Fried dough is common in many cultures. But in Italy, they fry dough for special occasions, especially during Christmas time. Pignolata are made in Sicily, Calabria and Umbria, so to keep these tiny delights can appear in multiple regions and could have different names.
But if you ask anyone in my family in Sicily what they would traditionally eat as a sweet on Christmas Eve or Day, they would say Pignolata! Pignolata is one of the most popular southern Italian sweets made for Christmas. You can find struffoli (another name for pignolata)in Perugia made with honey, sugar and candied fruits. It used to be made in Sicily usually during Carnevale, but is now also made during Christmas. You can find pignolata in different parts of Sicily with different names: pignocata, pagnuccata, pignolata.
My Calabrian mother-in-law when asked when is the time to make pignolata would say whenever it is time to celebrate! Since I have known her, she has made pignolata for Christmas, birthdays, Easter, a Communion. She hasn’t reserved it just for Christmas time, and rightfully so! These mini balls of fried dough are sort of addictive with their sweet honey coating and the dash of festive sprinkles!
slightly updated from 12/15
some notes on this recipe:
An important baking tip for making struffoli: make sure you use a good quality honey when making them and also use the right amount. If you skimp on the honey, they won’t be as wonderfully sticky sweet! It’s also important to make them the right size so you can enjoy the honey glaze more.
Sicilian Pignolata-Italian Honey Balls
- 4 eggs
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 ¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour extra may be needed
- ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- zest of one large orange
- 1 cup orange blossom honey
- Vegetable oil to fry
To make the dough
- In the bowl of a large mixer, beat eggs sugar, salt and oil.
- Sift the flour into the mix and beat on medium speed with a dough hook until you obtain a soft dough. Add more flour as needed a little at a time if the dough is too sticky.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it until it is smooth.
- Cover the dough and let it rest for 30 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 8 pieces and roll into ropes (about ½ inch thick). Cut each rope into ½ inch pieces and roll the pieces in your hands (like you’re making meatballs) into little balls.
- Toss a little bit of flour on the dough balls so they don’t stick while you roll the other pieces.
- Heat oil in a large heavy saucepan to 350 degrees F.
- Carefully add about 6 pieces of dough at a time and fry until they are evenly browned (about 3 minutes).
- Remove the dough pieces with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel lined plate. Repeat process until you fry all the pieces of dough.
To make the syrup
- In a large skillet, bring the sugar, water and orange zest to a boil. Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves.
- Whisk in the honey; reduce the heat to medium-high.
- Add the balls and stir to coat them evenly with the honey syrup. Cook for about 5 minutes until they obtain a nice glaze.
- Immediately place them on serving plate stacking them like a pinecone. Use caution as they are very hot.
- Toss on the sprinkles.