We are knee deep in serious holiday eating. Ever since December 8th (the Feast of the Immacolata), occasions to dive deeply into Pugliese seasonal specialties have piled up relentlessly. We are helpless to resist, if only for research purposes. From table to table, festival to festival and market to market, we are cutting a wide swathe through the culinary repertoire here, with little left untasted. We know that the worst will be over after the last pettola (fritter) is consumed on New Year’s Day, but our energy is starting to flag in direct proportion to the tightness of our belts.
If I told you what we’ve eaten, you wouldn’t believe it. You also wouldn’t believe how so many home cooks can turn out such truly exceptional meals day after day, usually for an astonishing number of extended family members. The quality and variety is exceptional throughout Puglia from Alberobello to Zapponeta. And just when you think you’re nearing the end of the feast, the next course is proudly delivered to the table.
During the Christmas eating season in Italy, the big four are the vigilia on December 24th, the Christmas Day cenone (big dinner) on December 25th, San Silvestro or New Year’s Eve on December 31st and the cenone bis (next big dinner) on January 1st to welcome the New Year properly. Every region has its own particular rules—the dishes that simply must be included—and innovation is not especially welcome. All year long, families look forward to traditional treats that make their annual appearance only at these meals, so any omissions are serious.
As exceptionally grateful guests at many a family gathering this past month, we’ve started to recognize some trends. Now, like innumerable Pugliese, we’re looking forward to the appearance of our personal favorites before we leave it all behind after the Epiphany on January 6th.
In Puglia, the vigilia and San Silvestro feasts typically feature fish. Since Puglia boasts over 400 miles of coastline on two seas, it isn’t difficult to assemble a locally sourced, seafood-rich meal that highlights regional favorites in every course but dessert. At the cenoni, though, meat takes center stage. This could be a leg of lamb, arrosto misto (mixed, roasted meats) or a classic combination of bracioline (little meat rolls filled with parsley, cheese and garlic) and other meats in ragu (tomato meat sauce). The pasta is homemade, local vegetables show up in the antipasto and the side dishes and holiday treats like pettole begin and end the meal.
Pettole are fried dough balls, a Christmas treat common throughout Puglia with slight preparation differences from town to town. According to legend, pettole were a gift to the poor from the newborn baby Jesus. It seems that a woman who was kneading dough to make bread for her family heard a commotion outside —the shepherds hurrying to the manger to see the Christ child—and decided to join them.
She thought she’d be just a minute, so she covered the dough with the intention of returning in time to punch it down for the second rise. Yet when she arrived at the manger, she knelt to pray, and by the time she got home, the dough had over risen, becoming an unworkable sticky mess. The perils of multitasking had early origins and for someone as poor as she, it was a terrible loss her family could ill afford.
The neighbors heard her cries, and someone quickly brought new olive oil. They heated it over the fire and began to toss in bits of the dough, which expanded dramatically in the hot oil, hissing and crackling and giving off a truly divine aroma. The moment was quickly recognized as a miracle since there was enough bread to eat for all assembled. This is how the humble pettola, the Christmas bread given to the poor by Jesus, is said to have made its way into Christmas festivities here ever since.
Pettole can sometimes be savory, served at the start of the meal with cured meats and local cheeses. Some cooks add olives, bits of sautéed peppers or even baccala’ (poached salt cod) to the pettole dough when it’s served this way. More common, though, are sweet pettole, served as one of several desserts in classic cenone style. In Lecce, pettole hot from the oil are tossed in vanilla sugar. In the Valle d’Itria, pettole are often blanketed with local honey warmed to pouring consistency. The most traditional homes here serve them with vino cotto, a dense, caramel-like syrup made from local white wine cooked over a wood fire for half a day until it is reduced to a tenth of its former volume. Any way you eat them, pettole are pure indulgence: hot, yeasty, crispy, doughy little puffs that are wickedly addictive.
Pettole Natalizie—Christmas Fritters
1 tsp. dry yeast
2 ½ cups very warm water
3 ½ cups “00” Italian-style flour (if you can’t find “00” flour, use two-thirds regular flour and one third pastry flour)
1 tsp. Kosher or sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil for frying (note that it’s not necessary to use your very best extra virgin olive oil for this, but don’t skimp on an inferior brand, either)
Note: If making savory pettole, you can add one cup pitted, chopped black olives or ¼ cup chopped capers and ¼ cup drained, chopped red peppers preserved in oil
Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of very warm water in a large mixing bowl. After about 10-15 minutes, add another cup of very warm water and all of the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon just enough to mix the dough. Cover the dough and set aside in a warm place for two or three hours or until doubled in size.
When the dough has risen, dissolve the salt in the remaining cup of warm water. Add the salty water to the dough, using your hands to mix it in. The dough will look rough, but it will gradually form a creamy texture. It will still be lumpy at this stage, so using your hand as a paddle, keep beating the dough consistently until it is smooth and uniform. For a great visual of this technique, check out this video. It’s narrated by a man from Taranto in the difficult-to-decipher Tarantino dialect, but it’s worth watching to get a great idea of the pettola process.
The dough should be loose and liquid, but not so liquid that you can’t handle it. If necessary, add another ½ cup of flour. But proceed carefully; the dough shouldn’t be as stiff as bread dough. Instead, it should be more like a batter, dense and creamy in consistency. You should be able to gather the dough with one hand into a loose ball.
For savory pettole, you can add the olives or other suggested accompaniments at this point. Mix them in thoroughly, then set the dough aside, covered, for about 15-20 minutes.
Heat about one inch of extra virgin olive oil in a deep frying pan. Using a thermometer, bring the oil to about 360 degrees. Have a small bowl of cold water nearby, but take care not to drip any water in the hot oil. Line a bowl with several layers of paper towels.
Dip a tablespoon into the cold water, then scoop up enough batter to make a small dough ball. Dip the other spoon in the water and use it to push the dough off the first spoon into the hot oil. I learned the water-dipping tip from a friend’s mother, who is known for her pettole prowess. The dough is less likely to stick to the spoon if the spoon is wet. Continue in this way until you have about 5 or 6 pettole bubbling away in the hot oil. When they look lightly golden on the underside, flip them over with tongs to cook the other side. With a slotted spoon or tongs, gently remove the golden pettole from the oil and place in the paper towel-lined bowl to drain.
For sweet pettole in the style of Lecce, quickly roll the hot fritters in a bowl of sugar and serve immediately. Alternatively, you might also heat half a cup of local, organic honey to pouring consistency and serve the pettole covered with the melted honey. Otherwise, bring a bowl of golden brown pettole to the table and serve with vino cotto for dipping.
Makes about 50 pettole. They won’t last long.