If you’ve ever been to a Christmas eve or Christmas day feast at the home of Italians or Italian-Americans who hail from Southern Italy, struffoli – fried dough balls bathed in honey and covered with sprinkles – are sure to appear at dessert time.
They’d also be perfect for the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, which features fried foods and whose first night coincides with Christmas eve this year.
I didn’t grow up eating these, but my friend Lily, who is from Salerno (near Naples), introduced me to this Neapolitan treat years ago.
Last year, my father brought them for dessert following our fish extravaganza on Christmas eve.
He followed a recipe from Lidia Bastianich’s book, “Lidia’s Italy in America.”
What’s on your dessert table this holiday?
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recipe from Lidia Bastianich’s “Lidia’s Italy in America”
Pulse together the flour, 1 T. sugar, the lemon zest, orange zest, cinnamon and salt in a food processor. Whisk together the eggs and vanilla in a separate bowl. Pour the egg mixture into the food processor with the motor running, and then drop in the butter pieces. Process until a smooth dough forms, about 30 seconds. Knead the dough on the counter a few times, then wrap in plastic and let rest at room temperature at least one hour.
Make the syrup: Combine the honey, the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in a medium skillet over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook until syrupy, about 6 to 7 minutes.
In the meantime, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil in a pot or straight-sided skillet to about 365 degrees F., or until a piece of dough sizzles on contact. Pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of dough, and roll into a rope about 1/2 inch wide. Cut the rope of dough into pieces the size of a hazelnut and roll into balls. Repeat until all the dough is used.
Fry the struffoli in batches until puffed and golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes per batch. Drain on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining struffoli.
Toss the struffoli in the hot honey syrup, in batches, as many at a time a you can fit without crowding. Roll the struffoli in the syrup until well coated, then scoop them up with a slotted spoon or strainer, and drain off the excess syrup. Stack the struffoli in layers on a plate to form a cone, or circle, sprinkling each layer with the sprinkles as you stack. Repeat until all the struffoli are coated in the honey syrup and covered in sprinkles. Drizzle the completed stack of struffoli with any remaining syrup, if you wish.
It’s here! The latest cookbook written by everyone’s favorite Italian chef is out in bookstores and it’s wonderful. Lidia Mattichio Bastianich, along with her daughter Tanya, has done it again. Lidia has criss-crossed the country to talk to and write about Italian-Americans who have left their mark on their communities and cuisine – recipes that include crab cakes from Baltimore to prickly pear granita from California. They may sound like American foods, but as Lidia explains, the recipes have their origins in Italy and pay homage to their homeland in a delicious new way.
Gracious and generous as always, Lidia agreed to an interview to talk about her latest book.
Ciao Chow Linda: Why did you write this particular book? What is there to say about Italian-American cuisine that you haven’t already said or written about in prior cookbooks?
Lidia: “I have dedicated my career to transporting the real Italian culture, its history and its products to Americans. I came here as an Italian, but I also feel very American and I wanted to bring the two cultures together. I’m a good conduit. It was all about bringing the real Italy to the real America. I said I want to find out about the Italians in America. How is this Italian culture part of America? Yes, there is Italy in the memories, but this is about America. This book does just that. It traces the immigrants’ contributions, the happenings and the flavors that are important to them.
There are still all kinds of hubs of ‘Italianissimo’ in the U.S., if you will, three or four generations later – neighborhoods where the original immigrants settled, and the roots are still there. Not only did they settle, they brought their cousins, their brothers, and other relatives to places like Napa Valley, for instance. The Swiss Colony was one of the first wine businesses in Napa Valley and it was started by Italians from Northern Italy. One could say the Italians were the great initiators of wine in California.
Vegetables like artichokes and broccoli rape are easily available to Americans now, but it took four generations for this to happen. The California company ‘Andy Boy’ was founded by Italians who brought seeds of broccoli rape from Italy. The need to have the food they know from home – that quest to have those ingredients, to grow, to manufacture – was strong.”
Ciao Chow Linda: “Speaking of broccoli rape, (pronounced RAH-pay) is that the right way to say it, rather than rabe (RAHB)?”
Lidia: “Yes, that is the correct way to spell it and say it. But as cuisine changes, language changes too. It’s constantly in evolution.”
Ciao Chow Linda: “What is the biggest misconception people have about Italian food?”
Lidia: “I think the most common misconception I see is that when you serve pasta as the big center of a meal with lots of sauce. The pasta is smothered in the sauce – the heaviness of it – that’s not really Italian. Italian cuisine delivers a lot of flavor but it’s not heavy.
Ciao Chow Linda: How do you feel about the cooking that’s presented in Italian-American chain restaurants?
Lidia: They really don’t get it. That kind of cooking doesn’t represent the Italian cuisine. Nowadays, everybody can really cook true Italian cuisine. The products are there. Chains are doing an injustice to the Italian cuisine. There’s a lot of economics and costs involved and many times they use the cheaper products – putting a lot of fat into it and all of that. It doesn’t represent Italian cuisine – it’s a shame they’re missing the boat, because they could really do justice to the Italian food and their customers and still make a profit.
Ciao Chow Linda: What do you eat when you don’t feel like cooking? Do you ever get take-out food?
Lidia: It’s almost always antipasto foods that deliver a lot of flavor – a slice of prosciutto, a little anchovies, if I’m not very hungry. If I’m more hungry, I’ll cook some spaghetti with garlic, oil, and peperoncino.
I do take out, but usually it’s from a different culture. I like Asian food – sushi, Korean and Chinese.
Ciao Chow Linda: What’s in your refrigerator that people would be surprised to see?
Lidia: Very prominent in front is peanut butter and jelly – and I love it. I’m trying to stay a little off of starches, so I use it on those rice cakes. That’s not part of my heritage but it’s part of me coming to America and it was an introductory food. But I eat it on rice cakes, not on Wonder Bread.
Ciao Chow Linda: Everyone loves seeing your family and especially your grandchildren and your mother on your tv show. Was your mother your greatest influence in the kitchen and does she ever take over the cooking at home?
Lidia: She was a good cook, but not a great cook. She worked as an elementary school teacher. It was her mother – my grandmom – who influenced me more in the kitchen. There are certain things my mother does cook for me. If I’m traveling you can bet she has some soup waiting for me when I get home. I get organic chickens for her, and split them for her, and separate them. She’ll take all the bones and all of that and makes soups – she adds all the veggies. She’s still digging carrots out of the garden and celery still in the garden. Most likely when I come back I’ll find a little soup. She also loves to make palacinka. She makes the crepes and fills them with jam and the children love that.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother because my mother was at work. She had chickens, ducks, rabbits, and goats, and pigs that we slaughtered It was a seasonal cycle of products. I was exposed to that and I appreciate that. They would send me out to get the bay leaves, to pick basil, to pluck the chickens, to clean the potatoes. All of that is recorded in my mind and that’s the reference library for my cooking.
We would dip the chicken in hot water first, then pluck the feathers. Then my grandmother would burn off the little hairs on an open fire. Then she took the chicken and opened it up. I remember the feet – she would chop off the nails because they were dirty, but the rest she kept – even the intestines. I would take the intestines and press everything out of them. Then I would take scissors and cut them open, washing them two or three times in vinegar and water. The liver was used in a frittata as a snack, a merenda. Nothing was wasted. That was ingrained in me when I was very little – a respect for food. From one chicken we had a merenda and then a full meal that was enough for eight to ten people.
I have so many more memories – the slaughter of the pig for example. Butchers went around from one home to another. It would take about two days to slaughter and cure everything and divide it so it would last a long time. Neighbors would all come and everybody would go to each other’s house and help. It was like a festivity and we all brought pot luck.
Ciao Chow Linda: Is there one more recipe that you would like to have included in the book that you couldn’t?
Lidia: A few of rabbit – I saw it in the stores when I was in Philadelphia, but it’s fallen from favor. It yields a lot for the investment, especially in today’s time when we want perfectly marbled steak and you have to put in 200 percent value above what we get. It doesn’t make sense. We use a lot of resources to feed the animals to produce a special steak. Rabbit doesn’t use a lot of resources to get there.
Ciao Chow Linda: Were your children picky eaters? What advice do you have for parents whose kids are picky eaters?
Lidia: With vegetables, we never had a problem because we used so many different vegetables. If they didn’t eat broccoli we used swiss chard. Soups are another great way of introducing veggies to children. Diversity of foods in the home is important. It’s a progression, like wine, like music – you need to develop this growth but you need to develop it in the home.
Children need to grow in a setting and need to be familiar with a food to eat it. If you cook broccoli at home when you have a newborn, the newborn will be accustomed to the smell, so when he’s a year old he will begin to investigate it. Children need to evolve into their smell, sight and ultimately they’ll eat it. You can’t never have cooked a certain vegetable and go someplace and say ‘Now you’re going to eat it’ to a four -year old. Even a mother when she’s carrying a baby or nursing is familiarizing the child with these flavors.
Ciao Chow Linda: Many people see your family on TV and how they are in and out of your home because they live so close. What’s it really like to have them in close proximity?
Lidia: Overwhelming. Having a family is work, but there’s also a lot of gratification. As a grandmother, I know that the children will be so much more stable, more connected, will know who they are, and have a sense of belonging. They know that there’s a part of the world that belongs to them and their family – it’s kind of like a tribal effect.
Ciao Chow Linda: It seems like you’ve done it all – from cookbooks, to restaurants, to cooking shows, to wineries, to a line of food products and cookware. What’s left that you haven’t tackled?
Lidia: There’s been a natural crescendo for me from the stoves into the dining room into the books and into TV. I would like to remain to be a mentor and guide and have the time to give back a lot more of all the information I’ve accumulated over the years. I’d like to share it with the next generations.
I think they’re will be more restaurants, but not with me on the front page – with my children. I’m sure there will be new restaurants on the horizon but they have to be led by son, by Mario (Batali), my daughter, or somebody else.
Ciao Chow Linda: You have a lot of book signings and personal appearances in the next few months. What’s it like being on the road so much?
Lidia: You can be as idealistic as you want but unless you have a platform – and here in America – the platform is being economically sound and savvy. Part of my success is doing those things together. If these people who come to see me will follow the recipes, buy the books, come to my restaurants, it is an exchange. I appreciate all of them out there. I want to go out there and touch people. I get energy from that as well.
To see the schedule of Lidia’s upcoming appearances and book signings, click here.
To view other Ciao Chow Linda interviews with Lidia as well as a few more of her recipes, click here and here.
Boston cream cakes do not sound Italian, but this recipe was given to me by Italians. At Scialo Brothers Bakery in Rhode Island, we found trays upon trays of little chocolate- covered spheres. I thought they were some version of a cassata (a Sicilian domelike cake stuffed with ricotta cream—see page 318), but instead they were individual Boston cream pies. The French chef Sanzian, who worked at the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House) in Boston is credited with having invented the Boston cream pie. Italian or not, these were delicious.
Make the pastry cream: Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium pot. While whisking, pour in the milk. Set the pot over medium- low heat, and heat the mixture to just below boiling. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Remove the pot from heat, and pour the milk slowly into the eggs, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, and stir constantly over medium- low heat until the mixture thickens and just begins to simmer. Immediately scrape the mixture into a clean bowl. Let it cool slightly, then cover the surface of the pastry cream with plastic wrap. Refrigerate several hours or overnight, until chilled and thickened.
Make the cakes: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a twelve-unit cupcake pan with paper liners. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt onto a piece of parchment.
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Crack in the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Stir in the olive oil, vanilla, and zest. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes, to lighten and smooth the batter. Mix in the flour in three additions on low speed, alternating with the orange juice, beginning and ending with the flour. Once everything has been added, beat the batter on high speed for about 20 seconds.
Divide the batter evenly among the cupcake liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from pan, and cool completely on a wire rack.
For The Pastry Cream
1⁄2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
Pinch kosher salt
2 cups milk
2 large eggs
For The Cakes
1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3⁄4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest
3⁄4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
For The Glaze
2⁄3 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons dark rum
Pinch kosher salt
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
Make the glaze: Combine the corn syrup, rum, salt, and 2 tablespoons water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Put the chopped chocolate in a heat- proof bowl, and pour the syrup over the chocolate. Stir until the glaze is smooth and shiny and all of the chocolate is melted. Let cool until thickened and just warm to the touch.
To assemble the cakes: Remove the cupcake liners from the cakes.
Split the cakes at the base of the cap with a serrated knife.
To finish: Invert one cake, and place the cake cap on a plate, cut side up. Spoon the pastry cream onto the cake top, then top with inverted cake bottom, like an upside-down mushroom. Spoon the hot chocolate glaze onto the base facing you, letting the glaze run down the sides of the cake, spooning on more if necessary. Repeat with the remaining filled cakes.