Saturday, December 8, 2007

Struffoli: Learning to Cook From Discrepancies

One of my most basic tricks of learning to cook is to read many different recipes of the same dish before whipping it up for the first time. If you look at the variations that are out there, you come to realize which ingredients are essential and which might make the recipe come out better or more stylized or what have you.

I’m in Astoria, New York again for the holidays (I was here for a few weeks this summer, too), where I’m guessing there are more bakeries per capita than anywhere else in the United States. There are Greek bakeries with spinach pies, French bakeries with croissants and palm cookies, European generalist bakeries with long loafs of bread and fruit strudel, and Italian bakeries with Napoleons and cannolis.

With Christmas a few short weeks away, all the bakeries in this neighborhood have gorgeous displays of specialty items that customers should pre-order for the holidays. I was walking today and came across a window with struffoli: tiny fritter balls (think mini doughnut hole) that are stacked in a pyramid and covered in honey and candy sprinkles. My sister and I had struffoli years and years ago at a holiday get-together hosted by some people my father knew. For such an otherwise unmemorable event (Who were those people? Where did they live?) it seriously impressed me that my sister can describe in vivid detail those little honeyed balls 15 years later.

So when I saw the struffoli today, I first thought I might just place an order and pick up a tray a few days before Christmas when my sister comes to town. Then instead, I thought I’d look up some recipes and see if struffoli are something I might attempt to make myself.

The recipes I found varied pretty dramatically in terms of what goes into the dough. We always hear that baking is a science (though these doughnuts are technically fried, I still think struffoli go in the “baking” category), and that the ingredients must be exact. I would expect the honey-based syrup that’s poured on the mound of fritters might vary dramatically from recipe to recipe, but not the dough. Let’s compare some of the doughs.

The first really simple recipe I found, from grouprecipes.com, calls for only four ingredients, if you don’t count the oil for frying:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Vegetable oil for frying

The next one, from recipeland.com, calls for softened butter in the batter as well as baking powder:

3 large eggs
1 tablespoon butter, softened
½ cup sugar plus one teaspoon
2 cups flour, all-purpose
½ teaspoon baking powder

Mario Batali’s recipe, which makes a whopping 40 to 50 struffoli, uses no butter but a dozen eggs and Limoncello:

3½ cups all-purpose flour
6 egg yolks
6 eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon Limoncello
4 cups canola oil, for frying

Another recipe from About.com does include butter, though the quantity is not a proper measurement, and adds grain alcohol. Gross. Oh, and it specifies to fry the dough balls in olive oil rather than a flavorless one.

4 cups (400 g) flour
4 eggs
1 teaspoon grain alcohol
A chunk of butter the size of a small walnut
1 tablespoon sugar
The zest of a half a lemon, grated
The zest of half an orange, grated
1 pinch salt
1 pot full of olive oil for frying

These recipes vary quite considerably. But here’s my assessment. Obviously, the dough is flour-based, and no recipe calls for anything other than all purpose white flour, so that’s in. Second, I bet that using more eggs makes the struffoli fluffier and chewier. Normally, the amount of eggs I use in a recipe might change depending on whether or how I’m going to lighten the recipe for health reasons, but since these are once-a-year treats (and they’re already deep fried), I’m going to work off the recipes that call for a good amount of eggs. The same can be said for my feelings about the butter. Using a small bit of butter probably does add to the taste and texture, so it’s in.

Not all the recipes call for sugar, and the ones that do call for very little. I’m not worried about whether the struffoli will be sweet enough since they are bathed in honey before eaten; but in baking, sugar is considered a wet ingredient because it melts into a liquid once heated. So I am concerned about the ratio of wet to dry ingredients. Luckily, since I’m opting to use a recipe that’s heavy on eggs and includes a bit of butter, I doubt the dough will be too dry. (Additionally, some of the recipes indicated in the preparation section that more flour can be added while working the dough if it’s too sticky -- hence, the dough is not going to suffer from lack of sugar as wet ingredient.)

Two recipes call for alcohol: Limoncello in one and grain alcohol in the other. The alcohol will burn off during cooking, I’m sure. The Limoncello is likely only included for flavor. I honestly can’t make too much sense out of the grain alcohol, but maybe it thins out the batter just a bit more. Whatever the case, I hate the taste of Limoncello, so I’m going without alcohol. But somewhere in the back of my head I’ll remember this and might try the recipe with a teaspoon of vanilla extract, which makes all bakery items taste extra special in my opinion, and would have a chemical effect that’s pretty close to Limoncello or grain alcohol.

My point is that this recipe feels very flexible, but since it’s not something I’ve made before, I do want to refer to at least one recipe, even if I decide not to follow it to a tee. I’ll probably add a small amount of baking powder and a pinch of salt, too.

Here’s my version of the dough recipe, which I’m hoping to try out before December 25. Essentially, I’ve cut Batali’s recipe in half and then made a few other minor adjustments. I’ll update with notes after I test it out.

Struffoli Dough, jilleduffy's version
3 egg yolks, at room temperature
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
¼ teaspoon salt, whisked into the flour
½ teaspoon baking powder, whisked into the flour
Zest from ½ a lemon and ½ an orange
2 inches canola oil (or safflower or vegetable oil) in a deep pan, for frying

4 comments:

Leigh said...

Jill,
I actually do remember that party as well. It was thrown by an Italian woman who lived in Warwick, RI and drove a ferrari. I Loved those cookies and couldn't stop eating them that year. (It was also at a time when I would eat any kind of fried dough however: zepolis, funnel cake, etc.) I'm curious how yours came out and if I'd still eat them like it was my job now that I never touch fried food. So, an update please. How did they turn out!?
Also, I looked for these cookies everywhere when I lived in the DC area and finally found them at the Italian store in Arlington, VA. But they only sold them at the holidays and you had to pre-order them. I never did.

by Jill Duffy said...

I was going to make them when you got home, so I haven't done it yet!

Jill Duffy said...

Update September 2008: I really did mean to update with a comment months ago, but the whole struffoli making experience was so disastrous, I put it off until now.

I made the dough, but never got any further than that. After making the dough, I realized there was no cooking oil in the house. Someone was going to the store; I asked them to pick up some oil; they forgot. The next day was Christmas Eve. The next day was Christmas. The dough just sat in the fridge for three, four, five days.

Finally, I got some oil and pulled the dough from the fridge. I opened the cover and shouted, "Hey! Who threw out my dough and used this bowl for spinach dip?" There was a speckled green mound of stuff in there, which I knew couldn't have been my dough because it only took up a third of the bowl where as my dough took up more than half.

Then I looked closer and poked at it. Beneath the green surface, there was my dough. It had deflated AND had grown mold.

And that was the end of that.

I shall try again this winter.

Anonymous said...

Disappointing...I wanted to find out how they turned out.

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