As we prepare for Christmas, I can’t help but share one of my childhood favorites – Struffoli otherwise known as Italian Honey Balls. Crisply fried dough balls are bound together with warm honey then piled high and topped with cherries and sprinkles.
There was skit in the television show The Nanny about last names and family history in America. Fran Drescher’s character was talking with a few highbrow European types, all of whom could trace their lineage back countless generations, and her response was something along the lines of, “We’re from New York, that’s all we know for sure, Ellis Island couldn’t spell our names right so now we don’t know who the hell we are.”
Oddly enough, that’s a sentiment I’ve related to from time to time, even though when was I growing up “who we are” was still in living memory. But when your a kid, you rarely think to ask about things like family history and ‘life in the Old World,’ and as time goes by, more and more you’re left to the mercy of poorly preserved – and poorly spelled – decades-old immigration records. My son was still in high school when he got the itch to go digging through manifests from Ellis Island, records which had only just become freely available online at the time. He ended up finding some pertinent pieces of the family puzzle, which traced my father back to Matera – a small town southwest of Bari, built on the Parco della Murgia Materana (a state park), and when he shared this portion of what he found with my eldest brother Bob, my brother looked bitterly confused, and responded “Matera? What? Where’s that? I thought we were from Naples.”
Regardless of which piece of the puzzle, or version of the story happens to be right, I certainly can’t wholly fault my brother’s Neapolitan assumption, as one of our family’s most common dessert accompaniments were ‘pyramids’ of Struffoli, a Neapolitan confection of sweetened dough fried to a slight crisp and then drenched in warmed honey.
As you may have guessed, struffoli are the third addition to this week’s dessert table leading up to the final unveiling of our tablescape.
Now, to start things off, in a stand-mixer with the paddle attachment blend together flour, sugar, baking powder, shortening, and vanilla in the quantities listed below. As the dough is coming together, add in three eggs one at time, mixing the dough as you go.
Then wrap the dough in cling film and let it rest for about thirty minutes to one hour. After the dough has rested, roll it out on a thoroughly floured surface, and cut the dough into quarters, and then divide the quarters into halves. No, you can’t just cut the dough into eighths…trust me.
Now, roll out those portions into half-inch rolls, then further divide those into half-inch pieces, and then roll out the balls until they are a little smaller than a marble – keep in mind that these puff up during frying.
Once that’s done, heat enough oil in a frying pan to submerge the dough balls for frying – about two or three inches of oil will suffice. You want the oil at about 350 degrees F. if you’re using a thermometer. Then carefully set the balls in the oil, being careful not to overcrowd the pan, and fry them until they are golden and crisp. Then transfer them to a paper towel lined tray or wire rack to drain.
While the struffoli are still warm, transfer them to a large bowl. Now, in a small saucepan, heat up about a cup of honey over low-medium heat until it has melted down, then drizzle over the struffoli, and gently toss until they are thoroughly coated in the warm honey.
Finally, plate them as pictured below into a ‘mound’ or ‘pyramid,’ and garnish with sprinkles and maraschino cherries.
1) You’ll note above that I referred to these as a dessert ‘accompaniment,’ and I meant it. These are not a dessert to serve ‘on their own,’ instead their something to ‘pick on’ at the dessert table as you enjoy your company and larger ‘centerpiece’ items. On the flipside, should you have any of these left over, they ‘do’ great on their own with coffee as a ‘light sweet’ after a weekday dinner.
2) Be #SoMartha. Whether you’re setting a dessert table or setting dessert plates, use these to your advantage. They simply ‘look’ festive. If platting a piece of cake, use these as garnish. If setting a dessert table, use these to make the table appear bountiful. Think of these as a ‘candy canes’ of dessert items, something’s as delicious as it is decorative.
Enjoy with Love!