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This traditional Italian confection makes the perfect centerpiece for the holiday dessert table.
More than any other dish, sweet or savory, preparing the dessert known as struffoli tells me Christmas is truly here. Like a French croquembouche or a Norwegian ring cake, it's an impressive-looking sweet that is really festive and fun to make. A mixture of cooked dough balls and nuts bound with a flavored honey syrup, it's formed into a towering cone or ring and decorated with candies and other goodies. For almost as long as I can remember I've gotten together with my aunt Raffy to make struffoli for our Christmas Eve dinner, and it's a part of the holiday I always look forward. Now that she's five, Jade is old enough to help decorate the struffoli with us, though I don't let her get too close to the hot honey syrup yet!
Struffoli is popular all over Italy, and it's made differently from region to region. In the northern part of the country it was sometimes made entirely of hazelnuts, a local product and point of pride to the northerners. Italians from the south, where hazelnuts were more expensive, added little bits of cooked dough to the mixture as a way to extend the pricey nuts, and now a combination of dough and nuts is the most common version you'll see. In some areas the dough is rolled out then cut into small bits with a knife and deep fried; other cooks prefer to make a choux paste and pipe out little balls that are baked like cream puffs. Some cooks make a more freeform mound of balls, or substitute peanuts, pine nuts, or dried fruit for the hazelnuts. As far as I'm concerned, they're all good.
In Naples, where much of my family comes from, the struffoli dough is fried all the way and we usually pack the balls around an inverted glass or vase to get a nice, tall profile. (Once the pyramid sets the glass can be removed.) Here I've started with a ring of dough balls to give the struffoli a solid base, then piled more balls on top to make a more rounded cone, but if you want to go old-school Neapolitan, give the glass method a try. If you are not a fan of frying, you can absolutely substitute baked balls; just use any plain choux pastry recipe and pipe the dough onto a lined baking sheet with a plain round tip. Either way, let your creativity run wild when decorating the struffoli; any kind of small candy and edible decorations are fair game.
1. Drizzle the hot honey syrup over the dough balls and nuts, then use your hands to combine, coating them all well. Be careful, the syrup is hot!
2. Form a ring of dough balls to give your struffoli a stable base. Let it set for a few minutes, then mound more balls on top to make a pyramid shape.
3. Step back to look at the silhouette of your struffoli, adding more balls to fill any holes and gently pressing the sides to get make the shape symmetrical and even. Allow the syrup to cool and harden.
4. Add a few more nuts to fill in any small holes then decorate with colored pastilles, draggees, Jordan almonds, and other edible treats using more honey syrup to affix them.
I imagine that one day Jade will pass our family recipe along to her son or daughter the way Raffy has taught me and I'm now teaching Jade! Thinking about future generations carrying on the tradition makes me happy – and isn't that what the holidays are all about?