The first official sign of the holidays on Arthur Avenue is not the Christmas tree lighting in Ciccarone park, but the first appearance of struffoli at Artuso’s, DeLillo’s, Edigio’s, Gino’s and Marrone. Struffoli are balls of dough which are flavored with citrus zest and then bathed in hot honey. Their origin is in Naples where historically nuns made struffoli to give to the aristocracy as a thank-you for their generosity to the poor (and the convents) throughout the year. Their unusual name derives from the Greek word “strongoulos” as Naples and all of Southern Italy’s cities have Greek foundations. However, you’ll find a similar dessert with different names in other regions of Italy.
Cicerchiata, CiCirata, Pignolata & Purcidduzzi
The words cicerchiata and cicirata refer to small wild chickpeas that grow in Abruzzo and Calabria respectively. As such, the dough balls are smaller than Neapolitan struffoli, but make essentially the same dessert. In the Abruzzo, it’s composed in a ring rather than a mound and can be served in slices. Cookbook author Domenica Marchetti recalls how during the holidays, adults will often demure from indulging in the ring of cicerchiata until the espresso is served. Then it becomes impossible to resist prying off a few sticky pieces to enjoy. Sicilians call them pignolata, little pine nuts, and will form the balls into the shape of a pine cone and cover them with lemon glaze, chocolate, or both! Finally in Puglia, the same sweets are called purcidduzzi, a dialect word that means “little pigs” because the last day they can be enjoyed is January 17th, the feast of Saint Anthony Abbott, a saint who is often depicted with a pig.
How to make struffoli
While I usually can’t justify making Italian pastries with such a bounty of pastry shops available to me on Arthur Avenue and 187th Street, I do love to make struffoli at home. Last year Christian and I taught our 6-year old godsons how to make them and we had a wonderful day together in the kitchen. They’re relatively easy to make, inexpensive, and the end result is something festive to place on your holiday table.
My favorite struffoli recipe can be found in the wonderful new cookbook by author Rosella Rago called Cooking With Nonna: A Year of Italian Holidays. Because they can be messy to eat, she suggests putting them in ice cream cones to “cut down on the sticky factor and give them a festive presentation.” To celebrate the book’s release and the holidays, Arthur Avenue Food Tours is giving away the book to one lucky reader. Just leave a comment below and we’ll pick one person at random on December 21st.
Find this struffoli recipe on page 200 of Cooking with Nonna: A year of Italian Holidays
3 cups all-purpose for 00 flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon baking power
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon white wine
Zest of 1/2 lemon
Zest of 1/2 orange
Olive oil, for frying (or use any frying oil you like
Small ice cream cones
Rainbow jimmies or nonpareils to decorate
1 1/2 cups honey
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
To make the struffoli: In a medium bowl, whist together the flour, baking power, and salt. Set aside
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on a medium speed until combined.
add the vanilla, wine and zests. Add teh dry ingredients and mix until a slightly firm dough comes together, 3 to 4 minutes
Flour the word surface and a baking sheet. Take a small chunk of dough, and with hyour hands, roll it into a long rope about 1 ince thick. With a knife, cut the rope into 1/4 pieces. Roll the pieces into balls and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
Line a plate with paper towels. Set aside.
Heat about 1 1/2 of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until it reaches about 350 degrees F. Fry the struffoli in small batches until light golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per batch. Transfer them to the paper towel lined plate to drain.
To make the honey syrup: Place a second large saucepan over the medium heat and bring the honey, sugar and water to a boil.
Drop in the struffoli in small batches, just as you did when you fried them. With a slotted spoon, stir them in the honey until they are completely coated, then transfer them to a serving plate.
Allow the struffoli to become a little bit tacky before shaping them into to small mounds using 2 spoons and filling the cones. Sprinkle the struffoli with the sprinkles.