A Sweet Italian Christmas

By Patrizia Cucca

A side from the gift-giving and classic holiday movies, it’s the Italian food traditions I savor most over the holidays. What would the holidays be without my favorite sweet treats? We all have our cookies and desserts that we fondly remember having during holiday times. They are treasured family traditions with special memories in every bite. I want to share a few of my sweets with you because it just wouldn’t be Christmas time without them.
Roccoco – Hard biscuits with a doughnut shape, filled with almonds, orange peel and zest. They have to be accompanied with a good glass of limoncello to make your Christmas Merry, because it is actually hard to bite. Many people mop it up in the liqueur which makes it easier to bite into.
Mostaccioli – Would you like an almond-based, dense, nutty, honey flavoured, lightly spiced dark chocolate coated cookie? If you said yes, these traditional Italian cookies are a must for your Christmas holiday cookie platter. Mostaccioli are Christmas cookies which are extremely popular in southern Italy, particularly among Neapolitans. They are not your typical cookie. Part of what makes them so irresistible is the combination of the dark chocolate coating, the spices and the honey.
Struffoli – With time to relax this week at home, I decided I would start a new Christmas tradition – make struffoli. It’s a bit labor-intensive, making all those little balls of dough. Struffoli is one recipe that I just made for the first time this year. This sweet confection is always a part of my family’s Christmas celebrations. There is always a plate of Struffoli on the table and served to guests any time they visit.
It is a sticky indulgence – little balls of citrusy flavoured dough that are deep-fried. They are crunchy on the outside and light on the inside. They are tossed in a glue of honey, molded into a mound or wreath shape and dusted with multi-colored candy sprinkles. A sprinkling of powdered sugar or stud the finished mound with candied orange peel and dried cranberries would also be nice to do.
INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons semolina, 6 eggs, 1 tablespoon sugar, Pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, zest 1 finely grated unwaxed lemon, 2 tablespoons olive oil, Small amount of Grand Marnier, 3–3 1/3 cups flour, plus more for rolling, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 2 1/2–3 quarts flavourless vegetable oil, for frying, 1 1/2 cups honey, approx. 2 teaspoons Christmas sprinkles, to decorate.
PREPARATION
2Get out a large, rimmed baking sheet and shake the semolina over the base. Prepare another tray (it doesn’t have to be a baking sheet) and line it with a double layer of paper towels. Set both aside while you prepare the dough.
2Beat the eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla, finely grated lemon zest, liquor and 2 tablespoons of olive oil until frothy. Gradually add about 2 2/3 cups of the flour and the baking powder, and mix to dough. If it is too sticky, then add more flour and keep kneading, using either your hands or a freestanding mixer fitted with a dough hook, until you have smooth, pliable dough. This doesn’t take very long: probably around 3 minutes or 5 by hand.
2Flour your work surface and turn out your dough. Then divide the dough into 10 roughly equal pieces, each about the size of a golf ball. Take 1 ball and roll it into a rope approx. 1/2 inch thick, then with floury hands divide this into about 20 small pieces, and roll each piece between your hands (flouring them again if this helps) to make marble-sized balls.
2Place the formed balls of dough on the semolina sprinkled baking sheet, as you shape them. Repeat the process with the remaining golf-ball-sized portions of dough: you should make a staggering 200 of the tiny balls!
2Heat the vegetable oil in a wide, heavy pan—about 11 inches diameter and at least 6 inches deep—and then when the oil is at 375°F but no higher (you can leave a preserving or candy thermometer in, if you want), or a piece of bread sizzles and browns immediately when dropped in the pan, you can begin to cook the dough balls. Regulate the temperature and keep a careful eye on the pan and the oil all the time.
2Gently lower, using a mesh scoop or perforated spoon, about 15 little dough balls at a time. At first they will sink and then, as they cook, they’ll float to the surface and begin to turn golden brown. This will take up to about 1 minute depending on how many you have in at a time, but be ready to fish them out with your mesh scoop or perforated spoon onto the paper towel–lined tray as soon as they become the right golden colour. And keep watching your oil.
2Continue to cook them in batches—making sure the oil returns to the correct temperature but doesn’t get too hot or bubble too vigorously—until they are all fried; you can pile them up on the tray without harm. Now turn off the heat under the oil pan, and move on to the adhesive and assembly stage.
2Pour the honey into a roasting pan that can go on the stove, and heat very gently until it becomes runny—a matter of moments, so do not leave the pan—then take it off the heat.
2Tip all of the fried dough balls into the warmed honey and, using a soft spatula, turn them gently to coat them. Get out a large plate or cake stand with a slight lip or rim and, with wet hands, check the balls are not too hot then pick up the sticky balls and arrange them around the outer edge of the plate in the shape of a bobbly wreath, leaving just a small empty circle in the middle. Do not worry about symmetry or perfection or counting dough balls here, please.
2Wash the honey from your hands and shake your chosen sprinkles over the sticky wreath, then stand back and admire. These struffoli are best, to my mind, eaten on the day they’re made. Use a scoop or spoon and fork to serve. It will be a sticky affair, but that’s part of their charm.

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