Raffaella “Phyllis” Cappuccio’s family grew up on her cinnamon twirl cookies, but having never made them, they had no clue how the cookies got their magic. The matriarch of this big Boston-area brood has served the slightly crispy, not-too-sweet bites by the dozens for decades using a recipe that lived only in her head and was prepared only by her hands.
“My mom makes huge batches,” says daughter Linda Doherty. “As we grew up, they were on our table like other people had Chips Ahoy.”
Recently, the family came together for a little baking instruction to learn everything from the ingredients to the technique – even writing it down on paper for the very first time so it could be passed down to future generations. Phyllis and daughters Linda, Lena McCauley and Julie Mattar got to work in the kitchen with a few helpful assists from Phyllis’ husband, Aldo, and granddaughter, Madison Doherty.
Taste of Home
For Phyllis, the cinnamon twirl dough glides effortlessly from mixing bowl to baking board to cookie sheet. She rolls out the chilled dough on the well-used baking board handed down from her mother-in-law, sprinkles it with cinnamon filling, slices it gently into wedges using her scalloped-edge pastry wheel and quickly rolls it up with a flick of the wrist. In just minutes, a full cookie sheet is ready to go into the oven.
Next it’s time for her daughters to try. Phyllis is a patient teacher, showing each daughter in turn exactly how it’s done, laughing and joking as they ask questions and attempt her signature rolling technique. As Phyllis’ daughters soon discover, making Mom’s famous cookies is nowhere near as easy as she makes it look.
Lena, Julie and Linda all do their best and study their mom’s every move, but quickly realize they’ll need a lot more practice to make them just like Phyllis.
“No one can roll them like her,” Lena says after multiple tries.
Taste of Home
It’s understandable—Phyllis has had a lot of practice. At age 18, she came to America from Naples and met Aldo, also from Italy, just a few years later. She cooked and baked extensively before leaving her home country and carried her skills into her life here. Now their extended family around Boston, nearly 60 people strong, shares in the deliciousness that comes from her kitchen. The cookies are a staple, of course, along with many other varieties of sweets. Homemade gravy (red sauce), meatballs every Sunday, from-scratch bread, polenta, Italian wedding soup and more have been on the family table daily since the days when Phyllis’ own children were small.
“We call our childhood house ‘the house that built us,’” says Lena. And the meals were memorable. “Everything was made from scratch.”
Baking the cookies for the first time with Phyllis gives her daughters even greater appreciation for how they were raised and the commitment their parents had to putting fresh, homemade food on the table. They put up 200 to 250 jars of tomatoes every August, a longtime family tradition, so Phyllis can make her famous gravy and share it with everyone and have plenty left over for freezing. And when the family comes together for meals these days, the tradition extends to the next generation. Phyllis (“Nonni” to the grandchildren) and Aldo light up when the grandkids are around.
Taste of Home
“Growing up dinner was on the table every night,” daughter Julie says. “Now our kids ask, ‘Where’s Sunday dinner?’ Food and family are everything to us. We love being together.”
Phyllis encourages all members of her family to cook as much as they can and offers wisdom that only comes from years at the kitchen counter. “The best chef is your fingers,” Phyllis says. “I do everything by hand. Grab. Dig in. That’s the beauty of a kitchen.”
She admits it’s work, but she never minded it—not for one minute.
“I love being in the kitchen, cooking for my family.” Phyllis gestures to Aldo with a smile. “I’ve got him and the kids. That’s all I want.”