In that case I am ever faithful to the nation of northern New Jersey and the Italian expats from the Bronx who raised me there.
One of my iconic childhood foods is strufoli, the chunky beads of fried dough, drizzled with honey and spangled with sprinkles that my grandmother would make every Christmas and bring over in sticky foil covered pans. You can have your anemic and one-dimensional candy canes, your tins of Danish butter cookies, and your Chex mix; I’m sticking with the fried dough of my people.
My brother and I would crow like little maniacs when Nana showed up with the annual treat and even my mother, to whom fried food was a tool of the Devil, would stand back and let us attack, at least for a while. We would carefully pick at the mound, looking for bits with the perfect balance of sprinkle, honey, and dough. After our shameless greed had blown off some energy, the dish would be temporarily removed from our sticky little hands, but by the next day, the batch was finished. Santa hadn’t even arrived, but another Christmas had passed.
One year, as a teenager, I went to help my grandmother cook the strufoli. It was a full day affair, with dough covering the kitchen table and a huge pot of oil steaming on the stove. I remember moving around the kitchen and I remember how happy she was to have me there, and I feel terrible that I didn’t pay more attention and that I let the tradition die.
Years later, as a young mother, before the internet made items no larger than the head of a pin website-worthy, I came across an Italian cookbook with a recipe for strufoli and I was tossed back to Nana’s kitchen and childhood Christmases.
My husband, who does not fear frying, helped me back to childhood by manning the oil, while I made the dough. Again, I don’t remember the recipe, but I do remember unhappy outcome, which I blamed on translation. Warm from the pot, they were lovely, but very quickly they staled into dead little nuggets that were no one’s family tradition. I gave them to my son’s preschool teachers as a Christmas token; what a miserable family they must have thought we were!
Life went on, the recipe was tucked away and memories filed. Then at a local deli, run by an Italian family, I found Maria had made strufoli, for Christmas. I nearly swooned into her arms and bought a plateful without even asking the price.
You can bounce all over the internet and find plenty of recipes for strufoli, which is often translated as Italian honey fritters, which for some reason I hate, but I am now loyal to Gina DePalma’s recipe from Dolce Italiano, her cookbook of the desserts served at Babbo. It works and it tastes right.
Gina DePalma’s Strufoli (adapted from Dolce Italiano)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 3 large eggs, 4 tbs softened unsalted butter, 2 tbs powdered sugar, 1 tbs granulated sugar, 2 tsp vanilla, olive oil for frying, 1/2 cup vin santo, honey to taste (Gina says 2 cups), sprinkles
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
Beat the eggs with the butter, sugars, and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and beat to form a soft dough. Turn the dough onto a floured board and knead until it’s firm enough to handle.
Divide the dough into three pieces and roll each piece into a rope about 1/2 inch in diameter. Cut the rope into 1/2 inch pieces. Keep them covered as you roll and cut the remaining dough.
Heat the oil (enough so the pieces can be immersed) to 360 degrees and fry pieces until golden brown.
Melt the vin santo and honey together, and sauté the fried pieces until they are coated. Pile them in a serving plate and decorate them with sprinkles.
Elbow your brother out of the way and enjoy!