To some people, the "Mile Square" city of Hoboken, N.J., seems gray, dingy and an invitation to urban renewal. To me, coming from a small town in Maine, it was a place of violent contrasts. The forbidding rows of brownstone houses were facades for tiny hidden gardens overflowing with flowers, and homes inside were as exotic as harems with their emphasis on European ornament and comfort. And food! To say that it was completely different from what I had known is only a slight overstatement. My husband's mother came from an Italian family, his father, Polish, and every family get-together necessitated the preparation of specialities from both traditions. One favorite for these times of overabundance was strufoli. Tiny pastry balls soaked in a honey-lemon syrup and mounded together with festive candied fruit, they serve as a centerpiece for company tables, then as an informal dessert, eaten with the fingers, sticky and delicious. STRUFOLI (Makes 2 medium-sized mounds) 2 cups flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 3 to 4 eggs Oil for deep frying Honey-lemon syrup 1/2 cup honey 1/2 cup sugar Juice of 1 lemon Garnish (optional): Chopped candied fruit or your own mix of peels and cherries Pine nuts Colored sugar sprinkles, confectioners' sugar, dragees or small candies for decoration
Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Make a well and add salt, vanilla and 3 unbeaten eggs. Stir with your fingertips or a fork to break up the eggs, and begin gathering in the flour to make a stiff dough, about the consistency of a noodle dough. If the dough seems very dry and crumbly, add a 4th egg.
Knead the dough in the bowl or on a lightly floured board until smooth. Cover with a bowl or clean cloth and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Divide the dough into small portions, and roll each portion between your hands and the flat, lightly floured work surfacr until you have formed a "rope" about the thickness of a pencil. Cut the rope into bits about 1/4-inch thick. As you work, keep the dough covered, and cover the cut bits with a towel to prevent them from drying out. If they seem to be sticking to each other, roll them over lightly in the flour you have dusted on the board, but do not flour them heavily, as excess flour will burn in the course of cooking.
When all your dough has been rolled and cut, heat 2 inches of oil or shortening in a deep fryer. Test for heat by dropping 1 of the dough bits into the hot fat. If it rises quickly to the top and browns lightly, without scorching, the fat is ready.
Using a slotted spoon, slide the strufoli into the fat, enough to loosely cover the surface, but leaving plenty of room between them. Stir gently with the spoon, to make sure that they brown evenly, separating any that have a tendency to stick together.
When a light, golden brown, remove from fat with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbed paper. The strufoli may be made ahead, up to this point, and stored in a plastic bag for 3 to 4 days or in the freezer until needed.
When the day arrives to serve them, prepare the honey-lemon syrup. Combine honey, sugar and lemon juice in a large, heavy saucepan. Heat gently to the boiling point, and allow to boil for 30 seconds, stirring. Remove from heat, and add the strufoli balls, stirring until all are coated with syrup.
Along with the balls, you may add chopped candied fruit (a standard fruitcake mix) or your own preferred mix of peels and cherries. About 1 cup suits our taste, but you should add more or less to suit yours. You may also add pine nuts (pignoli), about 1/2 cup, or again, to suit your taste.
Mound the warm strufoli on serving plate(s). Sprinkle the strufoli with colored sugar sprinkles, confectioners' sugar, dragees or small candies and allow to cool before serving, if you can.