Excerpted from Giada: A Digital Weekly, available on the Apple Newsstand. Recipe courtesy of Giada De Laurentiis
More than any other dish, sweet or savory, the dessert known as struffoli tells me that Christmas is truly here. Like a French croquembouche or a Norwegian ring cake, it’s an impressive-looking sweet that's festive and fun to make. A mixture of cooked dough balls and nuts bound with a flavored honey syrup, it’s formed into a towering cone or ring and decorated with candies and other goodies.
For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve gotten together with my aunt Raffy to make struffoli for our Christmas Eve dinner—a part of the holiday I always look forward to. Now that she’s 5, Jade is old enough to help decorate the struffoli with us, though I don’t let her get too close to the hot honey syrup yet!
Struffoli is popular all over Italy, and it’s made differently from region to region. In the northern part of the country it was sometimes made entirely of hazelnuts, a local product and point of pride. Italians from the south, where hazelnuts were more expensive, added little bits of cooked dough to the mixture as a way to extend the pricey nuts; now a combination of dough and nuts is the most common version you’ll see. In some areas, the dough is rolled out before being cut into small bits with a knife and deep-fried; other cooks prefer to make a choux paste and pipe out little balls that are baked like cream puffs. Some cooks make a more free-form mound of balls or substitute peanuts, pine nuts or dried fruit for the hazelnuts. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all good!
In Naples, where much of my family comes from, the struffoli dough is fried all the way and we usually pack the balls around an inverted glass or vase to get a nice, tall profile. (Once the pyramid sets, the glass can be removed.) Here, I’ve started with a ring of dough balls to give the struffoli a solid base, then piled more balls on top to make a more rounded cone—but if you want to go old-school Neapolitan, give the glass method a try. Not a fan of frying? Try substituting baked balls; just use any plain choux pastry recipe and pipe the dough onto a lined baking sheet with a plain, round tip. Either way, let your creativity run wild when decorating the struffoli; any kind of small candy or edible decorations are fair game.
I hope that one day Jade will pass our family recipe along to her son or daughter, the same way Raffy taught me and I’m now teaching Jade! Thinking about future generations carrying on the tradition makes me happy—and isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
This popular Italian dessert has been passed down from generation to generation. Feel free to garnish the dish with small candies for some extra sweet decoration.
2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting
1 large lemon, zested (about 2 teaspoons)
1/2 large orange, zested (about 2 teaspoons)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon white wine, such as pinot grigio
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Canola oil, for frying
1 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 cups hazelnuts, toasted (see Cook's Note)
Vegetable oil cooking spray
Sugar sprinkles or dragees, for decoration
Powdered sugar, for dusting, optional
For the dough: In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together 2 cups of 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, 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°. (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 and stir until coated in the honey mixture. Allow the mixture to cool in the pan for 2 minutes.
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.
Cook's Note: To toast the hazelnuts, arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350° oven until lightly toasted, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool completely before using.