Most years, my family spends Christmas Day on Long Island. My aunt Pauline, one of the best cooks I know, prepares a feast that begins with arancini and glazed ham and culminates in a fleet of desserts: bowls of nuts and fruit; trays of colorful Italian butter cookies and cream-filled pastries; and the centerpiece, a platter of struffoli.
Also known as honey balls, struffoli are chickpea-size fried dough balls that have been drenched in warm honey; piled onto a platter or shaped into more elaborate configurations such as a pyramid, cone, or wreath; and embellished with multicolored nonpareils and sometimes confectioners’ sugar, nuts, dried or candied fruit, or cucuzzata (candied pumpkin). A classic Neapolitan treat with Greek roots that’s traditionally served at Christmas, Easter, and other festive occasions, it’s arguably one of the most distinctive, whimsical sweets in the Italian canon.
“I’ve never really had anything that’s like it,” Jack Bishop, America’s Test Kitchen’s chief creative officer, said affectionately of the struffoli his grandmother Katherine Pizzarello made. “The dough is not sweet because there’s a ridiculous amount of sweetness from the honey. The nonpareils are just fantastic and also odd, because there are very few homemade things where you then go and throw candy on them.”
Struffoli’s snack-y quality is my favorite part. As kids, we’d come and go from the table, casually plucking the tiny treats from the mound and popping them into our mouths as the adults sat and reminisced.
It’s also a labor of love, the kind of all‑hands‑on‑deck holiday project that can bring everyone together, and something I’ve always wanted to try. My aunt graciously walked me through her process, which generally sounded straightforward. But even she acknowledged that she’s built up her struffoli‑making skills over the years, and I could tell that certain details—recognizing when the dough’s consistency is just right, knowing how many pieces to fry per batch, heating the honey just enough—take time to master. Ideally, I’d clarify and maybe even streamline the process for myself and anyone else who wanted to learn.
A Divine Neapolitan Christmas Gift
Struffoli’s Greek roots are well-documented. Not only did Hellenic sailors settle the port city that would eventually become Naples but also the Italian sweet bears an unmistakable resemblance to loukoumades, Greece’s spherical, honey-drenched fritters, and etymologically stems from the Greek word “stróngylos,” meaning “round.” It was cloistered nuns in southern Italian convents, however, that popularized and established it as a Neapolitan Christmas sweet. For centuries, convents all over the region (and other parts of the world) were confectionery hubs, where entrepreneurial nuns baked and sold intricate pastries such as cannoli, paper-thin layered sfogliatelle, and minni di virgini (domed, cherry-topped cakes said to resemble “virgins’ breasts”) as a way to support themselves, passing them to customers through the abbey’s grilled windows. Struffoli became a traditional Christmas gift that nuns bestowed upon noble families who had been especially generous or pious during the year.
Photo: Courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe
On the Grid
The first step is to make a malleable dough from flour, baking powder, eggs, softened butter, lemon juice, sugar, and vanilla. Next, shape it by cutting the dough into chunks, rolling the chunks into ropes, cutting the ropes into hundreds of pieces (that aren’t “even an inch,” Aunt Pauline said), rolling the pieces into balls, and spacing the balls out on a tray so that they don’t stick together. Then, deep-fry the balls in batches until they’re golden, slightly puffed, and crisp-tender—like a cookie. (Struffoli isn’t pillowy like other forms of fried dough.) Let them drain and cool in a paper towel–lined baking pan.
Because the honey is so sweet, I cut back on the sugar in the dough and added salt, which I noticed is absent from most recipes. I also switched from softened butter to melted butter so that I could stir the dough together in a bowl rather than use a stand mixer. (Struffoli dough doesn’t need lots of air beaten into it; the eggs and baking powder do an ample job of leavening.) You can perfume the dough with citrus zest and/or liqueurs, but I followed my aunt’s lead and stuck with vanilla: Its soft, floral sweetness allowed the dough to function as a neutral canvas for the honey and toppings. However, I found the lemon juice in her recipe too subtle to taste, so I dropped it.
I kneaded the slightly tacky mass and shaped it into a ball before strategizing ways to streamline the cutting and rolling process. My inclination was to create a “portion grid” of the dough by forming it into a square and making evenly spaced cuts in perpendicular directions—an approach coined by my colleague Steve Dunn for his baci di dama, the petite Italian sandwich cookies. But it’s tricky to cut hundreds of tiny dough bits from one large grid, so instead I made a few smaller grids. I divided the dough into six pieces, flattened each piece into a rectangle, and cut the rectangle into 60 half-inch morsels—big enough to be adequately tender when fried but still fittingly petite.
Portion Hundreds of Pieces in Minutes
1. Cut dough lengthwise into 6 equal strips.
2. Cut strips crosswise into 10 equal rows to create sixty ½-inch pieces.
As it turned out, the grid system was the first of two timesaving strategies I’d work into my recipe. I stumbled upon the second one when I was testing the frying temperature of the oil. I’d planned to roll each piece into a ball while the oil heated, but when I dropped a few unrolled bits of dough into the pot to check for browning, they puffed so uniformly that it was clear I could skip the rolling step, too.
Once the oil hit 350 degrees, I submerged 25 or so dough bits in the oil. It took only a couple minutes for them to puff and turn golden, at which point I fished them out and let them drain and cool in a paper towel–lined baking pan while I warmed the honey.
All Dressed Up
Bishop still remembers the scent of the warm honey from decades ago: “a little burnt almost, but in a good way.” Most cooks warm the honey to make it fluid, drop in the fried dough balls, and stir them so that they’re thoroughly coated. But when I tried this and plated the honey-drenched balls, most of the honey didn’t cling well, so the balls were barely coated. So instead I cooked the fried spheres in the honey, which reduced and thickened a bit so that it really clung. As it heated, the honey took on a delicate fragrance—not burnt, but nutty—and a richer bronze tint. (To avoid overreducing the honey, which causes it to set up rock-hard, I kept the heat relatively low.)
I let the struffoli cool briefly before stirring in the nonpareils—add them when it’s still hot, and you get rainbow swirls instead of discrete beads of color—as well as candied orange peel and toasted sliced almonds, which balanced the overall sweetness and introduced pleasant chew and crunch. Then I piled the lustrous pieces onto a lightly greased serving platter, sprinkled the mound with more nonpareils so that the colors really stood out, and—for maximum festiveness—dotted candied cherries around the pile.
Once the struffoli had cooled completely, I popped a few pieces into my mouth the way I always have, appreciating the familiar tackiness of the honey on my fingers and the way the nonpareils cracked like microbursts with each bite. But this time, there was even more going on: The treacly honey was offset by the faintly bitter citrus and toasty nuts. For a moment it felt like Christmas, and it would tide me over until I could make it home for the holiday.