"Oh my gosh, I couldn't count," Damiani said. "I've cooked three meals a day every day since 1948!"
In the old days, it was not unusual for her to put up 300 jars of tomato sauce for her family - which includes her 92-year-old husband, Emidio, their two daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She doesn't can as much as she used to but still tends a garden that produces figs and arugula at her Haddonfield home.
Cooking is in Damiani's DNA. She learned from her grandmother, who had a small trattoria in the Italian countryside, and from her mother, also an excellent cook, even during those challenging days. "It was a bad time during the war," Damiani recalled. "There were very limited ingredients."
She credits that experience with making her a thrifty cook who knows how to use whatever she has on hand to the fullest. She rarely uses books, though she has a copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook that an employer gave her many years ago.
"I like the recipe for old-fashioned rice pudding. Yes, that's nice," Damiani said. "As far as kitchen appliances go, I like my mixer and a pizzelle iron. I use the pizzelle recipe that came with it - nothing fancy."
Her cooking tips reflect her straightforward attention-to-detail approach.
"Wash your hands often and pay attention to what you are doing," she said. "Young people don't like to stand there, but you have to wash your lettuce one leaf at a time. And watch your pot roast."
Damiani wanted to share with Daily News readers her recipe for gâteau, one of her family's favorite dishes. Not be confused with the rich dessert, this a savory potato cake that has long been a staple of southern Italy. It is delicious (we tried it!) and makes economic use of leftovers or ingredients that need to be used.
This is an ideal use for those Thanksgiving leftover mashed potatoes. Odds and ends such as leeks and onions are fine to toss in as well. You can serve this as a side, but when accompanied by a salad, it is a meal all its own.
GÂTEAU DI PATATE
4 cups mashed potatoes (mash them the usual way with milk, butter, salt and pepper)
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup ricotta
1/2 pound mozzarella, cut into small dice
Cooked ham, sausage or bacon, diced (use leftovers as desired)
3 tablespoons grated Locatelli cheese
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Butter to dot
Butter a 9-by-9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle some of the bread crumbs on the bottom, reserving the rest for the topping.
Mix together potatoes, eggs, ricotta, mozzarella and diced meat. Spread mixture over the crumbs in the pan, top with remaining bread crumbs, grated cheese and dot with butter.
Bake at 325 degrees for about 1 hour, until the top is evenly puffy, the edges are a little bubbly and the bread crumbs are browned. Serves 8.
Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.
On the third Thursday monthly, "Top Cooks" spotlights a home-cooking whiz and one of their recipes. To nominate a cook, email email@example.com or write: Top Cooks, Philadelphia Daily News, 801 Market St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Include your name and a daytime phone number.