With most of the holiday fun and fuss behind us, it’s a good time to look back on tradition: what family rituals still work, which ones should be adjusted, which ones need replacing.
I offer you the story of the struffoli.
One December afternoon after school, my little brother and I returned to my paternal grandmother’s house, where we would do homework and watch TV until our parents came home from work to pick us up.
Throwing my book bag on the floor and shedding my winter gear, I was suddenly aware of something out of the ordinary. It sat proudly on Grandma’s dining room table: a golden pyramid of little balls drizzled in shiny syrup and dotted with candy specks.
“Don’t touch!” my grandmother intercepted us. “That’s not for you.”
“What is it?” I asked. “It looks like a Christmas tree,” offered my brother.
“Just leave it alone,” warned Grandma. “But what is it?” I persisted.
“It’s called struffoli. It’s what the Italians have for a dessert on special days, like Christmas,” she explained. Relenting, she pinched off a piece. “Here, bite half and give half to your brother.”
The fried dough ball wasn’t very sweet, not to kids used to eating Grandma’s crumbcake and Drake’s Ring Dings. We quickly lost interest in the little brown tower, and the next afternoon it was gone.
We didn’t see it often after that. (My grandmother probably kept hers hidden from us.)
As we got older, we would find struffoli occasionally in a bakery or at a friend’s house (“Don’t touch that!”). But I can’t remember tasting it again. After a while, I even forgot the name of this simple peasant sweet.
Many Christmases later, I encountered struffoli in a cookbook. I remembered the name, and the holiday feeling that went with it. I was doing lots of seasonal baking in those years, and thought, “Why not add this to the table? What a great way to re-establish a tradition.”
My aunt told me that at Christmas, Grandma and her sisters would often work together on struffoli, one mixing and rolling the dough, another cutting and frying it, a third stacking and syruping. Then they would divvy up the struffoli to bring home.
So I enlisted my mom in this kitchen project. She advised me here and there, but mostly watched in bemusement as her daughter worked her way through the mixing, shaping, frying and finally, the honey syrup and the stacking.
Except there was no stacking. My honey syrup wasn’t sticky enough, I guess. The best we could do was a mound, not a pyramid.
Nevertheless, dusted with colored nonpareils, it made a pretty presentation. On Christmas Day, I brought it to the table.
“Oh, look!” everyone said. “Struffoli!” And then everyone ignored it (or took a token piece) and dove into the other desserts.
My husband, God bless him, happily ate the rest of the struffoli over the next few days. (He even asked hopefully, when he saw I was writing about it, “Are you going to make it this year?” Sorry, hon.)
So — maybe you can’t go home again when it comes to holiday cooking, not even to Grandma’s house. Or maybe there’s just no pleasing some people.
Either way, it was a good lesson in checking the expiration date of holiday rituals. So the next year (and in many years since), we had a lush, rich chocolate cake for dessert.
And I didn’t even have to bake it.
Yes, some traditions are meant to be broken.
If you’d like to try your hand at struffoli, I used the recipe from “Ciao Italia!” by Mary Ann Esposito:
STRUFFOLI (Honey Balls)
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon plus 1/2 cup sugar
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup honey
Flour for dusting
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, butter, and the 1 teaspoon sugar until foamy. Sift the flour with the baking powder and stir into the egg mixture. With your hands, work the mixture into a soft dough.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces. On a floured surface, roll each piece into a rope about the width of your index finger and 12 inches long. Cut the ropes into 1-inch pieces. Toss the pieces with enough flour to dust them lightly, and shake off the excess flour.
In a deep fryer, heat the oil to 375 degrees. Fry the struffoli a few handfuls at a time, until puffed up and golden brown. Transfer with a slotted spoon to brown paper to drain.
In a large saucepan, combine the honey and the 1/2 cup sugar and heat over low heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved; keep warm over low heat. Add the fried balls a few at a time, and turn them with a wooden spoon to coat on all sides. Transfer the balls to a large plate and mound them into a pyramid, shaping it with wet hands.
Sprinkle with the colored sprinkles and let stand for 1 or 2 hours. Then just break off pieces with your hands to eat. Makes 3 1/2 to 4 dozen.
(c) copyright 2015 Laura Groch