Fried dough pellets glued together with honey to form a wreath. That, in essence, is la cicerchiata, a traditional holiday dessert from Italy’s Abruzzo region. There is nothing subtle or sophisticated about it. And yet, its festive appearance and sweet, citrus-scented aroma are impossible to resist. There is just something about those crunchy-chewy, honey-soaked nuggets, about prying them off the molded ring and popping them into one’s mouth, that is just too tempting.
Cicerchiata takes its name from cicerchie, a small, chick pea-like legume used in Abruzzese cooking that bears a passing resemblance to the pellets of fried dough. The pastry, decorated with slivered nuts, colorful sprinkles or candied fruit, is similar to Neapolitan struffoli and Sicilian pignoccata, though struffoli and pignoccata are mounded into a large cone rather than formed into a ring.
As with many fried pastries in Italy, cicerchiata is typically made during Carnevale. But when I was growing up, my mom’s cicerchiata was always the centerpiece dessert at Christmas, accompanied by a platter of cookies, espresso, and a range of liqueurs. A cicerchiata set out on a buffet table, that wreath of fried dough shimmering with honey and sparkling with edible decorations, is still one of my favorite holiday sights. The best part, of course, is the communal indulgence that it invites. Yes, you can cut into the dessert and serve it in wedges, as you would a pie or a cake. But it’s much more fun to pry off a cluster of nuggets with your fingers.
Make the dough: Put the 3 1/4 cups flour, sugar, salt, and lemon and orange zests into a food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Scatter the butter over the flour mixture and pulse until it is incorporated and the mixture is crumbly. Add the eggs and pulse briefly just until they are incorporated. With the motor running, dribble in the liqueur, adding just enough for the mixture to begin to come together in a rough mass.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it briefly until a smooth ball forms. The dough should be soft and tender but not sticky. If sticky, add an additional sprinkle or two of flour and lightly knead until incorporated. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for about an hour or until lightly chilled.
Make the cicerchiata: Dust two rimmed baking sheets with flour. Cut the dough into six pieces and rewrap five pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, rolle the dough into a long rope about 1/2 inch or slightly smaller in diameter. With a sharp knife, cut the rope into pieces about 3/8 inch long. As the little pieces of dough accumulate, transfer them to the flour-dusted baking sheets. Continue to roll and cut the remaining dough pieces in the same way.
Pour the vegetable oil to a depth of at least 2 inches in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, place over medium-high heat, and heat to about 375 degrees F on a deep-frying thermometer. If you don't have a thermometer, gently drop a nugget of dough into the hot oil; if it sizzles immediately and floats to the surface, the oil is ready. Place a large rimmed baking sheet lined with paper towels or a large plain brown paper bag near the stove.
When the oil is ready, gently drop in the nuggets of dough, working in batches and taking care not to crowd the pan. Fry until golden---this happens quickly, in under 1 minute. Using a large skimmer or slotted spoon, remove the balls to the prepared baking sheet. Continue to fry the dough pieces in batches until you have fried them all.
Lightly grease a 10-inch tube pan or ring mold with oil. Pour the honey into a nonstick frying pan that is large enough and deep enough to hold all of the fried dough nuggets. Drop in the lemon and orange zests. Bring the honey to a simmer over medium heat and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. Take care not to let the honey overcook or it will burn. When the honey is hot and loose, remove the citrus zest strips with tongs or a fork. Dump in all of the fried dough nuggets and, using a silicone spatula, toss them gently but thoroughly to coat them evenly with the honey. Be careful, as the hot honey can cause serious burns.
As soon as the nuggets are coated, pour them into the prepared tube pan. Wet your hands with cold water and use them to spread the nuggets out evenly. Unmold the ring onto a serving platter. Alternatively, you can make a free-form ring: Moisten the countertop lightly with oil and dump the hot honey-coated nuggets onto it. Dampen your hands with cold water and form the pieces into a large ring. Transfer the ring to a serving platter.
Decorate the top of the cicerchiata with the sprinkles and almonds. Let it cool to room temperature. To serve, cut into small wedges with a serrated knife. Or just put it in the center of the table and let the fingers fall where they may. Cook's Note: Wrap leftover cicerchiata in aluminum foil and leave it out at room temperature. It will stay fresh for up to a week, though I doubt it will last that long.
Photo credit: France Ruffenach for Chronicle Books