This time of year, some folks have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. Others dream of Christmas cookies, eggnog or pie. But what really does it for me is a little honey-dipped dough slice of heaven we Italians call struffoli.
Pronounced 'Stroo-Fa-La,' it sounds like you’re singing a Christmas carol with a mouthful of, well, struffoli. Kinda fitting since, if you’ve ever had one, you know it’s music to your mouth.
My mom and dad have made struffoli for Christmas ever since I can remember, and once I was old enough to help, child labor laws be damned, they put me to work too –- for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. It’s a simple recipe with a handful of ingredients (mostly flour and eggs) and the basic gist is, you fry up some dough and coat ‘em with honey.
Yet, these yummy little suckers take all day to make.
Most folks shape their dough into bite-size balls. The crazy overachieving Novella family takes it a step further. We twist ours into knots.
Sure, we could bake something easier, like those Pillsbury cookies where all you have to do is slice up the log of pre-made dough and throw ‘em in the oven. (BTW, how do they get those Snowman and Santa designs on every cookie?)
Or we could make my go-to no-bake treat of choice: pretzel rods dipped in chocolate.
But we don’t, and why, you ask? One word. Tradition. Struffoli is our holiday thing. A year without struffoli would be like a year without me e-mailing my husband my Christmas list, complete with links for where to buy me everything I want. Ain’t gonna happen.
This year, my 8 year-old actually asked Grandma that very question: “Why, out of the all the Christmas treats in the world, do we make this one? And why do we do it this way?”
As she furiously kneaded four balls of dough, arthritis be damned, Grandma thought about it for half a sec, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know. It’s just what I was taught.”
So, basically, tradition is the inability to think for yourself. “This is what we do because someone, 50 or 1000 years ago, thought it was a good idea.” Awesome. We could probably end wars forever if not for tradition.
The past few years, my whole family, including kids and spouses, has gotten together for what we call Struffoli Day, a full-on marathon of baking holiday memories. It’s a new twist on my parents’ tradition, started by me upon realizing that unless my folks find a pool full of alien cocoons, they won’t be around forever. And aside from tying the dough into knots, no one else in the family knows how the hell to make these darned delicious things.
My mom is not much of a delegator. She’d rather do everything herself and have it come out amazing (which it always does) than let anyone help and risk them screwing it up. She makes just about every dish for our Thanksgiving Dinner for forty, only farming out no-brainers like salad and rolls.
Understandably, she was a little wary this year when my sister-in-law Carrie suggested we use her pasta maker to roll out the dough, instead of Mom’s ancient rolling pin. But, tradition be damned, the pasta maker worked like a charm, sparing mom’s arms and getting the dough just thin enough, in a quarter of the time.
I now realize letting the kids help roll out dough with their mini rolling pins the past few years was a big mistake. We could’ve shaved two hours off our production line.
When Carrie then suggested we also use the pasta maker to cut the dough into strips, Mom totally balked. “No,” she insisted. “Some things have to be done by hand.”
This from a women who keeps the struffoli recipe on her Kindle?
My kids and their cousins are finally big enough to tie knots by themselves, so they took over the part of the job that has traditionally been mine. This freed me up for bigger and better things. Namely making bloody marys, and tasting every batch to make sure they’re cooked right.
My Dad is and always has been the Fry Daddy. He has the oh-so important task of cooking the struffoli in hot oil ‘til it gets all golden and crisp. It was the one job my Mom felt he could handle. But, in the interest of self-preservation, he has me try a sample from every round to make sure he’s not screwing it up.
Believe it or not, I look forward to this all-day family baking affair. Though, this year, we spent so much time together it occurred to me I could probably cancel Christmas. I won’t, though, because Mom took all the struffoli we made home with her, and we won’t get our trays ‘til the Eve.
I need my struffoli for Christmas morning, to throw back with a cup of coffee while watching the Yule Log. Tradition!
I asked my mom if I could print her struffoli recipe here in this article and she hesitated, then said, “Publish it if you want. Not many people these days will do all that work.”
Exactly one day later, as I chitchatted with my dental hygienist in between spittings, she mentioned that, like me, she had spent the whole day prior doing holiday baking with her entire family. “What did you make?” I asked.
This made me spit again.
Maria Tomkiewicz, a Hazlet resident, remembers making struffoli in her grandmother’s basement. Instead of knots or balls, her family pinches the dough to make cute little bowties.
Like all of us Novellas, her family looks forward to struffoli all year.
Maria’s nephew wanted to know why they couldn’t make them year-round. She explained that then they wouldn’t be special.
But I know what she was thinking. They take all day to make, yet get scarfed down in seconds.
Once a year is plenty.
For my mom's struffoli recipe, see the attached PDF.