When Josephine Cannuscio heads into the kitchen around the holidays, it's no small affair.
This is the time of year the 74-year-old Ventnor woman turns out dozens of Christmas cookies for family and friends.
Because the project is so large, she usually uses the commercial ovens at her son Tony Cannuscio's restaurant, Jo-Jo's in Northfield, or at his brother Emilio's place, Jo-Jos in Ventnor. Son Vinny owns Jo-Jo's in Ocean City
Usually Cannuscio does the baking herself. But sometimes she gets help from her husband, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.
"It's a lot of work, but I enjoy it," Cannuscio said, her voice still bearing evidence of her childhood in Italy. "I can make so many (cookies) because we have the restaurant. Sometimes my sister helps me, my husband helps, everybody helps because everyone enjoys doing it."
But Cannuscio is in charge in the kitchen, leading the work as she prepares recipes she has known for most of her life.
"My mother and grandmother made the same recipes," she said. "Now we are making them the same way."
Born in Palermo, Sicily, Cannuscio grew accustomed to her mother making baked goods for holidays, weddings and any other family occasion that required a special, sweet treat. With eight children in the family, these occasions were frequent and called for production on a grand scale.
As soon as she was old enough, Cannuscio began helping her mother, learning the recipes and developing her own skills in the kitchen.
"My mother taught me how to do everything - to make bread at home, to make everything," she said.
By the time she met Joseph Cannuscio and married at age 17, the young girl already knew her way around a stove and had acquired her mother's and grandmother's recipes.
She brought those recipes with her when she emigrated to this country in 1968. The family began operating a restaurant on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1970. And from there the chain began to grow.
Cannuscio carried on the family tradition of baking for special occasions, her son, Tony, recalls.
"As a young boy, I always remember her cookies around Christmas," Tony Cannuscio said. "I remember the smell in the kitchen of baked goods."
Cookies are not the only holiday treat. At Easter, Josephine Cannuscio makes lambs crafted out of marzipan.
"Every holiday, there is something unique for that season," her son said.
Of course, making cookies for a slew of family and friends isn't all accomplished in one evening. In fact, Josephine Cannuscio starts working on her Christmas creations in September, when she heads out to the garden to pick figs from her fig tree. She turns these figs into a jam that she uses as filling for one type of cookie. Folks without a fig tree can purchase jars of fig jam, found in the baking aisles of some stores.
"I make everything," Josephine Cannuscio said proudly. "It always tastes better when you make it yourself. It's better than buying it."
When it comes time to make the cookies, Cannuscio heads to one of her sons' restaurants in either the early morning or in the evening - so as not to interfere with the normal business of feeding customers.
"It's a very big project," Tony Cannuscio said. "It's not easy, but she still has a passion for it. It's her way of giving gifts."
Tony Cannuscio said he encourages his daughters to help out, so they can keep the family tradition going.
"My two daughters, they love baking. But it's a different kind of baking, its not the traditional type like my mom does," he said. "I would like them to get the recipes from their grandmother, because these are things you don't really find in recipe books. It's something that's handed down, generation to generation."
Tony Cannuscio himself tends to stay away from the baking sessions: "Sometimes there are all these women in the kitchen and sometimes they are better left alone," he said.
But he does look forward to receiving his tray of cookies each holiday.
"After a Christmas Day meal, I look forward to having coffee and whatever desserts she created, he said. "The day after Christmas I will have them for breakfast - a cup of coffee and one of those delicious cookies, to me that is a delicious breakfast."
And though his mom makes pounds and pounds of cookies, Tony Cannuscio savors each one.
"They are gone very quickly. Those cookies don't last," he said.
For her part, Josephine Cannuscio says making the cookies brings back fond memories of her childhood, and of her favorite desserts.
"My favorite cookies are the ones that my grandmom made," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
•6 ounces sugar
•6 ounces Crisco
•1 teaspoon vanilla
•5 ounces milk
•2 1/2 pounds flour
•8 teaspoons baking powder
•Fig jam for filling
Beat eggs, sugar, Crisco, vanilla and milk together. Add flour and baking powder. Mix well until all ingredients are incorporated. Let sit for 30 minutes. Roll pieces of dough into a ball the size of an apricot, flatten out and fill with fig jam or your favorite filling. Close ends together in the shape of a half moon. Roll out and cut into our favorite shapes. Bake in 375 degree oven for 20 minutes, but check frequently.
•1/2 tablespoon sugar
•2 cups flour
•2 egg yolks
•1/2 tablespoon Crisco
•1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
•1 1/2 tablespoons white wine
•1 ounce vegetable oil
Beat eggs with sugar. Add the rest of the ingredients. Roll out pieces of dough to 12 inches long and the size of a finger and cut into small cubes. Drop into hot oil and fry to a golden brown.
•4 ounces honey
•2 tablespoons sugar
•Jimmies and toasted pine nuts (for decoration)
Combine ingredients. When the honey thickens, drop the balls in and mix them. Drain in the colander and place them on a plate. Decorate with jimmies and toasted pine nuts.