Italian Honey Balls: Pignolata

PignolataL

Pignolata or Struffoli is an Italian dessert that is popular (mostly in southern Italy) during Christmas and Carnevale.  Pignolata is typically made of little bite-size morsels of fried dough, covered with caramelized honey and topped with festive sprinkles and candied fruit.  Nuts are sometimes also added.  Another version from Messina is coated with chocolate and lemon icing.  As the name of the dish suggests, pignolata refers to its pine cone (pigna) shape, especially when shaped into small individual mounds.

ITALIAN HONEY BALLS
(Pignolata/Struffoli)

Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Makes 8 to 10 servings.

FOR THE DOUGH:

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1 tablespoon melted butter or vegetable shortening
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
4 large eggs, at room temperature
6 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup whole almonds

FOR THE HONEY SYRUP:

1 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

FOR DECORATING:

Colored jimmies sprinkles or non-pareils
Cinnamon for dusting (optional)
Candied cherries (optional)
2 tablespoons candied orange peel, diced (optional)

1. MAKE THE DOUGH:  Using a large bowl, combine 1 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour, cake flour, sugar, lemon zest, baking powder, and baking soda.  Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.

Beat the eggs in a small bowl.  Pour the eggs and butter into the well.  Using a fork, gradually stir in as much flour as you can.  It may be necessary to mix the remaining flour with your hands.  If necessary, add in enough remaining flour to achieve a somewhat stiff but manageable dough.  Turn the dough out onto a board or flat surface.  Knead the dough for 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic.  Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and let rest 20 to 30 minutes.

2. FRY THE DOUGH BALLS:  Heat the oil in a large sauce pan to 350 degrees F.  Roll out pieces of dough into a rope, 1/2-inch in diameter.  Cut into 1/2-inch lozenges.  Lightly roll each piece again to get a more round shape if desired.  Fry the dough pieces in batches being careful not to crowd the pan.  The dough balls will expand by twice their size.  Using a wire skimmer or slotted spoon, stir the dough balls frequently to brown evenly.  Cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes.  Drain on a baking sheet lined with paper towels.  Add the nuts, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to lightly toast.  Drain with the dough balls.

3. MAKE THE HONEY COATING:  Combine honey and sugar in a large pot over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Add nuts and cook 2 minutes longer.  Stir in dough balls and mix thoroughly for 1 to 2 minutes longer.  The honey will begin to color.  Remove from heat immediately.  Stir in cinnamon and orange zest.  Add dough balls and nuts and stir for several minutes, distributing the honey evenly, until the dough balls begin to stick together.

4. FORM THE PIGNOLATA:  Working quickly, mound honey ball mixture onto a large plate or into individual parchment cupcake liners.  The mixture will be sticky and harden quickly.  Sprinkle with jimmies and dust lightly with additional cinnamon.  Decorate with candied orange peel and cherries.  Let set for 2 hours before serving.

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