Welcome to the December edition of Cucina Conversations! For our last post of the year, my fellow Cucina Conversations friends and I are reprising last year’s topic and sharing ricette di natale–Christmas recipes. The holiday season has been a flurry of activity for me since last month and I’ve neglected my small corner of the Internet (yet again), but I wasn’t about to end the year without sharing one more traditional Italian recipe with you! My contribution to this month’s theme is show-stopping struffoli.
Struffoli originated in Napoli, the capital of the region of Campania, and dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks who once ruled the port city. There are a couple of theories about the origin of the name struffoli. The first theory states that it is derived from the Greek word strongoulos, which means “round in shape”, referring to the shape of the cooked dough pieces. Another theory states that the name struffoli is derived from the Italian word, strofinare which means “to rub together” and refers to the act of rolling out pieces of dough into a long, thin rope shape before cutting it into tiny pieces. Struffoli is made primarily in central and southern Italy, and this traditional Christmas dessert goes by several different names depending on the region. I grew up calling this cicerchiata, which is what this treat is called in the regions of Lazio, Molise, Abruzzo, and Umbria. Farther south in Puglia, this is called purceddruzzi. And in Calabria, this is known as both turdiddi and cicirata.
Struffoli is a dessert close to my heart because my maternal nonna used to make it every year. Although it can be eaten at Christmas time, in our family, we ate this on New Year’s Day. Legend says that the many fried balls of honey-drenched dough are symbolic of money, and eating struffoli (or cicerchiata as we called it) would bring prosperity in the new year. I’ve never been one to believe these sorts of superstitions–at most, I think they are endearing stories told through the generations. I do, however, believe in the carrying on of traditions, and I’m especially fond of having certain recipes made every year for the major holidays, especially Christmas. When I was first married, I didn’t do much cooking during the holidays because I was still a not-so-good home cook and learning through trial and (a lot of) error. As the years have progressed and I found my passion for cooking, I am now happily learning to make many of the recipes I grew up eating during the holidays.
Making struffoli is not difficult, but it is a labor of love because it is time-consuming. Breaking the recipe down into two steps makes it less time-intensive and more manageable: first you make the dough, cut the dough balls, and fry them. Once cooked and cooled, the dough balls can be stored at room temperature in a tightly sealed tin or container for up to one week. When you are ready to assemble the struffoli, all that will be left to do is warm the honey in a pot, and coat the dough balls thoroughly before shaping them into a ring on a pretty serving platter. If you want to add nuts to the struffoli mix like I do, you can chop and store those a few days in advance and have them at the ready to throw into the pot with the dough balls.
I always shape my struffoli into a wreath because that is how my nonna did it and I love the pretty presentation it makes. But there are several other beautiful ways to serve this: into a pyramid or mound on a large platter, in small paper muffin cups for single-servings (fun for a party!), in a large serving bowl, or even in a Christmas-themed shaped cake pan (such as a Christmas tree). I decorate my struffoli with green, white, and red nonpareil sprinkles, but other traditional decorations for struffoli include chopped candied citrus peel, dragées, and glacé cherries. Your imagination is the limit and you will no doubt make a festive impression when you bring this to the dessert table.
My fellow Cucina Conversations friends have made some delicious Christmas recipes for this month’s theme, so be sure to visit their blogs to read more about what Italians love to eat during the Christmas season. Francesca made a decadent cioccolata calda (hot chocolate)–it’s not just any hot chocolate–you’ll have to read her post to discover how Italians do hot chocolate! Daniela made one of my very favorite holiday confections, torrone morbido (soft nougat); Lisa made a sophisticated risotto with Prosecco; Carmen made gorgeous Sicilian fig and nut cookies called ciascuni; Marialuisa made fichi secchi ripieni (stuffed dried figs); and Rosemarie is presenting two menu options for the Christmas table: spätzle with butter, Spek, and leeks, and a stunning panna cotta (cooked cream) with pomegranate gelée. It’s a beautiful selection of festive Italian recipes!
As the year draws to a close, I’d like to thank you for reading Flavia’s Flavors. Let us remember that on the Christian calendar, the Christmas season doesn’t end until January 6th on the feast of the Epiphany. In Italy, the festivities, visits with friends and family, gift-giving, and eating delicious food continues, and it will here, too at Casa Scalzitti where our Christmas trees will stay up and holiday music will continue playing. I will be taking some vacation and return to blogging towards the last half of January. I’ll continue posting to my Instagram so follow along if you’d like!
Buon Natale e Buon Anno!
Adapted from Giallo Zafferano
The fried dough balls can be made 1 week in advance and stored in a tightly sealed container at room temperature. Glaze the dough balls and form the struffoli wreath several hours or up to 1 day before you want to serve it so the honey-coated dough balls have time to set.
3 Tablespoons (60 grams) butter, melted and cooled slightly
3¾ cups + 1 Tablespoon (400 grams) 00 or all-purpose flour
3 Tablespoons (40 grams) granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
⅛ teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 lemon
2 Tablespoons Grand Marnier liquor (optional)
Vegetable oil, for frying (the amount you use will depend on the size of your frying vessel)
To assemble the struffoli
½ cup (74 grams) slivered almonds
¾ cup (85 grams) chopped walnuts
½ cup (125 mL) honey
Make the fried dough balls
Melt the butter and set aside to cool slightly. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, salt, lemon zest, Grand Marnier, and melted butter. Use your hands to mix the ingredients until a compact dough forms. Transfer the dough onto a board and cover with a clean dishcloth. Let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes, and up to 1 hour at room temperature. After the dough has rested, cut it into 6-8 equal pieces with a sharp knife.
Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll each piece into a long, even rope shape about 1 centimeter thick. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough rope into small pieces and transfer them to a baking sheet lined with a clean dish cloth. Keep the dough balls in a single layer to ensure they do not stick to each other. Repeat this process with the dough until all of it has been used to make the dough balls.
Line a baking sheet with 2-3 layers of paper towel. Set by the stove top.
In a cast iron skillet or heavy-bottomed pot, pour in enough vegetable oil to come up no more than ⅓ or halfway up the sides of the pot. The amount of oil you use will depend on the size of your frying vessel. Heat the oil until it registers 350℉ (180℃) on an oil/candy or instant-read thermometer. Working in batches, fry the dough balls until they are amber golden, stirring often to keep the dough balls from sticking to each other while they fry. If the oil bubbles while the dough balls are frying, simply keep stirring to prevent any oil from spilling over the edges of the pot and do not fry too many dough balls at once. Transfer the cooked dough balls to the paper towel-lined baking sheet to cool and dry. Repeat this process until all the dough balls are fried.
Once all the dough balls are cooked and cooled completely, they can be stored in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to 1 week until ready to glaze and form the struffoli wreath.
Form the struffoli wreath
Have the slivered almonds and chopped walnuts close to the stove top. Place a serving platter by the stove top.
In a pot large enough to accommodate all the fried dough balls, heat the honey over medium-low heat until it is loose and warmed through completely, making sure it does not begin to boil or scorch. Turn off the heat and pour in all the fried dough balls, the slivered almonds, and the chopped walnuts. Use a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to stir the dough balls and nuts until they are thoroughly coated in the warm honey.
Place a drinking glass upside down in the center of the serving platter. Using a large spoon, transfer the dough ball mixture onto the serving platter working evenly around the drinking glass and building the wreath gradually from the middle-outwards. Use slightly wet hands to adjust and compact the struffoli wreath if necessary. Carefully remove the drinking glass once all the dough balls have been transferred to the platter. Decorate with sprinkles, glacé cherries and/or dragées. Let the struffoli wreath sit at room temperature uncovered to allow the honey to cool and the dough balls to set into shape.
Storage: Store lightly covered with wax paper or under a glass dome at room temperature for up to 1 week.