handful of empty spice jars and an old loaf of bread was all there was to see. Giuseppe’s shining face fell.
“Don’t despair yet. What do you have downstairs in the bakery?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Flour, eggs. A handful of nuts.”
Patting his shoulder, she led the way down to the bakery’s kitchen.
Lina set a hand on the sack of flour. It felt cold and supple with the fine powder within.
“Is this all that’s left? For the morning bread?”
“Well,” she said, dusting off her hands, “as you said, we’ll have to make do.”
Grinning, some of the light returned to his face. His passion for the project was hard not to catch. Lina smiled back.
“You’ll just have to invent something new. Something with few ingredients.”
“And very little flour,” he agreed.
“Right. We can’t use much of what is meant for the morning sale.”
Rubbing his hands together, he said, “We’ll whip the eggs, that way the confection will be airy and need less flour.”
While Giuseppe collected the eggs, Lina opened the barrel of sugar. She frowned.
“We only have a handful of sugar, my love,” she told him.
He paused from beating the eggs. Then he said, “Try the wooden box over there.”
Lina opened the box he indicated. There was sugar true enough, but it was turbinado, the coarse, poor kind that did not cook well in confections.
“It is only turbinado,” she said.
“Go ahead and add the good sugar to the eggs here,” Giuseppe said, unhappy, “and I suppose we’ll sprinkle the turbinado on top.”
Lina sighed. “I hope that will be enough.”
“I hope so too.”
“And what of flavoring?”
Giuseppe tapped his lips in thought. Lina waited patiently for his answer, but she could not see a solution for this one. The spice jars were empty.
“What if we crush the almonds and then mix them into the batter?”
“That would be better than nothing,” she said, losing hope their experiment would turn out well.
Through the remainder of the night they worked. And as the smell of baking sugar and almonds filled the room, a glimmer of hope began to fill them. Perhaps this gift would be one worthy of God’s messengers after all.
Lina removed the crisp, brown confection from the oven. Giuseppe plucked one from the tray and blew on it. When it was cool, he put it to Lina’s lips.
“Tell me what you think.”
She took the smallest bite and chewed. Her eyes flew wide.
“It’s perfection,” she declared.
He turned the cookie around and tasted it himself. Smiling, he nodded. Then he laughed. Lina laughed too, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing it. They stayed that way but for a moment.
Dusting off her apron, she said, “Come, we still have bread to make.”
The dark sky lightened into grey as they hurriedly prepared bread for the morning sale. But not before Giuseppe first tucked the cookies away into the now empty sugar box. Gently he shut the lid and they set to their daily task.
The rest of the day felt like a burden while they waited for midday to come. Just before the sun reached the middle of the sky, Lina pulled their precious gift from the shelf. Though the cookies still smelled delicious, they looked dull sitting in the box by themselves. She felt they needed something more, something to offset the dull brown of the box and the cookies themselves. She spied the brightly colored paper Giuseppe used to wrap the loaves in. Ripping off a little piece, she placed a cookie in the middle and twisted the ends closed.
“What are you doing?” asked Giuseppe, coming into the kitchen from the front of the bakery.
“They looked so lonely there in the box. I decided the least I could do is give them wrappings.”
“There is my angel, even worried about the comfort of a cookie,” he teased. Slipping his hands over hers he added, “If they are lonely then they need each other.”
Nimbly he packaged each cookie with another until they were twisted up in a pair. In no time there were a dozen pairs of cookies, all snuggled up back in the box.
“Better?” he asked.
She smiled. “Much.”
“It is still such a small gift for His disciples,” he said, frowning.
“You may be right,” she said, touching his arm. “Their service is the greater gift. More still, what of Jesus’ own gift?”
Giuseppe linked his hands around her shoulders. “His was the first and greatest gift, to be sure.”
Lina tucked the box under her arm and Giuseppe locked the bakery door. The few straggling customers were not worth waiting for. There was food for the spirit to be had this day.
When they reached the square, Lina’s heart sank. The crowd was larger than it had been the night before. The square and the alleys were filled with both believers and nonbelievers. There would be no way to reach the disciples at the heart of the square to bestow their gift. Hearing their message would be beyond them as well. Giuseppe tried pushing, but the crowd was too thick even for his determined shoving.
While he tried, Lina sat down on the stone steps, exhausted. She clutched the wooden box with the gift to her heart. They had worked so very hard, dissuaded by nothing. Now only to be defeated by their late arrival.
A hand, warm and strong, dropped on Lina’s shoulder. Surprised, she looked up. Bright eyes contrasted the weather-hardened face of a man she’d never seen before. A youth whom Lina also did not know stood behind him.
“Good day to you,” the first man said. “Are you here to hear the word of God?”
“Yes,” she said, “only we arrived too late. The crowd is more than we expected.”
“We?” he asked.
She pointed to Giuseppe, vainly trying to get through the throng. “My betrothed and I. We made a gift for the disciples. But we’ll never get close enough to give it to them.”
“May I see the gift?” asked the man, hand outstretched.
Lina hesitated, reluctant to share what they had sacrificed so much for to a stranger. At last, she slowly passed the box to him.
He opened it, raising one eyebrow. “You made these?”
“Yes.” She blushed. Now the gift truly seemed too trivial to show this great man. How worse would it be to give such a gift to Jesus’ disciples?
Tears sprang into the bright eyes of the man. He leaned back to show its contents to the youth behind him.
“Thank you,” he said. “We receive so few sweet things in our travels, save seeing souls come unto the Christ.”
“You are Paul?” she asked, amazed.
The man nodded. At that moment Giuseppe walked back. He looked utterly defeated until he heard Lina’s words. His jaw dropped. Paul smiled at him.
“And this is Timothy,” he said, motioning to the youth behind him.
Timothy nodded a greeting. “What do you call these confections?”
Giuseppe and Lina looked to one another. They had not discussed a name while creating their experiment.
“Well,” answered Lina, “we had not thought of one.”
“Amaretti,” said Giuseppe, immediately blushing. “Little almond cookies.”
Lina smiled at him. He had been thinking on it after all and she thought the name fit perfectly. She turned back to the disciples.
“They are flavored with almonds,” then feeling self-conscious, she added, “it’s all we had.”
Peeling away one of the colored wrappings, Paul nibbled a cookie and his face lit up. He passed the other morsel to Timothy.
“They are delicious.”
Giuseppe and Lina beamed at each other.
Then Paul took them both by the hand. “I have nothing to give you in return save my blessing. I pray to God that your marriage will be blessed with bounty and happiness. May your life as a pair be as your cookies, sweet and always bound in unity.”
Tears trickled down Lina’s cheeks. There was nothing she would want more than that.
“Thank you,” she managed to choke out.
Paul squeezed their hands once and climbed the stairs. Here they would teach and today Lina would learn at their feet. Giuseppe by her side.