STRUFFOLI – the dramatic and beautiful Principessa (Princess) of the Italian holiday season known as Natale (Christmas) is a truly Neapolitan sweet, a form of honey balls, and is the Italian version of Sugar Plums – at least I think so! What is Struffoli? It is a mound or wreath shape of marble sized dough balls held together with honey and adorned with candied fruits, nuts, and sprinkles as splendid for “Festa Delle Luci” (Festival of Lights) as it is for Natale.
As I look back on the special holidays of my childhood, this dessert is my first memory of Christmas. Its appearance at the end of the long Christmas Eve meal was almost magical. I waited for it over several hours of the seven courses of fish, so traditional at our table. These courses were followed by several types of nuts, roasted chestnuts, an endless assortment of Italian cookies, and candies such as Torrone, ribbon candy, and liqueur filled chocolates. Then there were the fruits – some of which were only seen at our house on this special night like pomegranates, persimmons, prickly pears and kumquats. As a child, I saw the sweet and colorful pyramid of Struffoli as a mountain of sweet delight. I loved the way it glistened in the soft light of the dining table from the honey which held it together. It was dotted with nuts, candies, and sticky green and red candied cherries which I was sure were the sugar plums mentioned in Santa’s story. Of all the dolci di Natale (sweets of Christmas), for me, this was the long awaited wonder which meant the holiday had truly arrived.
Struffoli may be a Napoletana specialty, but it is also found in other regions of Italy. In Sicily, it is called Pignolata. In some areas, the shape of the little dough balls is more flat. In other areas, they fry chick peas. The word is thought to be derived from the Greek “strongoulus” or round-shaped. Comments about them are written as far back as the 1600’s. The dessert’s attachment to the Christmas season is much more recent, however. There are many stories floating about that Struffoli was first prepared by nuns in convents for the wealthy and highly placed in order to gain favor. As addictive as these little balls can be, it is probable that these nuns were quite successful with their ploy!
Similar forms of this dessert can be found in other countries as well. In France, for instance, a close cousin would be the “Croquembouche” which is a tower, tree shape, or pyramid of cream filled balls bound together with spun sugar. It is served at the end of a meal with spoons and a plate or can be picked off ball by ball as Italian children often do with Struffoli. An interesting difference is that the Croquembouche must be eaten quickly or run the risk of spoiling because of the cream. Whereas the Struffoli keeps in a cool place not refrigerated for many days of enjoyment. When bitten, the little balls of dough have a crispy outer crust and have a cookie like consistency. “You can’t eat just one!”
From its appearance, Struffoli might seem to be a task for a seasoned baker. Not So!! In fact, I enlisted my children to help with this creation at a very young age. It is so much fun and incredibly easy. It takes a little time to do, but again – so very easy. There are many versions of this recipe – some requiring yeast, baking soda, and rising. My mother’s does not and is much simpler. I have added a couple of twists of my own which, I think, give it some additional zest. I must, however, agree with my mother, Loretta, on her observation concerning Struffoli. Many years ago, when she hand wrote her recipe for me, she added a note at the end which I re-read each time I make this dish ( She often added a personal note to her recipes, and I am grateful to still have these little snippets of her thoughts and wit to treasure and hand down to my children). She wrote: “Linda, it’s a messy business – but worth it!” In the kitchen, as always, she was so right!
Perhaps a heralding trumpet would be appropriate as we begin!
2 1/2 c. Flour
1/4 c. Shortening
1/2 Tbsp Sugar
1 Egg yolk
1/2 tsp Grated Lemon Zest
1/3 c. Finely chopped candied lemon peel (purchased or homemade)
Items for assembly:
1/3 c. Toasted slivered almonds (some like to use pignolis or pine nuts which are lovely but very expensive right now – either is fine)
1 1/2 c. Honey ( I like to mix dark and light to get a beautiful deep amber color)
1 tsp. Grated Orange Zest
1/4 c. Sugar
1/3 c. Finely chopped orange peel
Multi-Colored candy sprinkles for “Natale” or candied silver balls if you celebrate “Festa Delle Luci”.
Candied Red and Green Cherries
Add the flour, shortening, salt and sugar to the food processor.
Add the eggs, egg yolk, and lemon zest.
Process until the dough begins to pull together. (Loretta used to do this on a board making a well in the center – but using the food processor makes this step considerably faster and easier!)
Now, add the finely chopped candied lemon peel. (This will give the balls the subtle flavor of lemon cookies!)
Use an on/off mode or pulse action on your processor for better control until the a soft dough forms and pulls away from the sides.
Remove the dough to a lightly flour surface and work with the hands to make a smooth dough.
Taking a small piece of dough at a time, roll each piece into a rope shape.
Cut the rope into small pieces – similar to making gnocchi!
Take each piece and roll it into a marble size ball or “filbert size” as Loretta would say.
Now to fry! Heat your oil to “quite hot” – around 350 degrees.
Drop balls into the hot oil in groups using a strainer or slotted spoon.
They take only a couple of minutes to turn a golden brown.
As they brown, strain several out at a time onto parchment or wax paper or even paper towels.
Next, heat the honey, orange peel, and sugar in a large saucepan stirring until liquid and melted – a couple of minutes.
Add balls to honey mixture in groups with slotted spoon or strainer. Turn them for about a minute in the honey mixture.
Remove them to parchment paper or wax paper to cool. Do not use paper towels for this step.
As they cool,drizzle with some of the remaining honey and sprinkle the balls with the toasted almonds and some of the sprinkles.
When they are cool enough to handle but slightly warm (do not allow to sit and harden), form a base with the balls in the shape you are going to fashion on your serving platter or platform.
I chose a mound shape for demonstration. Begin to add the balls to the formed base a few at a time and push and form them gently with your hands. Patience here! If they tumble – just keep gently pushing them into the desired shape. As they cool further the honey will harden and hold the shape.
If you choose a wreath shape put a cup or glass in the center of your plate to keep the middle open and remove when the shape hardens – follow as above.
Next, sprinkle with the multi-colored sprinkles and add the cherries.
You can serve as is.
OR – you can sprinkle with sifted powdered sugar which gives the impression of snow.
You can see how this might be a fun project with children or grandchildren and can be adapted to the colors of both Christmas and Hanukkah. This lovely candied display makes a beautiful centerpiece for dinner or buffet or on a dessert table. The lemon and orange combine to offer a citrus essence which when coupled with the honey creates an irresistible treat. Just try to leave the table without one more bite!
BUON NATALE AND FELICE HANUKKAH!!
PARLA COME MANGI!
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Food Photos By Tommy Hanks Photography