I·ATE Food Term of the Week: Struffoli, a traditional Neapolitan festive dessert

December 21, 2019 9:09 am

Struffoli bannerStruffoli, along with mustacciuoli, susamielli, roccocò and raffioli are a classic dessert of Neapolitan cuisine at Christmastime. According to the popular belief, these fried balls of honey-drenched dough, crunchy on the outside and light inside, are symbolic of money, and eating them would bring prosperity in the new year. They represent a moment of pleasure which usually ends the meals of Neapolitan families during the holiday season, when one portion leads to another, often accompanied by a good glass of dessert wine or prosecco, while playing tombola and card games. They are also mentioned by the contemporary Neapolitan writer and poet Erri de Luca in his book Tre Cavalli, and by the nineteenth-century novelist Matilde Serao, who described struffoli as “the delight of the Neapolitan crowd at every party”, giving them also a “literary glory”.

Despite being a symbol of Neapolitan Christmas, struffoli were not invented in Naples for they were imported from the Greeks, when Neapolis was still part of Magna Graecia. There are a couple of theories about the origin of their name: some state that the term derives from the Greek word strongoulos (στρογγύλος), which means “round in shape”, referring to the shape of the cooked dough pieces, and even today, Greek people prepare a very similar dessert, but made with more elongated shaped balls, called loukoumades. According to another theory, the word derives from the Italian verb strofinare which means “to rub together”, and refers to the act of rolling out pieces of dough into a long, thin rope shape before cutting it into small balls; others believe that struffolo is called in this way because it “rubs” the palate in the sense that it tickles, for his goodness.

This traditional Christmas dessert is made not only in Naples, but also in other regions of Central and Southern Italy, where it goes by several different names: in Sicily, for example, the word loses an “f”, becoming strufoli; in the regions of Lazio, Molise, Abruzzo and Umbria, in central Italy, they are known as cicerchiata for the shape of the balls being very similar to that of cicerchie (grass peas), while they are called purceddruzzi in Puglia and turdiddi or cicirata in Calabria. Similar dishes in other cultures are the croquembouche, a French dessert consisting of choux pastry puffs piled into a cone and bound with threads of caramel, the piñonate, a sweet from the village of Jimena in Andalusia based on anise, lemon and honey, and the already mentioned loukoumades in Greece.

The recipe of struffoli became popular thanks to the convents of Croce di Lucca and S. Maria dello Splendore, where nuns prepared and offered them as a Christmas gift to all those noble families who, during the year, had distinguished themselves for their sense of charity and piety. A first recipe was provided by Antonio Latini, who during the 16th century mentioned them in his culinary treatise, using the expression “struffoli alla Romana”. While in the past they were kneaded and fried with lard, currently it is common to use butter and sesame oil. Making struffoli is not difficult if you have two main ingredients: love and time. First you make the dough, then cut the dough balls and fry them. Once cooked and cooled, the dough balls can be stored at room temperature in a tightly sealed tin or container for up to one week. When you are ready to assemble struffoli, all that will be left to do is warm the honey in a pot, and spread it on the dough balls. Some families prefer to bake them in order to cut down the number of calories and make the recipe “healthier”. They can be served into a wreath, a pyramid or mound on a large platter, in small paper muffin cups or even in a Christmas-themed shaped cake pan (such as a Christmas tree). There are different ways to flavour them, but the traditional one is to mix the fried balls in honey with diavulilli (nonpareils sprinkles), Italian confetti (sugared almonds, comfits) and candied citrus peel. Other popular decorations include cinnamon, nuts and glacé cherries.

Finally, a sweet curiosity: in Naples, the recipe is handed down from grandparents to grandchildren and people usually prepare large quantities of these honey balls for friends and family. When one visits relatives during Christmastime, a platter of struffoli is often given as a gift to spread holiday cheer and in keeping with the spirit of Christmas as the season of giving.


The history of Struffoli, http://www.sottoilvesuvio.it/struffoli-en.html

Struffoli, by Flavia’s flavors, 27/12/2017, https://www.flaviasflavors.com/desserts/struffoli/

Struffoli: Italian Christmas Tradition, by Franco Lania, 07/12/2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/struffoli-italian-christmas-tradition_b_4378585 

Struffoli, by Eva Scialò, https://napolicious.pastagarofalo.it/en/struffoli/

Gli Struffoli, by La cuoca galante, 20/12/2015, https://lacuocagalante.com/recipe-items/struffoli/

Struffoli recipe and history – traditional Italian honey balls, by Filippo Trapella, 24/02/2017, https://philosokitchen.com/struffoli-italian-honey-balls/

Struffoli napoletani, by Francesca Bezzone, 20/12/2018 https://www.lifeinitaly.com/recipes/struffoli-napoletani

Struffoli: a traditional festive dessert from Naples, by Antonella Bergamin, 26/12/2016, https://www.artimondo.co.uk/magazine/struffoli-a-traditional-festive-dessert-from-naples/

Written by Carolina Iazzetta, PhD student in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology”, University of Naples “Parthenope”.

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