In the Venetian countryside, autumn is a long season, it spreads over many months and it seems like it never ends. The flat land of the Pianura Padana is covered in a thick blanket of fog, every day and every time, constantly: everything is grey, everything is cold, heavy, and humid: the colours are softened, the sounds dimmed, and the smells amplified.

That afternoon, the large courtyard, that used to be my playground during the summer, in front of our house, was covered in fog. From October to December, it turned into an unknown, sort of mystical land. All the familiar and playful things disappeared into the fog.

That one was one of those afternoons when my great grandmother was sitting there, beside the red brick wood-burning stove, whispering her old song and always thinking of something magic to make or bake.

From outside, not a sound, just a distant barking from a dog and the cows mooing in the stables enjoying their quiet meal. Some water was leaking from the kitchen windows condensation, and the warmth of the fire filling the room as a woolen blanket, soft and sharp at the same time.

On the stove, the old coffee pot was brewing slowly, and some orange kinks were left to dry up, releasing a cosy zesty smell.

I was sitting at the table, all immersed in a drawing and waiting for my dad to come home from his work in the vineyard. I was waiting for something to happen and break the boredom of the afternoon.

My great grandmother soon realised I was bored. She could always read to me so very well. This time was pretty easy though, as I was all puffing away and launching wishful, impatient looks towards her.

- Do you want to help me with something? - She asked suddenly.

- I don’t know; I’m waiting for dad. We have something important to do later - but it was nothing important. I just loved to be praised perhaps.

- Good, so, you take the bowl and the scale - she ordered firmly.

The magic started once again, and the witch crafting began that afternoon too.

She opened the book, scrolled quickly through the pages, and opened it at once

-” Autumn Slices,” isn’t it a beautiful name for a cake? - She said

- Your grandmother used to make it all the time when I was only a child - referring to her mother, which technically is my great-great-grandmother, I guess.

- It is an ancient recipe you should know, it comes from a long time ago, before the war, when the cars or the television didn’t exist at all and when we have almost nothing to eat -

She always brought about the war and the old times when cars or television didn’t exist. This was her way of explaining to me that something was really old.

The ingredients for the dough:

100 g of All-Purpose Flour

2 Tablespoons of Raising Powder

250 g of Caster Sugar

4 Eggs

200 g of Unsalted Butter

3 or 4 Tablespoons of Milk

1 Tablespoon of Vanilla Essence

1 Tablespoon of Grated Lemon Skin

A Pinch of Salt

For the Topping:

1 Kg of Apple or Pears

2 Tablespoons of Apricot Jam

1 Tablespoon of Boiling Water

Some Icing Sugar for decoration.

The oven was already quite hot, and some steam was puffing from its black iron cast door. One hundred and eighty degrees Celsius or about that. There wasn’t any science behind setting the temperature of that oven. It was old, reliable, but old. She knew it well, and she could tell the temperature just by looking at it and reading all the signals of the proper temperature.

From a little drawer in the table, she took out a big butcher knife and sliced the apples with quick adroit movements. She put it into a bowl to rest with a spritz of lemon to finish and avoid them to turn brown.

I was ready in my workstation just across the table from my great grandmother, waiting with another mixing bowl in my hands and the big wooden spoon.

The first thing first was the butter, then the sugar, and the vanilla essence.

- Mix it together till you get a soft cream – it was the instruction.

The butter was already soft as my great grandmother left it all day beside the stove: that was a sign that the idea of that preparation was brewing in her mind till the beginning of the afternoon.

The smell of vanilla was one of my favourites. It reminded me of my mother’s perfume, and as you know, the fragrance of “mum” is always so grounded in a child’s mind.

When the butter, the sugar, and the vanilla turned in a creamy yellowy mix, it was time for the eggs, one at a time, then the flour, and the rest of the ingredients.

Mixing wasn’t easy, but I didn’t want to ask for help. The dough was stiff and crumbly at the start. My great grandmother dropped a full spoon of milk into the preparation, and as a magic trick, everything started to soften up beautifully.

I put so much energy into that mixing activity that my arms became tired very soon. I think that was always the moment she took the spoon from my hands and gave the last good stir.

The dough was silky and soft but still thick, almost of the consistency of a stiff marshmallow.

A baking mould appeared on the table, and in that, she poured the dough, smoothing down the edges with a spatula to make it shiningly even.

She asked me to take a jar of jam from the fridge and to pour two spoonsful of that deliciousness into a cup. Then one or two spoons of boiling water were added, and the jam turned into a deep orange-colored shiny glaze. I dropped it into the dough, and with a little tap-tap of the pot, everything was once again even. Now the concoction looked as polished and marbled as a piece of stained glass.

Over the jam, my great grandmother layered the apple slices, in a particular, precise order. It was sheer art, not a slice was in the wrong place, all of them in a perfect round line like soldiers. My great grandmother seemed to have developed some internal caliber of sorts, every apple was equally far from the other and equally distant from the center. The result was a marvelous rose.

After 45 minutes in the oven, the cake was gold and brown, and the apple beautifully caramelized, sunk into the batter just a little bit.

I couldn’t wait any longer to taste a slice of that cake. But I was impatient, and we all had to wait for dad to be home from the vineyard. That was the moment in which the cake only could be sliced.

If there is one thing my great grandmother taught me, is that it is essential to make things memorable. To wait for a special moment to enjoy things, because they will be even more enjoyable that way.

It’s a complicated concept to explain, and my poor English is not helping. I will try and give you an example: for instance, when I was buying new shoes as a child, or a new shirt, or a new pair of trousers, I always had to wait for the Sunday Mass to wear them first. It was frustrating as a kid because, like every child, you want to use new things straight away. But that was the rule for new clothes: you have to wait for the Sunday Mass. And so was for the cakes. She never baked something without reason, just because she liked it. Every pie, every biscuit, and every dish were linked closely to an event, even something as simple as my dad coming back from work.

I find that the ‘waiting ingredient’ is one of the secrets of why the cakes she baked have always been much better than the one I make even if I follow the book’s instructions letter by letter.

Waiting and connecting things to a special occasion fills them with expectations, dreams, and looking forward.

Think about that and how our everyday life could change if we put this little magic into things?

You got a new phone, right? Try this exercise: wait and open it with your children or your girlfriend or a friend of yours. Don’t open it just out of the shop door. Isn’t that different? Isn’t that much more worth it? You don’t get to open a new phone box, but you share the moment, the experience, and expectations with someone you love. You make at least two people happy with that little thing, not just yourself.

Another exercise that you can try: you are having a dreadful day at work, and you decide to buy yourself an ice cream for lunch, because why not, makes sense right?! Don’t eat it straight away! Find yourself a nice bench in the park, close by a pond or by the sea, and enjoy the moment. Enjoy the waiting.

You must know that my great grandmother wasn’t from the flat land of the Venetian countryside where our house is. She was born and raised up in the mountains, in the middle of the Venetian Dolomites, in a little rural village called Fonzaso.

Her family was from up there. Her appearance, look, language, and style were still up in the mountains as well. She kept her dialect, a quite incomprehensible, strict idiom that nobody outside of the family could understand. We were used to it, and I spoke that language too. My mother wasn’t much happy about that though:

-They won’t understand what you’re saying in school, and you’ll never get a friend- my mother used to say.

Secondly, the look: my great grandmother always wore a dark scarf on her head kept together by a golden brooch at the base of her neck, as it was fashionable where she was from. The gold pin was shaped like a flower, and along with a necklace, her only two pieces of jewelry.

As I said, this fashion of wearing a scarf was a common practice of the girls in the mountains:

- Nobody wants to see your ‘extremities’, never mind your messy hair - she used to say, and - you are always ready to go to Mass if you wear the scarf -.

Girls and ladies, in fact, had always to wear a scarf or a foulard on their heads while attending Mass. This became a sort of fashion statement in the village where my great grandmother was from, being the weekly Mass the best, or perhaps the only occasion to chat with friends, meet people, and especially meet boys, to meet your future husband. Girls used to wear their best dresses to Mass. Poor girls choose their best scarves.

She never took off her scarf, or at least she never did when I was around.

In the Venetian countryside, wearing the scarf wasn’t really common anymore, and because of that, my great grandmother and her scarf-wearing sisters were called “the witches”. We never found that cruel or mocking. On the contrary, she and her sisters were incredibly proud and fond of being the witches of the mountains.

Finally, the culture: even if living in the middle of the Venetian countryside, the alpine way of doing stuff and thinking was very much still part of my great grandmother. She was a stubborn lady, always decisive and really secure of herself. She was hard-working but still kind and sweet. She definitely was an introvert too.

Mountain people are introverts, hard workers, and really, really stubborn, but in a nice way. They believe in fairy-tales, and they like so very much to tell stories all of the time!

One of these tales was about a little girl called Fragoletta. Fragoletta was very poor, and the only food she could get to feed her two little brothers was the fruits of an apple tree. One day, a giant snake saw that Fragoletta was and asked her what the matter was. Fragoletta looked up at the tree and pointed that there weren’t any apples left and that her two brothers were going to starve. The snake got upset at hearing Fragoletta’s story and with a swing of its tale, magically made the tree producing hundreds of golden and silver apples.

Fragoletta was really happy and to thank the snake for its help, baked a beautiful cake, shaped like the tail of the snake. Here is where the apple strudel cake was born, and it still is one of the most popular and typical desserts of the Dolomites and the Alps.

The ingredients for the dough:

250 g of All-Purpose Flour

2 or 3 Tablespoons of Sunflower Seed Oil

1 Large Egg

100 ml of Warm Water

A Pinch of Salt

For the filling:

4 Big Apples


½ Cup of Breadcrumbs

4 Tablespoons of Sugar

½ Cup of Raisins

¼ Cup of Pine Nuts

1 Tablespoon of Cinnamon

As per usual, I was at the mixing station.

My great grandmother poured the flour on the table and created a sort of volcano or well shape.

With a quick and expert gesture, an egg was cracked open into the flour hole along with a pinch of salt.

Mixing the ingredients and creating the strudel dough was, of course, the funniest and most entertaining piece of my afternoon in the kitchen.

Her recommendation, or better her order, was not to let the egg drip out from the volcano of flour. Even with that recommendation, in no time, there was egg everywhere but in the flour well.

Slowly my great grandmother poured some of the warm water into the mix, followed by a couple of tablespoons of oil.

A soft but firm ball was formed, kneading it well until smooth and shiny.

She took the dough gave it a round dome-shape and dripped a couple of drops of the sunflower seed oil on the top, and gave it a delicate little massage. This treatment kept the dough from drying too much and forming a hard skin on the top while left to rest.

After making the strudel base, my great grandmother peeled the apples, cut them evenly in small thin triangles, and let them rest on one side, in a bowl where she added raisins and pine nuts as well.

I remember I used to steal pine nuts. They were deliciously tasty.

Pine nuts were a sort of a big deal for us all like apples were. Every year in August, my family went for a one-day trip to visit the relatives in the mountains, my great-grandmother's cousins.

On the day of the trip, after lunch, it was a tradition to go for a walk in the woods surrounding the village and collect pine nuts from fallen pine cones.

Once home, the pine nuts were cleaned and stored in sealed jars for the rest of the years.

They were delicious, as I said. Not just for the flavour but mostly for the memory of the day spent in the woods scavenging for pinecones and being amazed at the little jewels-like seeds.

My great grandmother, in a way, was quite attached to those pine nuts.

- They smell of home - she always said.

I realized much later what she actually meant: in the pine nuts, she could smell pine's essential oil. She could smell the wood that surrounded her village, and that was a very special memory link to her childhood, her familiar surroundings, voices, and laughter.

I don't know if you have ever been to the Italian Dolomites, but the air smells intensively of pine up there. Every day of the year, it does, and it is absolutely inebriant.

When dough and filling were finally ready, it was time to put together the cake.

On a tea towel, abundantly dusted with plenty of flour, my great grandmother flattened the dough using a wooden made rolling pin. The dough was flattened into a square, as large as the tea towel was. Really thin as well:

-You must see what’s out of the window through it – my great grandmother used to say.

On the flattened dough, she sprinkled a little bread crumb, not too much, sugar, cinnamon, and finally spread the apple, raisin, and pine nuts mix.

The smell coming from the apple and the cinnamon filled the kitchen, and we were immersed in a dazzling fuzzy cloud of exotic scents.

It has to be said that my great grandmother had a little trick to keep lingering and enhance the scent of cinnamon in the kitchen: she used to dust a very tiny pinch of cinnamon on the top of the hot stove. Like a true witch, with a broad gesture, and creating a cloud of smoke, she made the “magic of the cinnamon”. In just a few seconds the smoke was gone, but the kitchen turned into a beautiful cinnamony heaven for hours. It was comparable, I guess, to the scent they used in Christmas markets or fancy shops during the holiday season, to remind ourselves of family warmth and beautiful sweets.

I have never connected cinnamon with Christmas, though. For me cinnamon was my great grandmother's magic over the stove and apple strudel.

When the filling was evenly distributed over the dough, my great grandmother used to fold three sides of the dough toward the center, creating a sort of a lapel—five centimeters or so, not much more.

Then, with the wise help of the tea towel, the entire dough was rolled up creating, a very tight spiral as you do for a Swiss roll.

The strudel so formed was laid on a baking tray and brushed with milk and sugar, or honey, depending on what was available on the occasion.

In the oven, it went. One hundred and eighty degrees Celsius for forty minutes, until golden brown.

We couldn't eat it until the day after, though. It had to be cool and rested, and it was usually served covered in icing sugar or with some fruit of the forest jam on the side.

I remember one of these afternoons particularly. It was mid-October, an unusually cold afternoon for the usually mild season.

The mist rose very early that morning outside the little kitchen window, and the sun almost disappeared in a grey, dull, charcoal-smelling fog.

The kitchen was a large room with a big twenty-four sits wooden table in the middle. The walls were ancient, tall, and coated with layers of paint crumbling in spots and revealing old forgotten colours. The kitchen's furniture was reasonably minimal: an ample reddish wooden counter on the left, a white laminated cupboard on the right, and the red brick wood-burning stove on the far side, opposite to the main door.

The red brick wood-burning stove was, of course, minded by my great grandmother. She was sitting in the usual spot with a cat or two purring on her knees—the same song on her lips as a whisper.

Kneeling from a chain, at the table, I was constantly drawing and writing on some scrap paper: I oddly used to be obsessed with drawing houses and churches. The only things I pulled from age four to six were houses and churches and a sporadic family portrait.

One of the cats suddenly jumped down from its cozy place on my great grandmother’s apron to the floor, like if something was suddenly happening, and that spark I was talking about, the glow of magic immediately appeared on my great grandmother's eyes.

The recipe book was already spread open on the table, and we began the most beautiful of the afternoons.

The large kitchen room quickly turned into a happy bubble of smells, exotic scents, fun, flour dust, and powdered sugar. Outside the kitchen, the thick fog and the cold autumnal mist thickened, like to create a soft shield around the kitchen and hide the magic to the outside world. No sounds, no noise could be heard from the garden, and the entire house looked enchanted. All that mattered in that cold afternoon was inside the kitchen: the red brick stove, the book of recipes, the flour, the butter, the eggs, the vanilla essence, and my great grandmother’s magic.

With a quick swing of the hand, she opened the book and scrolled through dozens of leaflets and bookmarks, and found the right recipe.

Apple Pie, it was!

The Ingredients for the topping of the pie:

1 kg of "Golden Delicious" Apple, sliced relatively evenly

1 hg of Caster Sugar

A splash of Rum

A spritz of lemon juice

The filling had to be prepared first by mixing the apple finely sliced, the caster sugar, and the rum, together in a large bowl, and let it rest for a good thirty minutes afterward.

The spirit's flavour must fill the fruit, and the juice that trickles from the apples had to melt the sugar creating the most delicious trickle, in a beautiful wedding of tastes.

A spritz of lemon juice had to be added to the mix just to prevent the apple to turn brown. But only just a few drops. My great-grandmother never liked lemon, so she always was really parsimonious with it.

My duty was to mix and add the caster sugar a tiny bit at a time. Although the sugar could go in all at once and that slow pouring wasn't necessary for the recipe's outcome, it was probably and expedient to keep me busy while my great grandmother was cutting the apple and preparing the other ingredients.

I was meticulous in this operation, pouring the sugar teaspoon after teaspoon, very slowly.

I only realized later that adding the full measure would have saved me quite the trouble of spattering sugar everywhere, rather than into the bowl.

Although my great-grandmother was a pretty tough woman, she never got angry because of my clumsiness. Never a word of rebuke or twit.

While I was still over my pot of apple, almost befuddled by the potent smell of rum, she turned on the oven at two hundred degrees Celsius.

You must know that the oven was not like the modern one that you can set at a required temperature. It was fire operated, part of the range of the red brick stove, and had to be minded and fed very carefully. My great-grandmother had an eye for it, and she knew precisely how many logs were needed in the stove and the precise strength of fire to keep it almost at 200 degrees.

Coming to think of it, I doubt she knew it was 200 degrees either. She just knew the right temperature to cook a cake and that was basically it. Later on, when trying these recipes in a modern oven, I figured out that the correct temperature for an optimal result is 200 degrees Celsius.

The ingredients for the dough:

An Egg plus an Egg Yolk

1hg of Caster Sugar

1.5 hg of All-Purpose Flour

1 Teaspoon of Rising Powder

50g of butter

1 Lemon

1 Teaspoon of Vanilla essence

A Pinch of Salt

Putting the filling on one side, my great-grandmother started preparing the base of the cake.

First of she measured the flour - Always the flour first! - She used to say.

The scale she used for all her baking was old and rusty, with some traces of the original blue paint here and there. It was like those on the counter of old apothecaries or pharmacies or that can be found in antique shops.

The measuring dish went lost and forgotten a long time before, and so we used a regular plate. Altogether it was working fine, or at least my great grandmother knew how to interpret it and detect the measurement by how much it was low or high in the reading.

The flour properly measured was poured into a bowl.

After the flour, in goes the sugar, the raising powder, a pinch of salt, and the eggs.

I mixed all these ingredients in the bowl with a cumbersome wooden spoon that looked taller than me back then.

While I was all busy stirring the dough, my great grandmother zested the lemon skin and poured it into the bowl with the mix.

She hated lemon, so I remember. She always washed her hands after peeling a lemon or an orange. I found it so funny and sometimes odd because I loved the fresh smell of citrus.

Time goes by, and now that I'm about to turn thirty, honestly, I'm not too fond of lemon, and even worse the smell of mandarins. I can't even touch them, and if I do, I need to wash my hand straightaway. It's amusing to see how things are so deeply embedded in you from your childhood. Uses, manners, and tastes are a sort of tradition or heirloom, an inheritance that you bring over with you no matter what you become or where you end up growing up.

The butter was melted and poured into the sponge mix, along with the vanilla essence.

-Vanilla loves the butter; they always go together- my great grandmother always repeated, like a magic formula.

That saying was more scientific than my child's mind could imagine. Apparently, essences stick to fats, and in a greasy environment, they develop all their potential of odours and flavour. This is probably why master perfumers have for centuries, used the technique of lying flower petals on beds of animal fat, to steal their essence and create beautiful fragrances.

The dough wasn't too hard, but my great grandmother always took it out of my hands for the final, last good stir. It was like a sort of seal of approval or quality control mark that she had to stamp on any preparation.

The mix was silky now and of a light-yellow colour. Into the sponge batter, went half of the apple preparation made in advance, and it was finished with one last energetic whisk, till everything was well combined and uniform.

While my great-grandmother was mixing, I dusted a 24 centimetres cake mould with some flour, paying particular attention that all the edges were well covered.

Then she poured the mix into the baking dish and tapped on the table to smooth everything down and get the mix evenly distributed.

The last thing to do was to arrange the remaining apple slices on the top and create a harmonious design that looked like a sunflower or a fancy pointed star like the one we used on the top Christmas tree.

He piping hot oven was ready and in went the cake, for about an hour, or until of gorgeously golden-coloured.

Just before the hour was gone, my great grandmother used to check the bake with a wooden skewer, pricking through the surface of the pie in a few spots at intervals of five minutes: when the skewer came out dry, the magic was done, and the pie was perfectly baked inside as it was on the outside.

The main scope, or purpose of this pie, the why behind making it, was to use and not waste leftover apples. You have to know that we lived in the middle of the Venetian countryside. The house was situated right where the flatland meets the Dolomites. That is a wonderful place to grow apples and pears, and inf fact all the surroundings are scattered with orchards and vineyards.

My family owns a farm and quite a vast piece of land surrounding the house. What can be considered the backyard of the house garden, although for the regular person just looks like a field, was set as an apple orchard. There were hundreds of trees, some really old and robust, some other quite skimpy and young, but all of them produced a lot and lot of fruit every year.

The apple matter was a big one for my family as our orchard produced so many, way beyond a normal family’s need, and avoiding waste was of course a priority. Apple pies and apple strudels and all sorts of other bakes and jams were the solutions.