08 December, 2013

"Happy Christmas!" From Europe, With Love: Day 8: Natale

How Christmas in Italy is celebrated varies from region to region, but the traditions are all heavily based in the traditions of Christianity.  Makes sense...  Their whole celebration period begins 6 days before Christmas and lasts through the Feast of Epiphany (January 6th), a total of one month.  There are musical salutes to the Virgin Mary, special songs are played in the homes of carpenters in honor of Saint Joseph, and 8 days before Christmas a special novena of prayers and church services begin.  On December 23rd, sometimes earlier, children dressed as shepherds with sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs, and wearing shepherds’ hats, go from house to house playing songs on shepherds’ pipes and giving recitations. They receive money to buy Christmas treats. In cities like Rome real shepherds sometimes carry out the performance.  From the castle of Saint Angelo a cannon is fired to proclaim the start of the Holy Season.

On the food front, a strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas after which a meal with many dishes (but no meat) is served. The traditional Christmas dinner, "Cenone", is made up of spaghetti and anchovies, an assortment of fish, fresh broccoli, tossed salad, fruits, and sweets.  One of these traditional sweets is the dish I have chosen; struffoli.  Struffoli is literally a citrus fritter.  Sweet dough with the light flavor and aroma of lemon and orange with a hint of grappa (an Italian brandy), fried in vegetable oil, and then rolled in a coating of a syrup made of honey and sugar.  Just to give it a little more of a festive look they top it off with some confetti sprinkles most of the time.  I got my recipe from Giada De Laurentiis.  You can't beat it and I promise you'll fall in love with this treat and the children will beg for it every year.  It is a dessert that is sure to make even your tummy scream "Buon Natale!!"

**The U.S. measurements appear first followed by the European weights in parenthesis, unless only U.S. measurements were given.  I weighed the amounts out first, then measured them with U.S. measuring cups and spoons.  You can thank me later.


2 c. flour, plus extra for dusting
1 large lemon, zested (about 2 teaspoons)
1/2 large orange, zested (about 2 teaspoons)
3 T. sugar
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature
3 large eggs
1 T. grappa or white wine
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

3-4 c. vegetable oil
additional flour for rolling out dough

Honey Sauce
1 c. honey
1/2 c. sugar
1 T. lemon juice

1 1/2 c. toasted hazelnuts, optional
vegetable oil cooking spray
Christmas colored non perils, optional
powdered sugar for dusting, optional

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together flour, lemon zest, orange zest, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the eggs, grappa or wine, and vanilla. Pulse until the mixture forms into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Cut the dough into 4 equal-sized pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece of dough until 1/4-inch thick. Cut each piece of dough into 1/2-inch wide strips. Cut each strip of pastry into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a small ball about the size of a hazelnut. Lightly dredge the dough balls in flour, shaking off any excess.

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour enough oil to fill the pan about a third of the way. Heat over medium heat until a deep-frying thermometer inserted in the oil reaches 375 degrees F. (If you don't have a thermometer a cube of bread will brown in about 3 minutes.). In batches, fry the dough until lightly golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. (The rested and quartered dough can also be rolled on a floured work surface into 1/2-inch thick logs and cut into equal-sized 1/2-inch pieces. The dough pieces can then be rolled into small balls and fried as above).

In a large saucepan, combine the honey, sugar, and lemon juice over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the fried dough and hazelnuts (if you are using them) and stir until coated in the honey mixture. Allow the mixture to cool in the pan for 2 minutes.

During the two minutes, gather the other supplies you will need.  This depends on how you decide to arrange your struffoli.  The traditional way is to make it into a wreath shape, but some families make SO much struffoli at one time the only way they can really fit it onto a platter is to just make a pile.  Both ways are acceptable.  Also, confetti or non peril sprinkles are both acceptable for traditional decorating but so is the truly easy powdered sugar dusting.  It gives the snow covered look...  Play around with it, but gather your supplies...the vegetable oil spray, a parchment round that is 10 inch sized, a bowl of ice water, and the sprinkles that you plan on using.

Spray the parchment round with a fair coating of vegetable spray and then spray the outside of a small, straight-sided water glass with vegetable oil cooking spray and place in the center of a round platter.

Using a large spoon or damp hands, arrange the struffoli and hazelnuts around the glass to form a wreath shape. Drizzle any remaining honey mixture over the struffoli. Allow to set for 2 hours (can be made 1 day in advance). Decorate with sprinkles and dust with powdered sugar, if using. Remove the glass from the center of the platter and serve.


Close-up of the Fabulous Ooey Gooiness

Snow Topped Struffoli

It is no surprise to me that my favorite way to see this with a light dusting of powdered sugar.  Whether I did it in a wreath shape or not, the dusting just made my heart leap a bit.  That could be because we still haven't gotten a lick of snow that has stuck up here in Ottawa, but who knows.  Either way these soft, little balls of citrus love enrobed in a sweet, sticky layer of honey are clearly a fabulous way to tell someone that you love them and that you wish them a happy Christmas.  I will say, that traditional or not, neither I nor my Mister enjoyed the non peril sprinkles with the balls at all.  It added a texture that was identical to the hazelnuts.  I am not crazy about hazelnuts to begin with so that was a downer that added to the situation.  Next time I make these (probably next week!) I will double the recipe and not add non perils OR hazelnuts.  

Even so, my Mister was hovering in the kitchen all morning waiting for me to tell him that I was done with my photo shoot of the mound and the were fair game for his mouth.  They didn't last long.  They are SO worth the effort and I guarantee you that your family will devour them in record time!    

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