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Christmas at La Voce’s Home, a Campanian Starter and a Dessert to Surprise Guests

Two of our Italian American writers reminisce about their family traditions and share their treasured recipes for your Christmas dinner

by Emmelina De Feo and Grace Russo Bullaro

Christmas Dinner (di Austin McGee, wikimedia)

Zeppole con Alici sott’olio, by Emmelina De Feo

Emmelina De Feo’s special dish: Zeppole with anchovies in oil

Emmelina De Feo

One of my most treasured memories as a child of cooking and baking during the Christmas holidays, was when my mother would make her zeppole with anchovies in oil. In the area of the Cilento, in the province of Salerno, where my parents come from, zeppole con alici sott’olio are typically made on Christmas Eve. Here is my recipe below, handed down to me from my mother, Luisa, who emigrated to the US with my grandmother, always embracing her culinary roots and the beautiful, magical traditions that my grandmother, Angelina, taught her.

Buon Natale a tutti!

Zeppole with anchovies in oil (Zeppole con alici sott’olio)

Ingredients:

1 ¼ cup water (room temperature)

¼ ounce of yeast

¼ teaspoon of salt

1 ½ cups of flour

100 grams of anchovies in olive oil

Yields approximately 16-18 zeppole

  • In a mixing bowl, add ¼ cup of water and ¼ teaspoon of salt to ¼ ounce of yeast.
  • Wait for the yeast to activate (become bubbly), then add 1 cup of water.
  • To the water, yeast and salt, add in the flour until the mixture becomes “doughy”
  • Break up the anchovy fillets into the bowl and mix them in.
  • Cover the dough mixture and wait approximately 3-4 hours for it to rise.

You can also make the mixture ahead of time and leave it in the fridge overnight. Make sure to take the mixture out of the fridge and bring it to room temperature prior to boiling the dough (about 1 to 2 hours).

Heat a heavy pot or fry pan with olive oil to fry the zeppole. Using a small ladle or large spoon, scoop some of the zeppole dough mixture, and let it fall into the hot oil, making sure that the balls of dough do not touch each other while they are frying. Cook until golden brown on all sides (about 5 minutes). Regulate the temperature so they do not brown too quickly on the outside, before the inside of the dough is cooked. The zeppole will swell up as they fry, which is precisely what they should do. Drain them on paper towels to absorb any excess oil.

The sweetness of Grace Russo Bullaro: “Calzoncelli al cioccolato” and the cycle of life

Struffoli and Calzoncelli

When I was a kid growing up in Salerno, there was no Christmas without “struffoli”. Every Italian American in NY is familiar with these, they’re sold in pastry shops at every holiday. But practically unknown here, and much more Christmassy, were the “calzoncelli,” that are a local treat in the Salerno, Campania region. This is a delicious pastry filled with a blend of chocolate, chestnut puree and candied fruit, the whole thing fried and dipped in honey and covered with sprinkles.  It would have been unthinkable not to have these for Christmas. It simply wouldn’t have BEEN Christmas! My mom patiently and lovingly spent every December 23 making them. You see, it had to be on the 23 because for us, as with so many others in Catholic countries, the 24th, Christmas Eve, is “the big day”.

Before the days of rampant consumerism, Christmas wasn’t so much focused on a frenzy of gift-giving as on the small traditions that had been handed down through the generations. And food was the main one. Christmas Eve was the day when mom would spend the whole day preparing the elaborate dinner for “la vigilia”: at least half a dozen fish dishes, starting from the appetizers of “insalata di baccalà”, and “insalata ai frutti di mare,” to the pasta (spaghetti alle vongole) to the main course: the fried assortment and the accompanying vegetables. This took her all day, so that meant that the pastries had to be made the day before, on the 23rd. It couldn’t be the 21st or the 22nd because that would have meant that they’d go stale before the “big day”; so, it had to be on the 23rd.

Grace with Dorann and Audrey.

Lots of things happened over the years, but we came to this country and continued the tradition. At first, my mom was in her prime and my sisters and I “helped” as children do; later I helped as her reasonably capable assistant. Then she got older and she could use a little more help, so we shared the load equally as two women working together. Eventually, when she was no longer as young and strong as she used to be, I took over completely for my family and carried on by myself—as did my sisters for theirs. Then I got older and my sons married, and so I taught my daughters-in-law, who one day will take over from me, and eventually, hopefully, will pass the knowledge and love for tradition on to their own daughters-in-law. And so, my “struffoli” and “calzoncelli” not only represent a tradition for us, but the cycle of life in miniature!

Recipe:

Chocolate-Chestnut Ravioli (Calzoncelli)

Dough (can be used for either calzoncelli or struffoli):

In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the following DRY ingredients:

3 ¾ c sifted flour

Pinch salt

6-8 TBS. sugar

Now add these WET ingredients to the dry. 

½ stick softened butter (almost liquid, but not hot)

Zest of ½ (each) small lemon and orange

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 or 2 Tbs. liqueur of choice (Grand Marnier or Limoncello are best)

6 large eggs + 1 yolk (not extra large)

Mix altogether in the stand mixer bowl until they come together loosely into a ball.

Turn it out onto a kneading board and knead till it’s no longer sticky, but smooth and glossy (5-10 min.). Wrap in plastic film, place in a plastic bag and refrigerate from 1 hour minimum to several days if necessary.

Chestnut-chocolate Filling:

1 lb. can of pure chestnut puree (not flavored). (On Amazon: Clement Faugier Purée de Marrons)

7 oz REAL chocolate chips—semi-sweet

¼ c sugar (optional)

Vanilla extract

Dash salt

Brandy

1 demitasse of espresso

Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves (to your taste, feel free to omit)

4-6 oz chopped citron

4 oz chopped candied orange

Orange zest (optional)

  1. Place chestnut puree in food processor. Process only as long as it takes to blend ingredients! Over-processing may turn it gloopy (chestnuts are starchy.)
  2. Thin it with a stream of brandy—only as much as necessary to keep it moving briefly and to become smooth. Mixture should not be too thin, it has to hold up to frying. But remember that chocolate thickens when refrigerated.
  3. When smooth, add the melted chocolate, dash of salt, 1 tsp. vanilla extract, spices of your choice, some of the espresso (don’t add it if you’ve thinned the puree too much).
  4. Process until smooth but be careful not to over-process.
  5. When mixture is well blended and smooth, fold in the chopped citron and orange, and orange zest if you choose.

You can store this for a week in fridge or freeze it for a couple of months.

Now to make the calzoncelli

Note: You will also need about 24 oz. of honey for the final dipping.

Bring the dough to room temperature.

  1. Roll it out to a thin sheet (but not see-through. Remember you have to fry these and if there is a tear in the dough it will mess up your oil and entire project!)
  2. For this amount of filling you will need 1 recipe of Struffoli Dough, rolled out into thin sheets.
  3. Now cut the sheet into even parts (square or round, about 3×3 inches or diameter), the size of large ravioli. Makes about 30 to 35, depending on the size, with this filling.
  4. Cut with an English muffin cutter, rim of a large glass, or into squares. Keep them small, dough puffs up quite a bit.
  5. Put a dollop of chocolate in the middle and fold the dough over.
  6. Pinch edges together. Traditionally, we slit the edges all around and then turn over every other little flap, pressing it down hard onto the edge of the ravioli. Otherwise, you can press down all around with the tines of a small fork. Careful not to pinch down so hard that you tear the dough. (See photo)
  7. When you’re all done shaping them, fry them in a pre-heated frying pan when the oil is already hot. Should be enough oil to cover the ravioli. Be careful, because of the eggs, the oil can foam up. If this happens, turn down the heat but only till the foaming subsides. Fry at high temperature or they will end up greasy.
  8. Drain on paper towels as they come out of the fryer.
  9. When you’re all done frying, warm up the honey in a frying pan. When warm, bathe each canzoncello in the honey.
  10. Have a serving dish ready to lay them out, add sprinkles and then decorate with candied cherries, citron, whatever. You’re DONE!

NOTE: This dough can either be used to make struffoli (below) or as the dough for Chocolate-Chestnut Filled Calzoncelli (above). And don’t throw away the scraps when you cut the calzoncelli. Those are also delicious when fried and honeyed.

For Struffoli:         

Take out of fridge and turn out onto board. Let come to room temp. Cut off chunks, roll out to a thin rope and cut off tiny bits. Place aside on floured towels while working. When all has been cut , fry them in large skillet at least 3 in. deep. (They may foam up and overflow while frying so be careful.) Drain on paper towels till all done.

Warm the honey in a large skillet. When honey is almost hot place fried struffoli in and coat them all well. With slotted spoon take them out and shape them onto serving dish. Add sprinkles as you take them out. Decorate with red candied cherries and citron.

1 recipe of this is enough for about 30- 35 small calzoncelli, or a large platter of struffoli.

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