If you were to go to Italy in late December, you might notice the aromas of frying. But it would not be from potato latkes. No, instead it would be from fritters, bites of dough deep-fried to perfection and served warm with honey. And it’s not just Italian Jews that serve this treat; it is popular for Christmas, too. With the two holidays overlapping this year, I was inspired to explore the fritters that the Jews call frittelle di Chanukah and other Italians might know as ciccitielli or pignolata—and what everyone calls delicious.
The roots for this recipe go way back in history—there’s a rudimentary version recorded by a Roman from around 160 BCE! Those days and well into the 19th century, there either was no such thing as a home oven or only the wealthiest citizens could afford one. That made frying—especially in regions like the Mediterranean with plenty of oil—one of the primary methods for creating a pastry at home. Even after cooks gained more methods and ingredients in modern times, though, the honey-enrobed fritter in its simple goodness remains beloved.
People all around the world have versions of sweet fritters, but the hallmarks of a Mediterranean version are olive oil and anise. The fritters are usually made with yeast, though some more recent recipes use baking powder. Sometimes they include dried fruit and pine nuts. The Italian Chanukah version is often cut into diamond shapes, whereas the Christmas version might be cut into squares or other shapes. There’s also a related Christmas confection in Italy known as struffoli or la cicerchiata—tiny deep-fried dough balls that are coated in honey and then gathered into shapes like pyramids or rings. Italian Jews have a Chanukah version of this called precipizi.
The original yeasted bread and honey fritter particularly intrigued me for several reasons beyond the deep historical roots of the recipe. As a Jewish convert whose Catholic great-grandparents came from Sicily, I enjoy and feel grounded by the intersections of Jewish and Italian food and life. As someone whose extended family celebrates Christmas and who knows many interfaith families, I delighted in finding a pastry that was meaningful to both celebrations happening concurrently this year. And after a year of angry and bitter political divisions, I loved the idea of a food that unifies rather than divides.
The basic bread dough recipe is very good, but for our modern palates and for this year’s Chanukah and Christmas convergence, I wanted to update the flavors and textures. For the liquid, substituting whole milk for the water resulted in a more tender and flavorful fritter (but you can use water if you need a nondairy version). I kept the traditional anise seeds, which are featured in many Italian sweets, but also added cinnamon, vanilla, and a touch of honey to the dough for their warm flavors.
Instead of raisins, for the fruit I turned to chopped dried figs. From a flavor standpoint, I much prefer their sweet richness (which pairs beautifully with the anise) and their chewy texture that’s delightful within the fritter. On a symbolic level, figs appeal in several ways. They feature prominently in Sicilian Christmas cookies and thereby hold a little link for me to my Italian side as well as to Sicily, where Jews lived relatively peacefully for thousands of years. In Israel, figs are one of the seven species named in the Bible as important to the ancient land. And finally, the biblical term “under his fig tree” often signifies peace and prosperity—things typically wished for during the end-of-the-year celebrations.
To the honey coating, I added a little Sambuca (Italian anise-flavored liqueur), which adds an almost floral fragrance to the fritter that envelops and enhances all the elements of the pastry. Each bite is a decadent mixture of smooth and sweet honey, tender and lightly spiced dough, chewy figs, and subtle anise flavor.
I like to think my great-grandparents, who maybe had their own fritter recipe that they made for Christmas, would like my version. As I make these fritters, I also like thinking how in their ingredients and shared heritage, the pastries represent a sweet coming together—and also hope and good will for everyone this holiday season.