Thursday, December 18, 2014

Zoe vs. the Recipe Post

(Note: This recipe post is not Zoe related. Unless you see making struffoli as a metaphor. After all, Zoe also took a long time to make and she's often sticky.)

An Italian Christmas Tradition
I believe it was the poet Emily Dickinson who said, “Tradition is the thing with festive wings that beats you about the face unless you pretend to still believe in Santa Claus.”
Or something like that.
Anyway, the holidays are a time when traditions must be observed. Or the baby Jesus will be displeased. Such was the impression I received as a child.
My mother is Italian, and for many Italians, Christmas Eve is the bigger event. Dinner is the Feast with Seven Fishes: lobster, shrimp, mussels, stuffed clams, seafood salad with scungilli and calamari. And finally canned anchovies. For the technical win.
We open presents at midnight, not waiting for Christmas morning, and after that we have dessert, which then sits in our stomachs till after the New Year.
Along with this strict schedule of events, six types of cookies or desserts have to make an appearance after midnight. This means that every year my mother starts baking before Thanksgiving, and then freezes the goodies that won’t stay good.
Chief among desserts, and the one she makes last, is the traditional Italian dessert called struffoli.
You may have heard of it; you’ve probably seen it. These honey balls are often arranged in the form of a Christmas tree or sometimes a wreath. They’re covered in sprinkles and, sometimes, the candied citrus bits we confront with horror in Nonni’s fruitcake.

My mother doesn’t do the candied citrus. She also bakes mostly from memory, from a recipe handed down from one Neopolitan mother to the next.
The first thing I noted when she gave me the recipe was that she spelled it “Struffle.” That didn’t seem right given how we’d always pronounced it, so I asked Google. In return Google inquired: “Do you mean struggle?” This will be important later.
Now, I’m a slave to tradition like anyone else. And knowing my sister, who either orders dinner or eats out seven nights a week, I realized I’d have to be the one to carry on the Christmas cookie/dessert tradition, especially struffoli.
One problem: I didn’t really like struffoli anymore.
The main culprit behind my waning affection is my stomach. I can no longer digest them. 
Struffoli not only takes a long time to make but an even longer time to leave your system. They go in as hard balls and they pretty much come out the same way, only considerably less merry.
Now that I’ve primed the pump, here’s the recipe as supplied by my mother, followed by my commentary.

6 eggs
4 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
Olive oil
Jar of honey (size unspecified; “y’know, a jar”)
Non-pareils or sprinkles

1) Mix everything together. Work with hands until smooth.
2) Make long strands with dough. Cut into little marble-sized pieces.
3) Fry in olive oil, in batches. Scoop out when done and place on paper towel. (This is the part that takes forever, and seems longer, as you occasionally get spattered with hot oil.)
4) Heat the honey in a pot. Mix until the struffoli is covered in honey. Add sprinkles and toss.
Yield: Enough for the family as well as the neighbor she exchanges desserts with. (This is optional; you don’t need to give any to my mother’s neighbor.)

Yes, many.
The ingredients seemed sparse, her directions loosey-goosey, and her yield inexact.
This is probably the result of her measuring by eye and filling in the details with her memory. After all, she’s been making this dish every Christmas for more than forty years.

"I felt a funeral in my brain"
was inspired by an unsuccessful
attempt at making struffoli.

When I’d researched the spelling for struffoli, I’d also clicked on a few recipes and noticed that they had a lot more ingredients.
Most notably: sugar. And salt. But also lemon zest. Or orange. Some had vanilla. Some even had grappa.
I questioned my mother about these discrepancies.
She said, "Well, you can do that. If you want." But she likes it plain.
“What do you need all that sugar for? The honey is enough.”
And I was given to understand the grappa idea was just nutso.
So there you have it . . . a Christmas tradition: family, food, and holiday spirit, with my mother’s struffoli as the tie that binds. Literally.

Zoe: 73*; Universe/digestive tract: 0

*Technically, Zoe didn't "win." Except she always wins and wanted that noted. (I don't make the rules.)

For more of Zoe's hijinks, follow me on Facebook and on Twitter at @zoevsuniverse
I need a win here, people. 

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  1. I eat your mother's stuffoli. I regret it. Every year.

  2. You are a hero.

  3. Well, it LOOKS lovely. We always eat tamales on Christmas Eve, carrying on my dad's family tradition. But it is darned hard to find a decent tamale in Minnesota, and making them would turn me into a shrieking basket case.

  4. Just the fact you were considering it makes you a hero as well.

  5. The ties that bind - struffioli sounds like it wreaks a similar havoc to matzoh. My husband has learned the hard way, and refuses to consume any after the first night of Passover. Merry Christmas, Liz!

  6. Thank you! Happy Hanukkah!