On the weekend, Gina Dal Santo and I taught a lovely group of women some traditional Christmas recipes from various regions of Italy in the WEA demonstration kitchen.
Photo Credit: WEA demonstration kitchen, 11th November, 2018. Italian Christmas Baking Workshop making zeppole, sweet and savoury.
As always, I didn’t know when to stop, so we made far too many recipes and went home with sugar induced headaches...but we were happy.
Photo Credit: Peach Shortcakes in preparation.
One of the highlights of the class, I thought, was my recipe for Struffoli.
Photo Credit: Stuffoli di Napoli. WEA 11th November.
Christmas without these golden balls of dough would be unthinkable for Neapolitans. In Abruzzo, though, similar cicerchiata are eaten on Martedi` Grasso or Mardi Gras, the night before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. In Italy, struffoli are made sometime during Christmas week, and left on the table for visitors to break off a piece to eat with a cup of coffee. I like to serve mine as a Christmas wreath, while other families pile them high.
A beautifully decorated struffoli wreath made for an Australian summer, however, is sadly just a pool of soggy dough which has said goodbye to its honey coating within a couple of hours. So, I make the wreath to order when I invite guests over to celebrate with dinner or drinks. The dough balls can be made ahead and then the honey coating made and tossed through just before guests arrive. Then....the decorating possibilities are up to you.
The dish has many similarities with Greek sweets – loukoumades are surely just a bigger, doughy version laced with a hint of beautiful cinnamon. The link with southern Italy, of course, is not surprising.
In the 9-8th C BC a Greek colony was founded in that area and known as Parthenope. Later, it was recolonised as Neopolis in the 6th Century BC and was the northern most outpost of the Greek empire.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Loukoumades straight from the oil. Then drizzled with honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Indeed, throughout the Middle East we can find similar recipes. In Turkey, for instance, lokma is made with flour, sugar, yeast and salt, fried in oil and later bathed in syrup or honey. It was cooked by palace cooks in the Ottoman Empire for centuries and spread to the cuisines of the former countries of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, Middle East and the Caucasus. In Turkey it also has a ceremonial meaning. Traditionally 40 days after someone dies, the family cook lokma in large quantities and serve it to family, friends and neighbours who honour the dead person with a prayer.
In the Gulf countries luqaymat, sometimes spiced with cardamom or saffron, are little changed. These sweets are called “The Judge’s Morsel”. I was told they are called this because they can even tempt a judge. In Lebanon, they are called awameh. The recipe for Luqmat al-Qadi, yeast-leavened dough boiled in oil and doused in honey or sugar syrup with rosewater, is also mentioned in the One Thousand and One Nights, in the story of The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad. In fact, I too, often add a drop or two of orange blossom or rosewater to my syrup as this is how I remember my Zia Giovannina making it.
Lokum is called sfingi by the Greek Jews, who make them as Hanukkah treats.
And so, how does this ancient recipe, inherited via the Byzantine empire and passed on to the occupied countries of the Ottoman empire find its way onto the Christmas table of southern Italians? That I can’t tell you, but what I know is that food connects us across artificial borders and links us through history, language and customs. So, let’s sit at the table together and find connections rather than fight about our differences.
Buon Natale a tutti.