I’m sitting on my grandma’s bed, decked out in full protective gear (think: mask, gown and gloves) watching my mom spoon feed my nonna, while I watch my nonno eat a container of tartar sauce instead of using it to dip his fish fingers inside—that was Christmas Eve this year.
But it wasn’t always like that. Christmas Eve was actually quite whimsical and dare I say it, magical. Always the best part of the festivities, we’d go over to my nonni’s house where we’d gather in the back room of their house to chat and drink and eat and laugh with all of my nonno and nonna’s siblings and neighbours.
My nonna would prepare a seafood extravaganza complete with neptune salad antipasto, cod and potato soup (affectionately known as a cippodat’), squid and octopus pasta, steamed mussels, crab legs in white wine sauce, fried scallops and shrimps, breaded cod and an array of salads and vegetables like rapini and potatoes. I remember my mom and I running back and forth between the dining area and the kitchen trying our best to serve dish after dish as my nonna slaved over the stove all night long.
The night would end with a piece of caciocavallo and fresh fennel, maybe a roasted chestnut or two. But then would come the holiday sweets: cartellate and zeppole. Of the two, it was the Christmas Eve zeppole that I always loved. Whether it was my Nonna or her neighbour Maria that made them, they were always delicious! And why wouldn’t they be, they were fried dough balls!
Stuffed with pine nuts and raisins (probably rum-soaked—no wonder I loved them so much!), the zeppole aren’t anything complicated, just a sweet treat reserved for the holiday season. If you’d like a booze-free version, simply soak the raisins in water…this step is important!
Because these zeppole are dusted in granulated sugar, it does make the little dough balls sort of sparkle like an ornament, giving them that fancy sort of status.
Always in oddball shapes, half the fun was fishing a fresh malformed zeppole off the serving dish and comparing shapes with the dining companion beside you!
While those Christmas Eve dinners are a thing of the past, they’ll live in my heart forever. As time goes on and life continues to look different for everyone, I’m content knowing that I have some of Nonna’s signature recipes tucked away to help me recreate the indescribable Christmas feelings of way back when.
. . .
Nonna’s Christmas Eve Zeppole
*Makes 8 servings*
1 package of dried yeast mixed with 1/4 cup warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup raisins, soaked (in water or rum)
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
Vegetable oil for frying
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Mix yeast, water and sugar and set aside for 10 minutes until frothy.
In a bowl whisk together flour, salt and sugar.
Add yeast, water, pine nuts and raisins. Mix by hand until a sticky dough forms.
Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise for about two hours or until it has doubled in size.
Heat oil in a deep pan over medium high temperature.
Using two oil-coated spoons, drop small portions of dough into the oil and fry.
Once the zeppole rise and turn golden brown, remove from the oil and place on a paper-towel lined plate.
In a bowl, toss zeppole with granulated sugar and serve.