What do holidays make you think of?
Holidays make me think of food. (I know, don’t faint from shock or anything.) Lots and lots of food. Giant feasts on the holidays themselves, of course; but also special Italian-American holiday foods, produced ahead of time on a near-industrial scale, by large gatherings of female members of my extended maternal family, for various relatives living within a thirty-mile radius. We’re into the fourth generation now, and still keeping up the traditions that my grandparents brought with them to America. Since I can’t always be there for the main event (for obvious reasons), I’ve started my own overseas operation, doing a vastly reduced version for my own crew (as well as any interested locals who happen along at the right time).
This recipe is based upon a traditional Italian Easter sugar-coated treat, and was standardized and considerably modified (and, reportedly, vastly improved) by my grandmother and one of my aunts several decades ago. The master family recipe makes about eight times as much as this mini-recipe that my mother worked out for me for my first overseas Easter, ten years ago. Tarrale (thanks Diana!) is, I think, the correct representation of what my grandmother called them in Calabrian. We generally refer to them as doughnuts in English, I think because the big ones are round and have a hole in the middle, but they're really more like cake-y cookies.
300g/12oz butter, at room temperature
1 dozen eggs (L or XL)
1 1/2 Tbsp vanilla
2 Tbsp lemon flavoring*
1.2kg/3lbs plain/all-purpose flour (more or less)
1 tsp baking powder per cup flour (ie about 4 Tbsp for 3lbs)
1/4 tsp salt per cup flour (ie about 3 tsp for 3lbs)
* I couldn't find lemon flavoring in my tiny local Sainsbury's the first time I made this abroad, so substituted 2 Tbsp lemon zest and 1 Tbsp lemon juice. I found it an improvement and have been doing it ever since.
Preheat the oven to 180C/375F. Line every baking sheet you can get your hands on with parchment paper.
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, vanilla, and lemon and beat until combined.
Add as much of the flour as you need to make a dough stiff enough to work by hand (you will probably have to quit using the mixer and switch to a wooden spoon or paddle before this happens).
When dough is sufficiently stiff, turn out of bowl and knead, continuing to add flour as necessary, until smooth and shiny.
Cut off 1/4 of dough. Wrap remainder with cloth to keep from drying out.
Roll dough by hand into a sort of baguette shape (this is just to make measuring off cookie-sized pieces easier).
Cut off slices off dough about the size of a fat finger; dust with flour and roll into a long, thin tube. Twist and roll this into shapes to suit your fancy; traditional shapes include knots and folding the tube in two, then twisting it around itself. The popular favorite in my family is the carciofia (artichoke); after you role out the tube, you flatten it with your fingers, then make little slashes all along it with a knife, being careful not to cut through completely. Roll this up like a ribbon and set on the flat (uncut) side. It should look roughly like an artichoke. For big ones, use two slices; follow directions as above, then twist tubes around each other and secure the ends to make a doughnut shape.
Repeat with quarter-sections of dough until you have used it all up.
Bake cookies for 15+ minutes, or until lightly browned. You may want to turn the sheets partway through, depending upon your oven.
1kg/2lbs granulated sugar
4 cups water
Combine sugar and water in pan and stir until sugar is dissolved.
Bring to a boil, then simmer until sugar 'spins a thread'.
Place about a dozen cookies in a very large pot. (A stockpot is ideal for this operation.) Pour over a generous amount of sugar syrup and heat the pan for no about one minute (I do this over a medium electric burner on high heat, since my grandmother's wood-burning stove isn't available; hotter is better).
Turn or toss cookies to ensure they are fully coated in sugar; my mother does this by shaking the pan vigorously, flinging the cookies in the air. I find this results in a lot of breakage, so I use more of a tumble-dryer motion, tilting the pan on the counter at a 45-degree angle and rotating it. (You may need to re-heat the pan once or twice during this process.) Either way, you are looking for the sugar to re-crystallize; it will eventually become white, lumpy, and solid. The more sugar you use, the better, according to my family!
Repeat with all cookies.
Makes approximately 100 (more if you make all small ones, less if you make big ones).