So many readers write to me about “secret” family recipes, the things only Nonna made, or Mom developed from a previous recipe. Our most revered foods are often from the minds and hands of those we love, and this is even more heightened during the holidays.
This blog has been going for just over four years now and there’s still a favourite, secret recipe I haven’t shared with you…until today. My absolute-favourite-it’s-not-Christmas-without-them “cookie”: cartellate. These honey jewels originate from Puglia, the region that holds my dad’s home town of Monteleone, but it’s my mother who has perfected the recipe to the point that I cannot control myself around them. In my family we called them “crispelle,” but they are more commonly known as cartellate (or pinwheels). We coat them in honey, or sometimes a dusting of icing sugar, but other families soak them in vin cotto (cooked wine) or a combination of vin cotto and honey. Others still create ones that are rolled with a filling of nuts and dried fruits.
What just boogles my mind about cartellate, and a few other Italian cookies, is just how complicated the process of making them can be to explain. As usual with traditional Italian recipes, the ingredients are simple – flour, eggs, oil – but getting to the final, delicious product will take a few steps. So be forewarned – there’s a lot of pictures in the post so you can see the full process! And here’s an interesting tip from this recipe, the one small oz of liqueur in the ingredients can add flavour to the dough, but it’s real function is to keep the oil from foaming when cooking these treats.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/2 a cup for kneading
4 large eggs
1 oz Italian liqueur – Anisette, Amaretto or, if preferred, Rum. If you don’t want to use alcohol, you can substitute in vanilla.
2 tablespoons of canola oil
1 tablespoon of sugar
Canola oil for frying
1 1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon water
Making the dough can be done by hand (as seen in the pictures) or in a mixer. By hand, start by making a well in a pile of flour on a wooden or marble board. In the well, add the eggs, liqueur, canola oil and sugar. Begin mixing the ingredients with a fork, scrambling the eggs and incorporating the other liquids with them. Slowly draw in the flour from the edges with your fork until a sticky dough forms. Then, using a scraper, continue to mix the dough by cutting it together until it begins to look like a jumble of large pieces. Now, you can go in by hand and knead the dough together. This is harder dough and should be the consistency of pasta dough. Continue to add flour to your board while you knead it if it feels too soft.
If you choose to do the dough in a mixer, you can add the ingredients into the bowl at once. But start with only two cups of the flour in the mixer and as the ingredients combine, slowly add the additional 1/2 cup. As mentioned, this is a stiffer dough, and may be too hard for your machine to process. If it gets so that the mixer can not longer mix the dough, you’ll need to take it out and finish kneading on the board until it develops a smoother texture. You’ll have to judge with your mixer, each one is different.
Knead the dough until it begins to look smoother. Your arms might be tired at this point, so you can wrap it in plastic, let it rest for a few minutes until it begins to soften, then begin the kneading process again. Don’t worry about getting it completely smooth – the pasta roller will help you along too.
Remove a palm-size piece of the dough, wrapping the rest of the dough ball in plastic, to begin rolling out sheets. Flatten your small piece of dough with your fingers a bit then begin to run it through your pasta roller. Start on the widest setting (1). Once the dough has been rolled though, fold it in half or thirds and run it through the pasta roller again. Repeat this process up to three times. Now move up to a thinner setting, 3 for example, and repeat the process. Work you way up the 6th setting on the pasat roller, putting it though a couple of times. You should have a nice thin (but not see-through), length of dough.
Lay the dough out flat on your board and cut in into finger-width strips with a fancy cutter. To form the cartellate, you’ll want to turn these strips up on their side and create a loop at one end, pinching the dough together to form a circle. This is the centre of the cartellate. Next, create another loop, pinching the dough to the centre circle. Repeat with a third loop. The fourth loop can be attached to the second and so forth, moving out from the centre.
Pinch each dough loop firmly to ensure the dough stays together – if not, during frying the cartellate will all unravel.
Another way to form cartellate, or use ends of the dough, is to create knots. Cut wider pieces of dough, two fingers wide, and mark a silt in the centre. Pull one end of the dough though the slit to make a knot.
With the cartellate formed, lay them on a tray, cover them with a kitchen towel and let them rest 30 minutes before frying them.
To cook them, heat canola oil in a large frying pan, at least 1 or 1 1/2 inches deep on medium heat. Fry the cartelatte until a light golden brown flipping once. This should take 2-3 minutes per “cookie”. Any faster and the oil is probably too high and the cartellate will brown too fast, taking on a burnt taste.
Remove from the oil and drain in a colander. When you are finished frying, it’s time to cover these in honey or sugar. If you cover them in honey right away, these sticky treats can last up to a week on the counter (if you don’t eat them all first).
In a small pot, mix together the honey and water. Warm it up on medium until it reaches a simmer. As soon as it begins to bubble slightly, turn the honey mixture to low. Don’t allow the honey to boil – it will thicken and burn. On low, dip and coat the cartellate in the honey mixture. Do this only one or two cartellate at a time, any more and you risk breaking them. As you remove them from the honey, stack them on a piece of parchment paper.
Alternatively, some families sprinkle powdered sugar on the cartellate for a brilliant snow-covered effect that also provides a more toned-down sweetness than the honey.
Serve on a platter with other Christmas cookies or as a gift in a parchment-paper lined tin. These honey coated cartellate are sticky so don’t even try to balance one on a napkin in between bites! This recipe makes 4-5 dozen depending on how large you make each one. We’ve been known to easily double the recipe – they are the first to go from any dessert platter.