In Italy, people are quite obsessed with food, just like at any other time of the year, and with making presents for everybody. It is a family occasion, like it or not.
In the UK the big thing at Christmas is getting drunk with your boss and colleagues, so that then you have something to talk about for the rest of the year; and then, to cook possibly for the only time of the year, before getting drunk with your family. I find that people get a little anxious about Christmas, while normally they are so relaxed. I have seen families stocking up on turkey months before the due date, and it is virtually impossible to park anywhere near a toy shop for a solid month at any time of the day or night.
Germany has a far more serious attitude, as usual. Looks like Christmas is big time here: maybe German people do get drunk, but with Gluhwein – that requires some serious dedication. Christmas shopping allows for a Sunday opening in the shops and that is quite an exceptional event. By the way, looks like most of the cutest Christmas traditions – advent calendar, tree, candles… all were invented here.
Little Christmas parties take place with a number of excuses. I had one with my mates at the German class – it was quite an occasion, because for most of them, which are not even remotely Christian, this is a funny and quite cute western tradition, not unlike Coca cola or getting married in a tacky white cloud of lace. For many of them, it is the first Christmas of their life and they can really enjoy it without the idea of an endless lunch with bored or drunk family waiting for you.
At any rate, we were asked to bring something to eat, and could I bring something not home-made, especially when my turkish friend promised a home-made baklava? The other guys also were pretty impressive with their achievements: meat and garlic dumpling from Mongolia, pancake rolls with sour cherries from Ukraine, tofu sushi purses from Japan, green tea from China, fried chiacchiere (I don’t know the Russian name, but we make something identical in Italy!) with cinnamon from Byelorussia, tortilla from Spain…
Having no oven I did not have the usual embarrassment of choice. My first thought were on making a ‘salame di cioccolato’, chocolate salame. This is a butter, sugar and cocoa paste speckled with almonds and crushed biscuits. It is then shaped like a salami, chilled and served sliced. That was a classic when I was a teenager at any party, and since it is ready in minutes, it is a great way to throw together that extra dessert when you find out the number of your guests has unexpectedly doubled; but on the other hand, it is the heaviest dessert on earth, and honestly today I face eating a tiny bit only if it is balanced with a generous amount of booze. Not a good idea with some muslims to cater for.
Second choice: tiramisu. I like tiramisu, but I always regarded it as some second class dessert for people who cannot cook. Then I tried to make one, and it was not that good. A good tiramisu does require some dedication, and I have at the moment no good recipe for that. I always say I will study it, but I am not excited about it enough to give it the several tries it needs; besides it is not a very fashionable dessert, so people just don’t publish recipes for tiramisu – that is sooo eighties. And you must not forget that you do need for sure a good quality mascarpone to start with – something I could only dream of in the UK.
Then I had an illumination – my classic for Christmas is cookies. They are great for parties as they are easy to eat and transport, they are cute, and it is straightforward to make a lot of them. I have an array of recipes to suit every taste and occasion – but alas, they are all baked. Then I thought: if you can’t bake cookies, you can still fry them. Which is where I remembered the beautiful streets of Naples at Christmas time, full of presepi and struffoli at this time of the year. Yes. Struffoli was the answer.
My mother in law taught me how to make them, and before I had not even heard of them. Struffoli are small dough ball, deep fried, covered with honey and arranged in big mountains, with some diavolilli (colored sugar candies) for decoration, and some candied orange peel, which I omitted (I actually like orange peel, but only top quality one, possibly home-made, and I had none, so I prefer to leave it out altogether, being – like any Italian – traumatized by the totally hateful canditi that hide in any panettone). It is a highly scenic and festive dessert, very old and simple, and for that reason, very charming. It is easy to prepare in large quantities, even if it is a bit time-consuming if you are not very skilled. I stuck to the original recipe, which is easy and works like charm, substituting the traditional pork fat with butter in the dough, and with vegetable oil for frying.
And I have discovered that every granny in the Mediterranean sea, from Tunisia to Turkey, makes something similar. Now, how cool is that?
Ingredients: makes a whole load, halve the quantities if you are not feeding 20 people
500 gr wheat flour
3 egg yolks
pinch of salt
100 gr sugar
70 gr butter, soft
1/2 lemon zest
1/2 orange zest
optional, if you prefer larger but less crunchy struffoli: a pinch of baking powder
For frying: 1.2. liter vegetable oil, possibly groundnut or other good quality oil
300 gr honey, flavour depends on taste, I prefer not too strong one
diavolilli, golden sugar candies, candied orange peel …
Mix all dough ingredient and let it rest at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Take a little piece of dough, roll it to a strip, finger size, cut it in chickpeas sized pieces (it will expand a little while cooking; in southern Italy, it is actually called cicerchiata – this means made with ceci, ie chickpeas). If you have the patience, you can make the pieces as small as you like, so long as you keep them all the same size. Don’t make them much larger or they won’t mix well with the honey – even though apparently in Tunisia this is allowed 🙂
Heat abundant oil in a wide pan. Drop a bit of dough in it. When the oil bubbles, you can drop more, but be careful not to overcrowd the pan or make the oil temperature drop. After a couple of minutes, give the struffoli a stir so that they will turn, and when they are an even golden colour and well puffed, lift them from the oil, draining in kitchen paper (I actually find very practical some huge heat-resistant tweezers, and I quickly lift the struffoli one by one: they nearly do not require draining then). Add more struffoli to the pan, trying to keep the oil temperature constant.
Let the struffoli cool a bit. In the meanwhile, heat a pot of honey in boiling water until it is liquid. In a large bowl mix the struffoli with the honey, mixing delicately so that they are evenly coated. Take care not to break the struffoli. Mix in also a couple of table spoons of diavolilli and golden sugar sprinkle, to taste.
Let the mixture cool slightly, then arrange for serving: if making individual portions, you can put them in little plastic cups; but traditionally they are arranged on a very large dish around an upside down glass, which is then removed, so as to obtain a doughnut shape. Another popular shape is a vesuvio – like mountain. Whatever your choice, sprinkle with more sugar candies and let it cool completely. The honey will keep it together in you preferred shape then. Consume withing 12 hours or the diavolilli will lose their colour and the struffoli will lose some crunchiness- but the cake will be edible for at least two or three days.