I cannot remember a family Christmas or Easter without these cookies on my Italian great-grandmother's and then my grandmother's holiday table. However, when I was younger, I wasn't really partial to these cookies. I gravitated to the child-friendly cookies with chocolate or sprinkles on top. It was only when I grew older that I came to appreciate these cookies and their subtle sophistication.
This recipe hails from my Italian great-grandmother, whose family immigrated to America from Basilcata, Italy. This is her version of the Caragnoli cookie, popular in southern Italy and often made and served for holidays such as Christmas and Carnival. Our famiy also makes them for weddings and funerals. They are essentially cookies made with flour, oil, and eggs, shaped into decorative pieces, fried in oil, then dipped in honey.
These are somewhat contradictory cookies. They don't have much fat, but because they are fried, the recipe contains a fair bit of oil. (But don't think for a minute that they are greasy or oily.) These cookies don't have much sugar, but they are burnished in sweet honey. I like the ying-yang effect of these cookies. They are celebratory, but also modest and unpretentious. These cookies are a great addition to a holiday dessert platter, but my family also enjoys eating them after a holiday breakfast.
When I decided that I wanted to make these cookies for my own family, there wasn't much of a recipe. My great-grandmother's recipe read simply: "Combine all ingredients, roll dough out, fry and dip in honey." My mother, who also continues to make these cookies, has helped me reconstruct the recipe. In my updated version of these cookies, I've kept most of my great-grandmother's ingredients, but I have subbed butter for the shortening and added olive oil. I've changed the amounts of some of the ingredients, in particular upping the amounts of salt and vanilla. I've adapted the recipe for a stand mixer. No doubt my great-grandmother mixed and kneaded the dough by hand. And I've experimented with various artisan local honeys for the glaze, ingredients that I'm sure my great-grandmother wouldn't have had at her disposal. I recommend using the best honey that you can source. I've tried lavender honey (delicious!) and wildflower honey (also lovely).
In a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, cream sugar, butter and olive oil until well mixed, about 2-3 minutes. Mixture will look a little crumbly. Add vanilla and eggs one at a time, blending on medium-low speed until incorporated. Add salt, baking powder, and one cup of flour at a time, blending on low speed, until flour is dispersed into the sugar, butter and egg mixture. Add milk, then blend until dough starts to form a ball.
Take paddle attachment off mixer and replace with dough hook. Knead dough for 1-2 minutes, until it has formed a smooth ball. (You can quickly knead the dough by hand instead, if you prefer.) Remove dough from bowl -- it will feel a little sticky -- and cut dough in half. Wrap one piece of the dough in plastic wrap and sprinkle the other piece of dough with flour.
When dough is rolled out, cut dough into 8 inch strips, about 3/4 inch wide, with a sharp knife or ravioli cutter (my favorite tool because it gives a pretty scalloped edge). See if you can lift each strip up. If any of the strips are sticking to the wax paper, a little bit of flour and a metal spatula should loosen it.
Now you are ready to form the cookies. The directions may seem involved, but there really is not a right or wrong way to do this. No matter what you do, the cookies will be beautiful! Working with one strip at any time, gently twist it as though you are twisting crepe paper for a child's party. Then bring both ends together. Cross the ends of the dough so that they form an X. (There should be about 1 1/2 inches from where the X forms to the end of each piece of dough.) Wrap one end of the X over and under the other end of the dough, as if you were starting to tie a shoe. Press your thumb gently, where the dough is now joined together. Place cookie on a baking sheet sprinkled with flour. Continue forming cookies until you have used up all of the strips. Remove the plastic wrap from the remaining piece of dough, and roll it out, following above directions. Cut into strips and form strips into cookies. Place all cookies on the cookie sheet.
Now you are ready to fry! In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil until a candy thermometer registers 300 degrees. Working in batches, carefully drop each cookie into the hot oil. Oil will sizzle and bubble. If it is splattering furiously, turn heat down. If bubbling is not really detectable, turn heat up. Fry cookies for about two minutes on the first side. When they have turned a golden, caramel color, turn cookies over with a slotted spoon or spider. Fry cookies on the second side for about 1 minute or until second side is a lovely golden brown. Keep a careful eye on the cookies. They can burn in an instant. When cookies have finished frying, remove to a wire rack fitted over a baking sheet. Let cool.
Last step -- adding the honey glaze: In a small saucepan, heat honey and 1 tablespoon water over low heat just until honey warms. If consistency, looks too thick, add a little more water, a teaspoonful at a time. When honey is warmed (but not hot!), take a silicone or pastry brush, and gently brush warmed honey over all surfaces of the cookies, until they are coated with honey and look beautiful and shiny. Just before serving, sprinkle cookies with confectioners' sugar, if desired.
Enjoy with a hot cup of Earl Grey tea or a mug of strong black coffee. I strongly recommend dipping them! Note: Cookies can be made in advance and frozen for a couple of months or kept at room temperature for a week. It is best to add the honey glaze just before serving because the honey will soften the cookies a bit.
In 2009, after living more than twenty years in NYC, my husband, young daughter and I packed up our lives and embarked on a grand adventure, moving to Victoria, B.C. There are many things that we miss about New York (among them ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh ravioli and New York bagels), but, I have to admit, that living in the Pacific Northwest has been pretty amazing food-wise. Now we have a yard with plum and apple trees, a raspberry and strawberry patch and a Concord grape arbor. I have a vegetable and herb garden, so I can grow at least some of our food. And we have an amazing farmer's market a block from our house.
I love cooking (and eating) seasonally and locally. And it's been very rewarding introducing my daughter to cooking and eating, and teaching her where our food comes from.