For Italians, December 25th is one of the most important and celebrated days of the year. The celebration of Christmas began around 300 AD when Emperor Constantine, who had recently adopted Christianity, celebrated the birht of Christ for the first time in history. In true Roamn fashion, they had to put their own mark on this celebration by chosing the 25th of December to honor Christ which was also the feast day of the Romans’ old pagan god, Mithras.
The Christmas holiday in Italy is celebrated for a full month with it beginning in earnest on December 8 or Immaculate Conception Day when many Italians attend church to honor Mary, whom they believe is immaculate, or “free from sin”. Many family and friends get together for a meal and it is typically the day when most families put up their Christmas tree. This year I was so excited to get our tree up, I was able to convince my husband to put up the tree earlier than December 8…a week early to be precise. It was a Sunday and snowing outside and it felt festive plus it was the first time in our adult lives that we actually had a real life sized tree so I was excited to say the least! He agreed, but his one request was that we not turn on the lights until December 8. I could live with that. The tree was up and decorated! Yippee!
While nearly every Italian family puts up a tree and strings festive lights, the traditional symbol among Italian Christmas decorations still remains the Nativity scene. The mangers or presepe come in all shapes and sizes and you will find them in most households; especially the farther south you go. The Neapolitan prespe are some of the most famous and are true works of art and are usually built out of paper mache, wood or even cork by experienced artists who have passed on their skills from generation to generation.
Since making the rounds in our apartment building and friends houses, I realized that they had some pretty outstanding and elaborate Nativity scenes. I must admit that we don’t have one and to be honest I am not inclined to get one. I have never been a fan of little pieces or figurines floating about gathering dust and to be truthful I am quite sure I would end up losing half the pieces or our dog would claim a few as his chew toys. I am happy to admire the ones of our friends and thankfully my husband isn’t put out that we don’t have one. The fact we have a tree, stockings and lights is all a pretty big accomplishment for us so no need to push it, right?
In Italy, the Christmas holiday stretches all the way to the Epiphany on January 6. So, a full month of celebration, eating and visiting with friends and family. Certainly no complaints from me even if that means a couple extra kilometers added to my normal runs. During this time a lot of family gatherings take place centered around what else…food! On Christmas Eve, my husband and are I always in Napoli (well Marcianise) with his family and we have the classic “cenone” (which literally means big supper) or feast of the five, seven and sometimes even 9 fishes (depending on the family) around 8:00 pm. There is always spaghetti alle vongole, shrimp, fried calamari and some sort of fish or two. After a marathon of eating, we take a break with a coffee, open a few presents to gear up for the table (yes, table) of desserts which let’s be honest is my favorite part of the meal!
One dessert that is always on the table at my mother in law’s house is struffoli. Struffoli is a Neapolitan sweet treat made of deep fried balls of dough that are about the size of marbles. They are crunchy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. Once fried the dough balls or struffoli are mixed with a warm honey mixture and sometimes nonpareils sprinkles are added and even bits of orange rind, candied fruit and almonds. Some believe this dessert has origins in Greece and you can find similar versions of this dessert in other regions of Italy. In Umbria it’s called Cicerchiata) and in Calabria Circirata.
Our night is capped off with midnight mass before crawling into to be bed for a few hours of slumber before we start the process all over again except this time in reverse order with church or mass in the morning before an early afternoon dinner followed by what else, more sweets; especially struffoli…although to be honest I have certainly been nibbling on it since breakfast. It is addictive and in my opinion gets better after a day or two with all that yummy sticky honey creeping into all the nooks and crannies of the fried dough balls and pieces of almonds that some like to add. Others also add pieces of candied fruit, but I prefer it plain or with nuts.
After having researched and tried several different recipes, I realized that I prefer the recipes that use a little bit of baking powder and a little more butter as it lends for a softer more pliable dough and when you fry the little marble sized pieces, they come out softer instead of rock hard. I used the recipe from the bible of Italian cookbooks: Il Cucchiaio D’Argento, Cucina Regionale (The Silver Spoon, Regionale Cooking) as my guide.I made a few changes. First, I cut the size of the recipe in half and I use whole eggs instead of just egg yolks. The result was perfect in my opinion.
I like to form my struffuli into the classic wreath shape. I find the easiest way to do it is to lightly grease a tube cake pan or a bundt cake pan and old your honey coated fried dough balls and then turn it out onto a serving plate and let it harden up. You can also shape it by hand and simply put a drinking glass in the middle to help make the shape of the wreath. Just make sure you lightly coat your hands in a bit of oil before working with the sticky mixture.
If I am giving them as gifts as part of a larger holiday basket of treats, I will make little individual wreaths and then wrap them in cellophane or plastic wrap.
Merry Christmas and Buon appetito!
Struffoli is a Neapolitan is a typical Christmas sweet treat made of deep fried balls of dough that are crunchy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside guided together with sweet honey.
- 3 1/4 cups (400 grams) AP (00) flour
- 3 medium eggs
- 6 Tablespoons (85 grams) cooled melted butter
- 3 Tablespoons (40 grams) sugar
- 2 Tablespoons white wine, rum, limoncello or anise flavored liqueur
- zest from 1 lemon
- zest from 1 orange
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 to s cups (600 mL) oil for frying (I like to use peanut oil)
- 300 grams honey
- 150 to 200 grams candied fruit (optional)
- 1/2 cup almonds (optional)
- colored sprinkles
- Melt the butter and set it aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, add the flour, baking powder, salt and lemon and orange zests and mix well.
- Next add the sugar, melted butter and wine or liqueur of choice.Mix with a wooden spoon. The mixture will be crumbly looking.
- Make a well in the center of the mixture and add the three eggs. Begin mixing with a wooden spoon. As the mixture starts to come together, put it out on your countertop and knead together with your hands until you have a smooth dough.
- Cover lightly with plastic wrap and leave on the table to rest for 30 minutes.
- Next, roll the dough into thick cords of about a quarter of inch thick. Cut the dough into portions of about half an inch and roll each into small balls. Each dough ball should be about the size of a hazelnut.
- Lightly dust the dough balls with flour.
- In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. You can keep track of the temperature using a thermometer. Heat it up until it reaches 375° Fahrenheit (190 Celsius).
- Fry the dough balls in batches. It should take around two to three minutes per batch. Dough balls should be a light golden brown.
- Meanwhile, line a serving plate with paper towels.
- Once the dough balls are done, place them on the plate and let the paper towels absorb the excess oil.
- Heat the honey until it is thinned out and a little runny.
- Pour the honey over the fried dough balls (that you have placed in a large mixing bowl). Fold the mixture carefully, making sure not to damage the dough balls
- Once all the dough balls are covered with the honey mixture, transfer them to a serving plate.
- Arrange the dough balls around the serving platter, leaving a hole at the center. You can place a glass in the middle so that you can estimate the hole you are creating. You can also just make a mound of dough balls at the center, if you want an easier assembly.
- After you’ve assembled the dough balls on the serving plate, carefully pour some of the remaining honey mixture on top. Put as much as you prefer.
- You can sprinkle over the top of the struffoli with sprinkles, confectioner’s sugar, or any other edible decorations on top.