Dicembre Dolce: La Cicerchiata

Post image for Dicembre Dolce: La Cicerchiata

Fabulous photo by France Ruffenach for Chronicle Books

Fried dough pellets glued together with honey to form a ring. That, in essence, is la cicerchiata, a traditional dessert from Italy’s Abruzzo region. There is nothing subtle or sophisticated about it.

And yet, it is impossible to resist.

Here is what will happen if you set if you set a cicerchiata out on your dining room table after a big holiday meal:

The kids will go right for it, but none of the grownups. The grownups will demur, even if you offer to slice them a thin wedge, as you would with cake. They will pat their bellies and say there’s no way. Non posso. But then, after the espresso, or while sipping a digestivo, someone (perhaps under the pretense of stretching or yawning) will reach out a hand and pluck a single sticky pellet from the ring. And then another. Other hands will join in. Soon enough, whole chunks of the cicerchiata will vanish, leaving a cratered scape. There is just something about those crunchy-chewy, honey-soaked nuggets, and about prying them off the ring, that is too tempting for fingers to resist.

What is left will be covered with foil and left out on the buffet, or maybe the kitchen counter. In the days between Christmas and New Year, the cicerchiata will grow smaller and smaller and then, like the Cheshire cat, disappear altogether.

Cicerchiata takes its name from cicerchie, a small, chick pea-like legume used in Abruzzese cooking that is about the same size as the pellets of fried dough. It is similar to Neapolitan struffoli, though struffoli nuggets are bigger and, once fried, they are mounded rather than formed into a ring. I like the daintier size of the cicerchiata nuggets, and also the way it looks like a wreath, especially when showered with colorful sprinkles. My favorite part, though, is the communal indulgence that it invites.

Buon Natale. I hope your holidays are filled with all sorts of sweet things.

Makes 12 or more servings

La Cicerchiata

from The Glorious Pasta of Italy (Chronicle Books, 2011)

Although this indulgent dessert is typically served during Carnevale, right before Lent, my family has always made it for Christmas.

Ingredients

  • For the dough: 3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface 1/2 cup sugar Pinch of fine sea salt Finely grated zest of 1 lemon Finely grated zest of 1 orange 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks 3 large eggs 1 to 2 tablespoons Punch Abruzzese or dark rum (see Cook's Note)

  • For the cicerchiata: Vegetable oil for deep-frying and greasing the pan 1 1/4 cups wildflower honey 1 narrow lemon zest strip 1 narrow orange zest strip Colored sprinkles for decorating 1/2 cup slivered or sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Instructions

Make the dough: Put the 3 1/4 cups flour, sugar, salt, and lemon and orange zests into a food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Scatter the butter over the flour mixture and pulse until it is incorporated and the mixture is crumbly. Add the eggs and pulse briefly just until they are incorporated. With the motor running, dribble in the liqueur, adding just enough for the mixture to begin to come together in a rough mass.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it briefly until a smooth ball forms. The dough should be soft and tender but not sticky. If sticky, add an additional sprinkle or two of flour and lightly knead until incorporated. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for about an hour or until lightly chilled.

Make the cicerchiata: Spread a clean tablecloth on a work surface and dust the cloth with flour, or dust two rimmed baking sheets with flour. Cut the dough into six pieces and rewrap five pieces. Lightly flour a work surface and place the remaining piece on it. Roll the dough into a long rope about 1/2 inch or slightly smaller in diameter. With a sharp knife, cut the rope into pieces about 3/8 inch long. As the little pieces of dough accumulate, transfer them to the flour-dusted cloth or baking sheets. Continue to roll and cut the remaining dough pieces in the same way.

Pour the vegetable oil to a depth of at least 2 inches in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, place over medium-high heat, and heat to about 375 degrees F on a deep-frying thermometer. If you don't have a thermometer, gently drop a nugget of dough into the hot oil; if it sizzles immediately and floats to the surface, the oil is ready. Place a large rimmed baking sheet lined with paper towels or a large plain brown paper bag near the stove.

When the oil is ready, gently drop in the nuggets of dough, working in batches and taking care not to crowd the pan. Fry until golden---this happens quickly, in under 1 minute. Using a large skimmer or slotted spoon, remove the balls to the prepared baking sheet. Continue to fry the dough pieces in batches until you have fried them all.

Lightly grease a 10-inch tube pan or ring mold with oil. Pour the honey into a nonstick frying pan that is large enough and deep enough to hold all of the fried dough nuggets. Drop in the lemon and orange zests. Bring the honey to a simmer over medium heat and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. Take care not to let the honey overcook or it will burn. When the honey is hot and loose, remove the citrus zest strips with tongs or a fork. Dump in all of the fried dough nuggets and, using a silicone spatula, toss them gently but thoroughly to coat them evenly with the honey. Be careful, as the hot honey can cause serious burns.

As soon as the nuggets are coated, pour them into the prepared tube pan. Wet your hands with cold water and use them to spread the nuggets out evenly. Unmold the ring onto a serving platter. You can also make a free-form ring: Moisten a countertop lightly with oil and dump the hot honey-coated nuggets onto it. Dampen your hands with cold water and form the pieces into a large ring. Transfer the ring to a serving platter.

Decorate the top of the cicerchiata with the sprinkles and almonds. Let it cool to room temperature. To serve, cut into small wedges with a serrated knife. Or just put it in the center of the table and let the fingers fall where they may.

Cook's Note: Wrap leftover cicerchiata in aluminum foil and leave it out at room temperature. It will stay fresh for up to a week, though I doubt it will last that long.

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31 Responses to Dicembre Dolce: La Cicerchiata

  1. Ian Makay December 20, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Delicious holiday memories here!

    Never sure why so few of my second-generation Italian-American in-laws would pass on this and leave it to me and the handful of first-generation to polish this off! More for me! YAY!

    Thanks for the tasty nostalgia… Now I need to take a ride and find some!

    ~Mak

    • Domenica December 20, 2011 at 11:58 am #

      Why not make it yourself, Mak? I guarantee it will be much better than store-bought. Cheers and have a lovely holiday

  2. Elizabeth @Mango_Queen December 20, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Omg, this is absolutely fantastic! I’ve had this delightful Italian dessert at the home of my son’s fiancee…Melissa’s grandma makes this and I’ve always wanted to learn how to make it. Finally a recipe from you. Thank you so much, Domenica! I must try this. Merry Christmas & all the best for the New Year to you and your family! Thanks for generously sharing so much with us!

    • Domenica December 20, 2011 at 11:59 am #

      Thanks for all your sweet words of encouragement, Betty Ann. Have a wonderful holiday.

  3. Marika Ujvari December 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    Very interesting! I will definitely make one. It’s intriguing. I like to rey new things.

    • Domenica December 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

      Marika, it’s a bit of a labor of love, but totally worth it. So distinctly and classically Italian. Thanks for stopping by. Buone feste!

  4. Elisa December 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    I admire your courage! It takes coraggio e pazienza to make a cicerchiata and I leave the work to a friend who makes it every year. It is delicious! Buone feste Domenica a te e alla tua famiglia!

    • Domenica December 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

      l’ha sempre fatta mia mamma, la cicerchiata, fino a pochi anni fa’. Adesso tocca a me. Non e’ che mi dispiace; anzi, mi piace farla; e’ solo che ci vuole tempo! Pero’, come sai, vale la pena. Buone feste anche a te, Elisa. Sono contenta che ci siamo conosciute quest’anno in ‘cyberspace’.

  5. Cristina December 21, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    What a lovely sweet indulgence and tradition. I can see how this can be addicting and before you know it you’ve eaten many pellets. Thank you for sharing such vivid and nostalgic memories that help paint a picture of the Italian dishes/desserts and their place in family traditions. :)

    Happy Holidays to you, Domenica!

    • Domenica December 21, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

      Thanks for your sweet comment, Cristina. Happy Holidays to you and yours.

  6. LiztheChef December 21, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    Wonderful – I have wanted to learn how to make one of these since I spent a Christmas in Italy many years ago as a college student “studying” abroad.

    • Domenica December 21, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

      Christmas in Italy is magical, Liz, isn’t it? I keep saying that one of these years I’m going to do that with my kids. Maybe next year…

  7. Winnie December 21, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    I’ve no Italian ancestry, and have only spent a tiny bit if time in Italy…this is the first I’ve heard of this beautiful dessert, which I imagine this tastes absolutely amazing. It was wonderful to see you recently Domenica (and not once, but twice!), and I wish you the happiest of holidays.

    • Domenica December 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

      Winnie–such a pleasure to meet you. One of these days we will get to have a real conversation! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Have a lovely holiday.

  8. cathy December 21, 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    Domenica, This is just darling! I will surely make this soon! The idea of plucking one sticky chewy sweet nugget after another? LOVE! Oh, the decadence!

    • Domenica December 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

      Decadence is a good word for it, Cathy. We always had this growing up. It’s not Christmas without it. And, it actually looks just like the beautiful photo (taken by France R., not me!).

  9. nancy baggett December 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm #

    How nifty–and totally new to me. When I first saw it I thought chickpeas–which was what it was supposed to be. Thanks for posting.

    • Domenica December 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

      Thanks, Nancy. Coincidentally, I was just over at your site reading about peppermint bark. Your recipes sounds wonderful. Have a great holiday.

  10. Frank December 22, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    These bring me back to my childhood! Our family was from Campania where they’re called struffoli (or, in our house, “Nana’s Honey Balls”) but whatever the name, they are the very embodiment of Christmas!

    • Domenica December 22, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

      “Nana’s Honey Balls” — love it! And yes, they are the embodiment of Christmas! Hope yours is wonderful, Frank. Thanks for your comment.

  11. Liliana December 26, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    This is a family Christmas tradition in my husband’s family. My mother-in-law used to make it until a few years ago. Then my sister-in-law continued the tradition. I want to keep this tradition in my own family, so next year I will make the cicerchiata.

    Thanks for sharing your recipe.

    Happy New Year!

    • Domenica December 28, 2011 at 10:23 am #

      It’s definitely a tradition worth carrying on. Happy New Year to you, too, Liliana.

  12. Jamie December 30, 2011 at 3:46 am #

    Beautiful photo! And beautiful sweet treat! I can’t remember ever eating this in Italy but looking at the photo it somehow rings a bell. I love the way you describe the ritual of…not quite eating this delicacy while nibbling at it. Fabulous!

  13. Jamie December 30, 2011 at 3:47 am #

    Oh, and wishing you and your loved ones a very Happy, Healthy & Prosperous 2012, Domenica!

  14. bob del Grosso January 5, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    Please. No disrespect intended. But it would take a god/goddess to make this fit for human consumption. I’ve had this foisted on me at Christmas (and occasionally Easter) every year of my life (which spans 5 decades) and despite my gratitude for the kind attentions and effort of the person who made it, still recoil over the memory of trying to eat it.
    It looks and sounds good, but that is where the attraction ends.

    • Domenica January 5, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      Bob, I sooooooo disagree with you. Well, not exactly. I have had some horrid struffoli (as opposed to cicerchiata) over the years–stale, saturated with grease, etc. Mostly from the so-called “Italian” bakeries in New Jersey. So I know what you’re talking about. But I love this cicerchiata. And so do my kids. Really. Thanks for your comment. I love dissenting opinions. Cheers, D

      • bob del Grosso January 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

        Domenica,
        Okay. I’ll wait to try cicerchiata before I pass judgement on the genre of fried dough drizzled with honey or caramel or drizzled in simple syrup or rum and syrup. But the clock is ticking. That said, if you love the stuff and your kids love it too, what’s the value of my protest? (Not much, I aver.)

  15. Janis February 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    I only just now found this page, and I wanted to thank you. My mom used to have this for Christmas as a little girl when her mom made it for her, but she couldn’t quite recall the name. Now I know the name, and what’s more how to make it! I sense some honey dough balls in my future this weekend!

    • Domenica February 14, 2013 at 7:12 am #

      Janis, I’m so glad you found the recipe. I hope you’ll give it a try. It takes a little time but it’s totally worth it. Don’t worry if you don’t have the liqueur ~ that’s an optional ingredient that my mom added to her dough recipe many years ago. It adds a nice twist but it tastes just as good without. Thanks for stopping by.

  16. Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti December 3, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    I my husband’s Calabrese dialect this is called pignolata! We always have this at Christmas, but I never saw it presented as a wreath before, and I like this shape for serving better than the usual triangular pile. Thanks for your recipe, Domenica!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 5, 2014 at 11:49 am #

      Hi Pat, and thank you for your comment. Yes, it has different names in different regions. Around Naples it’s called strufoli, I think. The biggest difference I’ve been able to note is that the dough balls for cicerchiata are a little smaller (it’s named after ‘cicerchie’ ~ a chickpea-like legume). Buon natale!

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