That is what our house smelled like on Christmas morning when I was growing up. Even as my sister, Maria, and I attacked the presents piled under the tree, our mother dashed back and forth from the living room to the kitchen, where she fried batches of calcionelli.
These golden-brown crescent-shaped pillows of sweet dough, filled with ground nuts and honey, are a specialty of my Italian mom's native region of Abruzzo. I imagine that as she stood there at the stove at our house in New Jersey, the aroma of honey and orange zest and fried dough brought her right back to her own childhood Christmases in the hilltop city of Chieti.Once she had finished frying the calcionelli, she would let them cool just a little, then dust them with powdered sugar and present them to us on a plate. She and my dad would devour them; my sister and I would avoid them.
My mother's calcionelli, truth be told, were far from my favorite Christmas cookie. I much preferred the spicy, thick-cut gingerbread cookies and buttery sugar cookies that she also made and which Maria and I blinged with abandon (we went through lots of icing and silver dragées). Hearts and stars, reindeers and Santas and angels and stockings. Compared to those cheerful, frosting-crusted cutouts, a fried half-moon that was filled with nuts and demurely adorned with a shake of powdered sugar held next to no allure for me.
When did things change? I'm not exactly sure. I just know that at some point when I was a little older, I stopped avoiding those crescents on the cookie plate, and started consuming them instead. Eventually I realized that I wasn't eating them just to participate in one of my mother's beloved Christmas traditions, which she had taken such care to preserve over the years; I actually liked them. Now, of course it is not Christmas without them.Calcionelli are, in a word, lovely, and distinctly Italian, the pastry light in texture despite being fried, and the filling sweet and sticky from the honey, toasty from the nuts, and bright thanks to a good hit of citrus zest. Think fried, sweet ravioli. My mom has always made two fillings, one with ground walnuts and one with ground almonds, so that is what I do, although one is perfectly fine. The dough is forgiving and easy to roll out. I use a cookie cutter to cut out rounds, fill them with sticky dollops, fold the dough over and seal them with a fork.
And lest you think you need to stand by the stovetop on Christmas morning, missing all the action while you fry the calcionelli, please know that is not the case--it's certainly not what I do. The calcionelli can be shaped ahead of time and frozen, uncooked, on a cookie sheet until hard. When you want to fry them, just transfer them directly from the freezer to the hot oil. And, as good as calcionelli are hot out of the fryer, they are just as good at room temperature and will keep in a tightly lidded container for up to 5 days.
Even my kids, who, like me, used to bypass these unassuming cookies without a second look, now reach for them. I guess it's only a matter of time before we all discover our inner Italian sweet tooth.
• Find Domenica's latest book: The Glorious Pasta of Italy
(adapted from The Glorious Pasta of Italy, by Domenica Marchetti (Chronicle Books, 2011))
Note: If you intend to use only one filling, double the quantity of filling ingredients.
For the sweet pasta dough:
3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of fine sea salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3 large eggs
1 to 2 tablespoons dark rum, Cointreau, or Grand Marnier
For the walnut filling:
1 cup walnut halves
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 cup wildflower honey
For the almond filling:
1 cup blanched almonds
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/4 cup wildflower honey
Vegetable oil for frying
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
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 for at least 1 hour and up to overnight. Bring the dough to slightly cooler than room temperature before using.
To make the walnut filling: Put the walnut halves in a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Add the lemon zest and process until the mixture is finely ground. Pour the honey into a nonstick frying pan and warm it over medium heat. As soon as the honey has melted and is loose, stir in the ground walnuts. Use a silicone spatula to combine the walnuts and honey thoroughly. Remove from the heat and scrape the mixture into a bowl. Set it aside. Wipe the frying pan clean.
To make the almond filling: Put the almonds in a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Add the lemon and orange zests and process until the mixture is finely ground. Pour the honey into the nonstick frying pan and warm it over medium heat. As soon as the honey has melted and is loose, stir in the ground almonds. Use a silicone spatula to combine the almonds and honey thoroughly. Remove from the heat and scrape the mixture into a bowl. Set it aside.
Dust two rimmed baking sheets with flour. Have on hand a 2 3/4-inch round cookie cutter for cutting out the calcionelli and a small bowl or glass of water and a fork for sealing them.
Cut the dough in half and rewrap half. Place the other half on a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Roll out into a large thin circle about 1/16 inch thick. Using the cookie cutter, cut out as many circles as possible. Mound a scant 1 teaspoon of the walnut filling in the center of each dough circle. Dip a finger in the water and moisten the border of each circle. Fold each circle into a half-moon. Using the fork, press along the open edge of each half-moon to seal securely. Transfer the calcionelli to a flour-dusted baking sheet. Gather up the dough scraps and reroll them once to make additional walnut calcionelli. You should end up with about 30 calcionelli.
Roll out the remaining dough piece and cut out circles the same way. Fill them with the almond filling, then fold and seal them as you did the walnut-filled calcionelli and transfer them to a baking sheet.
Pour the vegetable oil to a depth of at least 1 inch in a large, deep frying pan, place over medium-high heat, and heat to about 375 degrees F on a deep-frying thermometer. Place a large rimmed baking sheet lined with a double layer of paper towels or a plain brown paper bag near the stove.
When the oil is ready, gently drop in 6 to 8 calcionelli, taking care not to crowd the pan. They will begin to brown on the bottom almost immediately. Turn them with a fork and let the other side brown briefly. Using a large skimmer or slotted spoon, remove the calcionelli to the paper towel-lined baking sheet. Once they have cooled slightly, transfer them to a decorative serving platter. Fry the remaining calcionelli in the same way.
Dust the calcionelli with a generous shower of confectoners' sugar and serve warm or at room temperature. Leftover will keep in a tightly covered container at room temperature for up to 5 days.
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(Images: Domenica Marchetti)