Back when Christmas was a season of joy rather than an extended period of coping and anxiety, i.e. when I was a child, we would spend the holiday at my grandparents’ in south Jersey. My folks would stay for dinner and we slept over. Every year the kids would argue that we should open our presents after the meal rather than the next morning. My father always insisted that we should wait for Christmas Day, but he was consistently overruled by my grandmother, a remarkable woman who spoiled her grandkids rotten. It’s hard to even imagine now, given how emotions harden and become more transactional and transitory as you age, but I’m pretty sure I loved my grandmother as much as any little boy has ever loved his grandmother. And there was never a question that she loved me back.
One of the main ways she expressed these emotions, as is the case with all Italian grandmothers, was through food. She was a terrific cook, and barely a minute went by between meals without her foisting cake or pudding or snacks or something else she had just whipped up on us. (My somewhat robust physique these days may owe a debt to those childhood binges.) My favorite thing of all was something she only made once a year: tardelle. (The spelling on this is from the instructions she wrote out for my mother, so I cannot vouch for its accuracy; she pronounced it “TAR-deel.” It is also known as struffoli.)
Italians are not famous for their desserts, but I could never get enough of this. It was one more thing that made Christmas seem special. Here’s her recipe.
1 cup honey
Grated orange peel
Confectionery sprinkles [the small, round ones]
2 3/4 cups of flour
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying [I would go with something like peanut oil]
Place salted flour in bowl. Make a well. Beat eggs and pour into flour. Mix and then knead until it’s like noodle dough. [Here she writes, “I’m sure you know noodle dough.” You may not, so just work it until it’s somewhat smooth and elastic.]
Roll a piece of dough into a long strip onto a floured board, round like a pencil, and cut into small pieces.
Fry a few pieces in hot oil ’til golden. Repeat with remaining pieces. Drain on toweling. [I love that she used the word “toweling.”]
Heat honey [in a separate pan] with grated orange peel. Stack the tardelle in a pyramid on a large plate. Drizzle warm honey over tardelle. (Work quickly.) Add sprinkles. [Alternately, you can coat the tardelle in the saucepan you use to warm the honey, but my grandmother always though it made them harder to stack later, and the presentation is important.]
And that’s it. This is slightly inexact, but if you’ve ever fried anything before you shouldn’t have too many problems with it. The recipe is going to make more tardelle than anyone can eat in one sitting, but that’s okay. They’re best when they’re fresh, but they’re still great over the next couple of days, even when they start going a little stale. They will taste like unconditional love.