Sandra Scalise Juneau has lived St. Joseph’s Altars all her life. At age 5 in 1945, she portrayed the Virgin Mary in the “tupa tupa” ceremony, representing the Holy Family knocking on the door, at her Nonna Accardo’s dining room altar. She learned from her two Sicilian grandmothers how to prepare and bake the special foods, and she has passed that knowledge on to thousands in classes, lectures and now a cookbook.
Juneau conveys the magic of the sacred ancient tradition in “Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars” ($29.95), part of The Southern Table series from LSU Press. This is, without question, the most comprehensive work on the local traditions, starting with the deep history transported from Sicily. Juneau includes everything from how to create an altar to the litany and rosary of St. Joseph to a chapter on miracles attributed to St. Joseph.
The book was published in March 2021 and represents Juneau’s lifetime of research and teaching.
“These were questions I was asking of my grandmother,” Juneau said. “Why is it this way? I did all the research and went back to my grandmother’s hometown and baked with the ladies there.”
The art of cuccidata
Juneau is known for teaching the art of baking cuccidata, the elaborate, symbolic fig cakes. She has her grandmother’s simple carving tools, “and each time I pick one up, I know she is still there beside me, guiding my hands in continuing this sacred tradition.”
Juneau writes that her grandmother’s altar grew so large after the war years, it was the first to move from the home into a public space, the Convent of the Good Shepherd in New Orleans.
Juneau created and supplied cuccidata for a gallery in New York in 1971 at the behest of legendary food writer Mimi Sheraton. The Italian village at the 1984 Louisiana’s World’s Fair had an altar with her work, as does the American Italian Cultural Center and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
She cherishes the time she spent teaching freshmen at Xavier University, whose works are pictured in the book with their Kente cloth-covered altar.
Works on display
“You wouldn’t believe the national reaction to this book,” Juneau said. “The Italian American Museum in Los Angeles has a permanent St. Joseph’s Altar and contacted me last year. I sent them three of my huge cuccidata pieces made in salt dough, which are now on permanent display there.”
The 60 recipes in the book include some that are seldom seen, such as how to roast fava beans to turn them into (inedible) lucky beans, handed out at the altars. She explains pupa cu l’ova, dyed eggs surrounded by dough, literally “puppets with eggs,” often tucked into Easter baskets.
The many savory dishes range from stuffed eggplant in tomato gravy to froscia (Sicilian vegetable omelets) to pasta con le sarde, the traditional St. Joseph’s Day gravy, served with a sprinkle of mudica, seasoned breadcrumbs symbolizing the sawdust from Joseph’s carpentry workshop.
And, of course, there are many sweet confections, including a recipe for St. Joseph’s Day Cream Puffs passed down in the Angelo Brocato family. There are many fried treats, plus of course the biscotti, chocolate wine cookies, anise cookies, amaretti and sesame seed cookies. She gives detailed instructions for fig cookies and the fancy display cuccidata.
Juneau says she thinks her grandmothers who taught her the traditions would be thrilled with her book and its reception.
“Everything else written about St. Joseph’s Altars seemed to be from an outsider viewpoint,” Juneau says. “I wanted it to be from an insider and have a sacred viewpoint.”
Caponatina (Eggplant Relish)
“This Sicilian-style sweet and tart eggplant relish was a specialty of my paternal grandmother, Virginia Maturana Scalise,” Juneau writes. “Packaged into decorative jars, caponatina is always a welcome hostess gift.” Makes 3 quarts or 12 8-ounce jars.
2 large eggplants, unpeeled, rinsed, dried
1 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
salt and black pepper
1 stalk celery, cut in ½-inch slices, leafy tops reserved
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
1-1/2 to 2 cups sugar, divided use
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes, drained, liquid reserved
½ cup sliced fresh basil
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 cups chopped olives with pimentos, rinsed, drained
1 cup pine nuts, toasted
½ cup pickled capers, rinsed, drained
4-5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
For serving: Lettuce leaves or toasted Italian bread slices
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut eggplants into 1-inch cubes and place in a shallow baking pan. Drizzle with 1/2-cup oil; lightly salt and pepper. Toss evenly to distribute. Roast until slightly browned, about 20 minutes. Turn and roast until lightly browned on all sides, about 10 minutes more.
2. In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, warm remaining ½ cup oil. Saute celery until translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove celery. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 7 minutes.
3. Reduce heat to low, add tomato paste, and bring to a simmer. Stir in 1 cup sugar and cinnamon. Stir constantly while mixture simmers. Cook until mixture turns a dark brick red color, about 5 minutes. Gradually blend in white wine vinegar.
4. Cut canned tomatoes into medium-size pieces. Gently stir into simmering mixture. Gradually add reserved tomato liquid. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
5. Stirring gently with a wooden spoon, carefully blend in eggplant and celery. Cook on medium, covered, 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Chop celery leaves and add with basil and oregano. Fold in olives. Add pine nuts, capers and 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add more sugar if too tart, or remaining tablespoon of balsamic vinegar if too sweet.
6. To can, spoon hot caponatina into sterilized jars according to manufacturer’s directions. Cool completely to room temperature, then refrigerate up to two months. If not sealing into jars, cool mixture to room temperature. Before serving refrigerated at least overnight. Mixture that is not canned and sealed will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 2 weeks.
7. Serve chilled as an antipasto with toasted Italian bread slices, or on lettuce leaves as a salad.
Sesame Seed Cookies, or Biscotti Regina
Crispy and only lightly sweetened, these “queen of cookies” are a favorite of many. Make 10 dozen.
2 cups unhulled sesame seeds
1-3/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
4-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup white vegetable shortening
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a fine mesh strainer, rinse seeds under a thin stream of water. Drain thoroughly and spread on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with ¼-cup sugar. Stir and spread seeds evenly on baking sheet and place in preheated oven. Bake 5 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, sift 4 cups flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, beat eggs with mixer until foamy; gradually add remaining 1-1/2 cups sugar. Add shortening and mix until fully incorporated.
3. Make a well in the center of flour mixture and fold in egg mixture. Mix in milk and vanilla. Dough should be workable but slightly sticky. If dough seems too sticky to knead, gradually add 1 tablespoon flour at a time until you reach the desired consistency. Knead dough a few minutes. Separate into 4 balls and return balls to bowl. Cover and set aside 10 minutes.
4. Spread half the warm seeds in a 12-inch line on a dry, clean pastry board. Pinch off ½ cup pieces of dough and roll into logs about ¾ inch thick. Roll each dough strip in seeds, coating thoroughly on all sides. Cutting on a 45-degree angle, slice strips into 2-inch-long pieces. Place on an ungreased baking sheet 1 inch apart. Repeat with remaining dough and seeds until all are used. Pat each to slightly flatten. Bake until brown on bottom and slightly browned on top, about 20 minutes.
5. Cool cookies thoroughly before storing up to 2 weeks in a sealed tin in a cool place. Or freeze up to 2 months.
Froscia, or Sicilian Vegetable Omelet
Local recipes for the Sicilian omelet are rare, but these can be regularly seen on altars. Use any type of cooked fresh vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, fresh or canned artichoke hearts, any variety of mixed greens, or cardoons, similar to artichokes, sold especially at this time. Makes 4-6 servings.
¾ cup olive oil, divided
2 cups plain or seasoned breadcrumbs, divided
3 cups fresh vegetables, blanched, thoroughly drained
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup grated Parmesan
4 large eggs
4 tablespoons fresh basil, cut in thin slices
For serving: Lemon wedges, 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1. In a 12-inch shallow skillet over medium heat, warm ½ cup olive oil. Sprinkle 1 cup crumbs evenly over skillet bottom. Add vegetables but do not stir. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and continue cooking vegetables until just warmed through. Top with cheese.
2. In a bowl, whisk eggs to a slight froth. Stir in basil. Drizzle eggs over vegetables, pouring from outer edge of skillet to the middle. Tilt skillet to evenly distribute eggs. Slide a spatula under vegetables to loosen bottom to prevent sticking. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup breadcrumbs over frost, and season with salt and pepper.
3. Gently loosen frost from edges and bottom of skillet. Slide onto a large plate with uncooked side up. Wipe out skillet with a paper towel.
4. Add remaining ¼ cup oil to skillet and warm over medium heat. Flip frosting back into skillet with uncooked side on the bottom. Cook to brown bread crumbs, 1 minute. Slide frost onto a warmed serving plate. Froscia can be kept warm up to 15 minutes, without garnish, in a 200-degree oven. When ready to serve, garnish with lemon slices and fresh minced parsley. Serve immediately.