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.
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.
Makes 12 or more servings
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
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.