Soon after I was born, my mother went back to work, and I started spending my weekdays at my grandparents’ house. My dad would drop me off every morning before heading to work, and then he would pick me up later in the afternoon or early evening. My nonna ‘Vige, my nonno Emilio and my zia Carla – my mom’s older sister – all lived in that apartment. Saying that I was spoiled is an understatement. My zia Carla worked as well, so I wouldn’t spend as much time with her as I did with my grandparents. Nevertheless, she was an important part of my childhood and played a fundamental role in my life.
Zia Carla never married. She was reserved, intelligent and loyal, with a dry sense of humor and a disarming directiveness. She had a close group of friends, mostly from work, with whom she would travel and whom she periodically would see for dinner or an aperitivo. Zia Carla was curious, compassionate and caring, with a clear sense of fairness. She was the only person I have ever known able to reconcile her Christian faith with her socialist values. My zia was a strong woman with deep roots. And she loved her family. When I was ten years old she took my two older cousins and me to Venice for a week. She would travel with us for three more years, showing us the beauty of famous Italian cities – Rome, Florence and Perugia. Every year, the week before going back to school, we would travel with her. They were fantastic adventures.
From the time I was an infant until she died, too soon, at the age of 65, I cannot remember a time that my zia wasn’t there. She was there for every birthday, school graduation, holiday, and – after my nonna passed away – she would come to our house for lunch every Sunday. She paid for the rent on my apartment when I went to college in Padova, and I would call her every week to check in. Our conversations were never dull, they were often full of laughter, and I remember soaking in her wisdom every time I had a chance. She was always my biggest fan, but she was also very real: if something needed to be said, she would tell me. I loved her deeply, as my whole family did. I know my mom still misses her, I know I do.
My zia Carla had a favorite cake that she would bring to all special occasions. She would go to Panarello, a bakery in the center of Milan, and get their signature cake: a very moist, simple, delicious almond cake. When I had my bakery, I wanted to honor my tradition and my zia, so I developed my gluten-free version of the Panarello Cake. Though, it turned out, an almond cake with only a little confectioners’ sugar on top didn’t really meet the American taste. So I added a streusel on top and made it into a coffee cake; it was a success. I am going to share the recipe of my gluten-free Almond Coffee Cake, but if you’d like to try the Panarello Cake in its simplicity, use a 10″ pan, omit the streusel, and garnish the cake with sifted confectioners’ sugar.