As I have mentioned many times (probably way too many), two of my greatest passions are holistic health/wellness/root cause healing and my Italian heritage. Any chance I get to combine the two makes my cup runneth over! That’s exactly why I started a little side project to showcase Italians/Italian-Americans in the wellness space, as well as traditional healing foods and practices from our culture.
One of the hardest things about completely changing my diet and lifestyle to heal from chronic illness (and keep it in remission) was missing the nostalgia and joy of old family recipes and traditions. So…this past year, after eight years of sitting on the sidelines while everyone else enjoyed, I decided to do something about it. Italians are find-a-way and use-what-you-have type of people, so I knew I had it in me! I started with Easter…experimenting with substituting healthier ingredients for the ones I no longer eat. Those “no-no” foods for me are predominantly gluten, dairy, and white sugar.
Thankfully the Easter trial run was a success…which was an extra big relief since some of the alternative ingredients can be quite pricey. This holiday season I decided to put my thinking/baking cap back on to see what I could do. I started with my Nana’s (my great-grandmother from Palermo, Sicily) favorite lemon biscuit cookies. They were delicious…just how I remembered them. It literally made me cry! Next I decided to tackle a more advanced challenge…Struffoli!
Struffoli are basically little fried dough balls, covered in honey, sprinkled with nonpareil sprinkles (yes, I even found organic versions of those!) I actually have no active memory of making Struffoli, but I definitely remember eating them at my Nana’s house on Christmas Eve…after eating dozens of other foods she worked so hard making. I contacted my cousin for Nana’s recipe and got to work…I stayed as true to the recipe as I could, but added a twist I thought was missing – orange flavor in the glaze (I swear I remember a citrus essence). I also used the Struffoli recipe in new friend Daniel Paterna’s cookbook, “Feast of The Seven Fishes – A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food & Family” for extra guidance, because there were many details missing from my Nana’s recipe, which was actually in someone else’s handwriting. I could only imagine that someone frantically trying to record what was all in my Nana’s head. For the rest of it I went with her default approach of “a little of this, a little of that” and “use what you have,” plus cellular memory (my own and/or what was passed down by my ancestors).
I decided to halve the recipe just in case it didn’t go so well…thankfully it DID go VERY well, so next time I won’t hold back. It is an honor and pleasure to be able to share it with you. I hope it brings you as much joy as it has me!
Struffoli For The Rest Of Us – Allergy-Friendly Version!
(Remember, this is technically a halved recipe, so feel free to double it to serve more guests!)
Serves: 6-8 ~ Double for 12-16
3/4 Cup Maple Sugar (granulated)
1/4 tsp. Baking Powder
1/4 Cup Coconut Oil (melted, then measured)
1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
2-3 Cups REAL Honey (Quality matters! I like to use local.)
2 Tangerines – squeeze juice into small bowl (will need about 1-2 oz.), & take rind of 1/2-1 whole tangerine, remove pith and slice very thin/wispy (about 1-1 1/2 inch in length)
Nonpareils – I use “Let’s Do…Organic – Sprinkelz Organic Confetti,” which are gluten-free & dyed naturally with fruits/veggies – you can skip this all-together, or use slivered almonds, too
Mix all together, well, until dough forms. Then turn onto floured surface, and flour your hands (with whichever flour you decided to use).
Break or cut a piece of dough off and roll into a long, thin “log” shape, about 1/2 an inch thick, and cut into 3/4 inch pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, so it resembles a marble. Place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or wax paper, in a single layer (you may need more than one sheet). Continue until all dough is rolled.
Take a large pot (I used a 6-quart) and melt about 4 cups of coconut oil in the bottom (more or less oil to make sure it is deep enough to submerge the dough balls in – about 1-2 inches). You can use a candy/oil thermometer to get the oil around 350 or 375 degrees (Nana could just eyeball it…I’m not as adept, because I never fry)! Once the oil is hot enough gently drop the dough in, careful not to crowd the pieces. They cook fast, so you won’t want too many to pull out, either. Turn them so they cook evenly and keep a close eye for them to turn golden brown (about 2-3 minutes), and remove with a slotted spoon. Have another cookie sheet/plates prepared with paper towels to place the cooked dough balls on so they can drain…keep this process going until all pieces are fried.
In another large pot, take the honey and tangerine juice & shaved/cut up rind and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring so that the ingredients are well combined. Allow to boil for a few minutes to enhance the flavors, then add the cooked dough balls in batches so they all have a chance (and plenty of space) for a good roll around in the honey bath. Once they look generously and evenly coated, place them onto wax/parchment paper for a quick rest/drain, then transfer them onto a serving platter, or into a glass dish for storage/transport (as I did)…make sure they are completely cooled before you cover them. Traditionally Struffoli is served in a round/pyramid-like shaped mound, so I actually put mine in a rounded/dome-shaped Pyrex container. Then sprinkle with nonpareils and/or slivered almonds!
Most importantly, make them and/or eat them with loved ones…it always makes them even better!