Sicilian Pignolata has been a Christmas tradition in my family since I was a child. During the holidays, each aunt had her own Christmas specialty and pignolata was my mother’s sister’s tradition. Unfortunately that ended when my aunt passed away twelve years ago and my mother didn’t have that recipe. A few weeks ago I decided to call up my cousin in Sicily, having remembered that she made us some during our last trip to Sicily over a year ago, and asked her for her recipe.
Imagine my surprise when she listed ingredients such as semolina, cinnamon and grappa? I verified this with my mother and just as I suspected, the pignolata recipe had definitely evolved throughout the years. Although my mother did not remember the original recipe, she was quite sure they did not have grappa to add to their pignolata back when she was a child. Regardless, I decided to give it a try. As usual, I had to make some adjustments as I went along. I had to figure out how much her “half a glass of” whatever ingredient meant. My cousin also shaped her pignolata into gnocchi-like pieces but I decided to go with the traditional little ball shapes that I had been accustomed to with my aunt’s pignolata.
I took my first bite and although it did not exactly remind me of my aunt’s pignolata, I really enjoyed it. The semolina makes them crisp and the hint of cinnamon (I don’t like overpowering cinnamon flavor!) and grappa was just enough to give them a distinct flavor. My mother came over the next day to sample some and she agreed it was not the pignolata of her youth but she still approved. The only critique she offered was that they were not sufficiently coated in honey so I had to step up the amount of honey. So mille grazie Graziella for the new and improved recipe!
Depending on what region of Italy you are from, you may call these struffoli, cicerchiata or turdilli. The recipe will vary by adding different types of liquor (or none at all), lemon or orange zest, honey or even simple syrup. But the basic principle of frying little dough balls and covering them with a sweet syrup remains the same throughout the different regions. They may be served during the Christmas holidays, carnevale in the month of February or even Easter. For me, this is Sicilian Pignolata and will always be a Christmas tradition.
Sicilian Pignolata, otherwise known as honey balls, has been a Christmas tradition ever since I was a child. This stepped-up version adds grappa and cinnamon for extra flavor.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups semolina flour
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 4 large eggs
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup grappa (rum or brandy are other options)
- 1 cup honey
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Colored sprinkles, for serving
- In a large bowl whisk together the flour, semolina, sugar, salt, baking soda and cinnamon.
- In a separate bowl whisk the eggs, vegetable oil and Grappa.
- Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients.
- Stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Scrape the mixture onto a floured surface and knead lightly until a dough is formed. If sticky, add a bit more flour.
- Divide the mixture into 4 pieces. One piece at a time, roll the dough into a long rope about 1 cm thick. Cut into 1 cm pieces, roll in the palm of your hands to form a ball. Place onto a baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Continue with the remaining dough.
- Pour about 1 inch of oil in a shallow frying pan and heat on medium-high heat. Do not fill the pan more than half way with oil. Test to verify if the oil is hot enough by dropping 1 piece of pignolata into the oil. It must be bubbling vigourously. Using a slotted spoon or spider, carefully drop pieces of pignolata into the hot oil in one even layer. Do not overcrowd the pan. Cook about 2 minutes until golden brown. Transfer to a paper towel covered baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pignolata balls.
- In a small sauce pan, gently heat the honey until liquefied. Transfer the pignolata to a large bowl and pour in the warmed honey. Stir until all pieces are coated with honey.
- To serve, place pignolata on a serving platter in a Christmas tree shape and evenly cover with sprinkles before serving.