In many Italian-American households, in the center of all the Christmas sweets you will find struffoli: a mound of tiny fritters glued together with honey and decorated with multi-colored sprinkles. (My friends call it Italian croquembouche, the towering French dessert, which it somewhat resembles, although those puffs are filled and these aren't.) It's the kind of dessert to eat at leisure with a cup of coffee, breaking off bits of the mound with your fingers to nibble as you chat. My thanks to Nancy Verde Barr for her aunt's tip for using the lemon halves to form the mound without burning your fingers on the hot honey.
Makes 8 to 12 servings
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs at room temperature, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable shortening or oil for deep-frying
3/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons sugar
1 lemon, cut in half
Multi-colored sprinkles for decoration
Sift the flour and salt into a medium bowl. Make a well in the center and add the eggs and vanilla. Stir to make a soft dough. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Line 2 baking sheets with waxed paper. Cut the dough into 6 portions. Keeping the remaining dough covered, on a lightly floured work surface, roll one portion of dough underneath your hands, moving your hands apart in a horizontal movement while rolling, until the dough is rolled and stretched into a long rope about 12 inch wide. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 12-inch-long pieces. Place the dough pieces on the waxed paper, separating the pieces so they don't touch. Repeat with the remaining dough, placing half of the dough pieces on each baking sheet. Let stand to slightly dry the dough surfaces, about 15 minutes.
Lightly butter a serving platter. Line a roasting pan with crumpled paper towels. In a deep Dutch oven, melt vegetable shortening over high heat to a depth of 2 to 3 inches and heat it to 350°F. Slide the struffoli from 1 sheet of waxed paper into the hot shortening. Deep-fry, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 1 minute. Using a wire-mesh skimmer, transfer the dough pieces to the paper towels. Repeat with the remaining dough, separating each new layer of dough with more paper towels.
In a saucepan large enough to hold all of the dough pieces, bring the honey and sugar to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for 30 seconds. Add all the dough pieces at once and stir gently until covered with the syrup. Pour onto the platter. Using the cut surfaces of the lemon halves, push the dough pieces into a mound, going as high as you can. If the syrup is too hot and liquid and the mound won't hold its shape, wait a few minutes for it to cool, and try again. Decorate with a shower of sprinkles and let cool completely