Even though I never learned any of my grandmother's recipes a half-century ago, I've managed to duplicate them through a combination of taste memory, trying dozens of recipes, and adjusting the flavor and texture to get them just right.
The crisp ones, called scaldatelli (little boiled ones) in our dialect, are made from a yeast-risen dough enriched with olive oil. They're poached briefly in boiling water before being baked. In Puglia, they make similar ones, using white wine as part of the liquid and sometimes substituting anise seeds or crushed red pepper for the fennel. And there are versions that use baking powder instead of yeast and some that use no leavening at all.
Sweet taralli are made from a flour, sugar, butter and egg dough leavened with baking powder. Usually covered with a simple confectioners' sugar icing flavored with lemon or anisette, they range in size from tiny (taraluzzi in Neapolitan) to bagel-like. I'm still working on the salty egg taralli, which are not boiled before being baked.
Italian journalist and novelist Matilde Serao (1856-1927) who wrote eloquently of the lives of Naples' poorest residents in her novel, "Il Ventre di Napoli" ("The Stomach of Naples"), theorized that taralli originated in the portside slums there in the 8th century.
Originally made from scraps of bread dough with a little lard and pepper added, and sometimes decorated with bits of almond, taralli were sold warm by itinerant vendors until the middle of the 20th century. Nowadays, the much cleaned-up port area of Mergellina in Naples is dotted with small stands that sell taralli to people out for a walk to gaze at the bay and Mount Vesuvius.
Just be careful that no one tries to throw a dozen taralli at you --- an old Neapolitan proverb has it that they would all be caught on a cockold's horns!
TARALLI DOLCI DI PASQUA
This is a great traditional cookie. This is loosely based on a recipe shared by Marie Ciampi
MAKES: Aout 16 large taralli
• 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
• 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
• 6 eggs
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
• 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
• 3 cups confectioners' sugar
• 4 tablespoons water
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Multi-colored nonpareils, optional
• 3 cookie sheets or jelly roll pans covered with parchment paper
1. Preheat oven to 350 F and set racks in upper and lower thirds.
2. For the dough, combine the flour and baking powder, stirring well to mix.
3. Whisk the eggs in a bowl, then whisk in all the remaining ingredients in order. Fold in the flour mixture.
4. Turn dough out on a floured surface and knead lightly to mix. Separate into 16 equal pieces. Roll each to an 8-inch rope, then press ends together to form a circle. Place 5 or 6 on each pan.
5. Bake the taralli about 30 minutes, or until well puffed and deep golden. Cool on racks.
6. For the icing, combine all ingredients in a saucepan and heat gently until lukewarm.
Brush over the tops of the cooled cookies. Sprinkle with multi-colored nonpareils, if desired.
TARALLI NAPOLETANI (NEAPOLITAN SALTY RING COOKIES)
In southern Italy, Taralli come in many sizes and flavors. These are typical Neapolitan ones sometimes referred to in Neapolitan dialect as "scaldatelli" -- little boiled things. Like bagels, many but not all types of taralli are given a quick bath in boiling water before being baked. It makes for a nice sheen on the outside and stiffens them slightly so that they are easier to handle for baking. Taralli are a snack food -- they really don't figure as part of a meal. But sometimes they make an appearance after a meal is over and there is more wine to be drunk.
Makes about 30 taralli.
Timing: 20 to 30 minutes for measuring and mixing; 1 hour or more for rising; 30 minutes for forming and boiling; about 30 minutes or more for baking
• 3/4 cup warm water, about 110 degrees
• 2 1/2 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
• 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
• 2 large rectangular cooling racks, turned upside down and lightly oiled
1. For the dough, pour the water into a bowl and whisk in the yeast. Whisk in the oil.
2. Put the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse several times to mix. Add the liquid and pulse again until the dough forms a ball. Let the processor run continuously for about 10 seconds to knead the dough.
3. Invert the dough to an oiled bowl and carefully remove the blade. Turn the dough over so that the top is oiled and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature until it doubles in bulk, about an hour.
4. After the dough has risen, scrape it out of the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and use a bench scraper or knife to cut it into 2 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough under the palms of your hand to a 6-inch cylinder. Cut each cylinder of dough into 3 equal pieces, to make 6 pieces in all. Role one of the cylinders to a 5-inch length and cut it into five 1-inch pieces. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough to make 30 equal pieces in all.
5. One at a time, roll each piece of dough under the palms of your hands to make an 8-inch strand. Join the ends together to make a circle, pressing firmly to seal. Line up the formed taralli on a lightly floured work surface or floured jellyroll pans, making sure they do not touch each other.
6. Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
7. Fill a large pan (such as one in which you would cook pasta) 3/4 full with water. Bring the water to a full rolling boil. Set one of the racks on the stovetop (put a pan under it to catch drips) next to the pan of boiling water. Drop the taralli, 6 or 8 at a time, into the boiling water and remove them with a skimmer as soon as they float to the surface. Arrange the about an inch apart in all directions, on the prepared rack. Repeat until all of the taralli have been boiled and arranged on the racks.
8. Bake the taralli about 30 minutes, moving the rack from the upper third of the oven to the lower third, and vice versa, midway through the baking. Continue baking the taralli until they are golden and crisp. Cool them on the racks they baked on.