These little bites of fried dough slathered in lightly caramelized honey with the name pignolata, because each bite resembles a big pine nut, are special treats made for Carnevale or Christmas. My cousin's husband, Pino, made them for us on a rainy Saturday. I had never heard of these before, but the "ooooohs" of encouragement from his daughters when he said he was making them was enough for me to know they would be a special treat.
Fried dough, carmelized honey, and little sprinkles. (Melted and drizzled chocolate is also optional.) Originally made for Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday), the day everyone splurges before the Lenten fast begins, they are now also a Christmas sweet. They are popular in the South of Italy. Neapolitans call them struffoli and the Calabrese also call them pignolata.
They are easy to make, festive looking and sweet and gooey. As I shaped the sticky balls into pyramids, it reminded me of shaping popcorn balls. Shape them quickly because the caramelized honey is hard to manipulate once it cools. They are best to eat when they have just cooled. The honey is still soft and creates strings of sweetness as you pull the little dough bites apart.
(adapted from Pino's recipe)
Makes 8-10 servings
5 cups sifted cake flour, plus more for the work surface
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 pinches of salt
4 eggs plus one egg yolk
2 to 4 tablespoons white wine*
About 6 cups vegetable oil for frying
For the syrup:
1 1/2 cups honey
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/3 cup colored sprinkles
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
*In Naples they use limoncello as the liquid.
Mix the cake flour, sugar, and salt together and place on a work surface. Make a well and add the eggs and egg yolk in the center of the well. Break the yolks with a fork, and work the flour into the center. Add 2 tablespoons of the wine and combine the ingredients with your hands to make a smooth ball. If you need more liquid, add the other 2 tablespoons of wine. Do not overwork the dough or you will have tough pignolate. Cover with a towel and let rest for one hour.
Separate the dough into 8-10 small balls the size of an apricot. Roll the ball into a half-inch thick rope. Cut the rope into 1/4-inch pignolate (large pine nuts). Place the cut pieces of dough onto a lightly floured towel and cover them, so they won’t dry out. Continue until all have been cut.
Meanwhile heat the oil in a sauce pot to 350 degrees F. Fry the dough in the hot oil until they are a light golden brown and cooked all the way through, about 5 minutes. (Fry about 15 pieces of dough at a time so you don’t overcrowd the pot and cool the oil too much.) Drain on paper towels and cool.
To make the syrup: Boil the honey, sugar, and water in a sauté pan. It will start to bubble. Let the bubbles subside a little, then add the pignolate and continue cooking on medium-high heat until the pignolate start to stick together, 5-7 minutes.
Pour onto a buttered surface. Sprinkle half the colored sprinkles and shape into a dome or individual pyramids, using spoons or heat-resistant gloves. (You should not use your bare hands with cooked sugar as it will burn quickly and severely.) Add the the remaining colored sprinkles and drizzle the optional melted chocolate over the top. Let cool completely before eating. Enjoy!