Pignolata is a dessert made in Southern Italy year-round, but especially around holidays such as Christmas. There are many regional variations of the pastry, although it generally can be described as tiny bits of fried dough coated in a sweet syrup or honey. It can be coated in a glaze that is flavored with lemon, orange or chocolate. One traditional style has more than one coating on the small dough pieces — half lemon and half chocolate. The way pignolata is served involves mounding the fried dough pieces into a cone shape, resembling a pine cone, and allowing the glaze to act as a glue to hold the shape.
The name pignolata refers to pine nuts, the shape the dough pieces are said to resemble once cooked. The dish, also known as struffoli, is popular in Sicily, Calabria and Naples. Even though the name references pine nuts, they are not always an ingredient in recipes for the dessert. When pine nuts are used in pignolata, they are usually sprinkled on top, although a few recipes call for them to be toasted, ground and mixed into the flour for the dough.
The basic dough is made from flour, sugar, eggs and water. Some versions involve adding white wine, cognac or a lemon-flavored liqueur to the dough for flavor. Another variety of the dough incorporates fats such as butter or lard into the flour so the cooked dough remains soft and moist for a longer period of time. Whatever is added, the ingredients are worked together to form a dough, allowed to rest for one hour, and then rolled into long, round pieces and cut into a small shapes resembling a pine nut.
One part of making pignolata that is consistent across most recipes is the method of cooking the dough pieces. They are deep fried in batches for a few minutes each. This creates a soft, light and fluffy piece of pastry. Once cooked, the pieces are allowed to cool and drain before being coated.
One of the final steps in creating pignolata is to make the syrup to coat the pastry pieces. This can be simple syrup, a lemon-flavored syrup or a chocolate coating. Some coatings are made from honey or unrefined sugar. Lemon-flavored liqueurs, light caramels and spices such as cinnamon also can be used. Once the syrup is prepared in a pan, the pastries are added to the pan for coating and then emptied onto a greased surface.
Most of the time, the coated pignolata are formed into a cone shape and allowed to dry with the syrup acting like glue. Other preparations include making a square or circular cake out of the pastries, or separating them into small bite-sized servings. Some recipes call for half of the coated pastries to be frosted with sugar or dipped into chocolate to create a two-toned effect on the finished pignolata.