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Christmas means strufoli

Most of us have favorite foods from childhood —and particularly from childhood holidays — whose deliciousness probably is more about the memory than about the actual taste. The treats our parents and grandparents made for us are so tangled up with the wonder days of childhood, with tree lights and gift ribbons and anticipation of opening presents, that they really are sugarplums that dance more prettily in our heads than on our tongues, and people trying them for the first time might wonder what all the fuss is about. I think strufoli might be one of those.

Strufoli is a Neapolitan Christmas tradition that my father and aunt grew up with. {Neapolitan sweets are all but revered throughout Italy, though why that should be is a mystery to me. They’re not at all to my taste. A lot of them, though not this one, involve citron, those little pieces of candied fruit that taste like someone spilled a bottle of perfume into them, and that so many cultures nonetheless seem to want to sneak into a sweet bread — stollen, soda bread, panettone. Neapolitans sneak them into pastries from cannoli to sfogliatella. Whyyyy?

But I digress.}

This sweet is basically little balls of dough that are fried, tossed in melted honey, heaped into a mound, and topped with sprinkles. For the last several years, I’ve picked up the ball(s) on making it.

Those of us in the family who didn’t grow up with strufoli as a central character in our Christmas culinary pageant aren’t bowled over by it. But for Dad and his sister, my Aunt Gloria, spooning mouthfuls of the not-quite-crunchy, color-festooned little balls into their mouths meant it was Christmas morning.

I’ve seen strufoli in varying sizes, some as big as ping-pong balls. There’s also an Abruzzese version that’s decorated not with sprinkles but with whole almonds; another with powdered sugar. But this is the way Dad’s family made it, with balls of dough that look like chick peas in both color and size and with sprinkles on top, so (need I say?) this is the only acceptable way to make it in our family.

Squishing all the ingredients into a dough with only your fingers can be an icky feeling. Rolling bits of the dough into tiny balls one at a time can be tedious and back-aching. And the frying oil can start to smell fishy after a while. Not sure why. (Fish is not an ingredient.)

Nevertheless, the dish is very pretty and riotously festive at first. Overnight, the honey drips down and puddles, making the plate less photo-ready. According to Dad and Aunt Gloria, that’s not a flaw in my execution; that’s just the way it is. I once tried putting the freshly-made strufoli out on the porch so the honey would harden into a kind of shell. The problem with that was you practically needed a jackhammer to dig yourself out a portion. Thumbs down from Dad and Aunt Gloria.

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