December: It’s hard to choose just one favorite thing
What do you love best about December? Christmas and Hanukkah are obvious favorites, but there is so much more to love about this month than those two holidays. For me, the build-up is even more fun than waking up on Christmas morning. I’ve been thinking a lot about it these past few weeks as I rush from one obligation to the next, shuttling back and forth between NY and Philly and trying to fit too many things into each day. As hectic as it is, December easily rivals October for my favorite month. It starts with my favorite party of the year, tree trimming at mom’s house, continues with our anniversary, part 2 (yes, we have 2) and even includes our very own made-up holiday (more on that later). Despite my best efforts, it’s never as calm and relaxing as I want it to be, but it’s filled with so many fun people and events that it’s so hard to choose just one favorite thing.
For your sake, I’m focusing on baking. I do so much less of it these days because like most people I know, this month brings with it more tasks than there are hours in a day. I used to take an entire week in December to do nothing but bake cookies. Although that’s just not possible anymore, I’ve learned that even when you’re over scheduled, it’s worth it to fit in just a little Christmas baking. In a perfect world it wouldn’t have taken me 20+ days into the month to get started, but then again if all conditions were perfect, I wouldn’t be shopping from my tablet at 2 in the morning either. We work with what we have. Luckily, Mike and I made it back to Philly a few days early this year just in time to make struffoli with mom. Struffoli is a traditional dessert popular in many regions of Italy and goes by many different names, but the story goes that it originated in Naples and luckily made it to my mom’s nearby hometown of Casanova. The process is a bit time consuming but so worth it. With a couple of hours and some flour and honey, you will have a truly impressive sweet dish to grace your holiday dessert table. If you bring this to someone else’s table, I guarantee you will become very popular very quickly.
Baking is at the top of the Christmas list
The first rule of struffoli for me is that they are made back home in Philly, with mom in her kitchen, but you can make them anywhere and with anyone. I planned to be here weeks ago to leisurely bake several batches so that there would be plenty to go around, but our busy work and social calendars had other plans for us. I wanted to give dishes of them as gifts. I wanted to take a batch home for Mike and me to enjoy while we celebrated fake Christmas and our anniversary and our own tree trimming, but even with five weekends in this month, time ran out.
Part of the fun of December if you chose to accept it, is the multitude of excuses for a party. Each year we try not to refuse any of those excuses. Whether it was my killer office party from my former employer (out til 3 am, anyone?) or the “practice” Christmas celebration Mike and I created in NY called “Fake” Christmas, there is much more fun than stress during holiday season if you chose to see it that way. As a result, this blog tends to get stuck on Thanksgiving a little too long and baking and baking sometimes gets pushed to the very last minute as we struggle to wrap up work and rush off to Philadelphia to be with family.
Bake, party, travel but get home for Christmas if you can
Fortunately, I made it just in time to adhere to the second rule of struffoli which is that you make them in time for Christmas, real Christmas. It’s tempting to view all of the activities of this month as added stress and I admit that sometimes I do let it overwhelm me a bit, but it always works out in the end. These days every tradition might not get to be a whole production with an entire day dedicated to it, but the feeling is still the same. Mom and I used to start early and bake the whole day. Carving out two hours was the next best thing and I’m glad I did it. I’m grateful that I didn’t miss out on it because I was “too busy.”
Struffoli is a cross between a cookie and a cake. It is made of fried balls of dough cooked together in honey and arranged on a plate in the shape of a wreath and decorated with festive sprinkles better known as jimmies (if you’re from Philly). It starts out like most of our favorite dishes do, as a hand-made dough. It’s kind of like making sweet pasta. One chunk at a time, you swiftly and gingerly roll the dough out into a long rope. The key is in the technique and paying attention to the feel of the dough beneath your fingertips, being careful not to flatten the dough instead of rolling it. Next you cut the rope of dough into small pieces that are more like little blocks than perfectly round dough balls. These smaller pieces whether perfectly round or not will get deep fried and then cooked in boiling honey and quickly arranged on a plate. You definitely need to be careful during the last few steps and I would advise keeping a bowl of ice cold water handy just in case you accidentally touch something hot. Once the struffoli have cooled and you taste your first bite the whole process will become worth it!
Adjust your schedule to fit Christmas or adjust Christmas to fit your schedule, but adjust
My mom and I have been doing this since I was a kid. Back then, I only rolled out the dough, but I quickly took over almost the whole process. My mom still tries to keep me away from the step involving boiling honey, a mom’s instinct in her that just kicks in automatically. She absolutely will not let me do the deep frying even to this day. It’s kind of funny at this point. She makes up all sorts of reasons why she divides the work (if you can call it work) in this way, but I guess a mom is entitled to worry about her kids at any age.
For us December was filled with parties and Christmas tree decorating and of course lots of good food, but it only worked because we were willing to fit it in around all the less glamorous things that make up each day. December can be hectic and stressful, but it teaches a valuable lesson. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some years it takes three days just to get the Christmas tree in the apartment and decorated! And over the years, Fake Christmas has gone from fancy restaurants to to quiet time at home together. These adjustments mean that we don’t have to miss anything and the struffoli are always amazing. What was your favorite part of this month? Tell us in the comments and let us know how you manage to fit in all the festivities during this busy time of year.
Check out the recipe for Struffoli here.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas from our tiny kitchen and a peaceful, joyous new year!