Friday, November 25, 2011

A Culinary Mystery: Case Closed

Earlier this year, my dad started talking about these..."things" that my great-grandmother from Italy used to make. He described them as being something like pretzels in a round loop shape. We asked my grandmother and great aunt about them, but no one seemed to remember them or what they were called. After digging through some old recipes and performing several Google searches for "Italian pretzels," we more or less gave up.

And then in May, I got the chance to go to Italy for a week as part of an art seminar I took my last semester at Mount Union. We traveled to Siena, Florence, and Rome on a huge red double-decker bus. That meant we stood out as tourists wherever we parked, and it also meant that we spent quite a few hours on the Italian turnpike. On one of those journeys, we stopped at a rest stop and I saw these:

Right shape, preztel-like...these were the mysterious "things"!

Well, they weren't. I bought them, packed them up carefully, and almost missed a connecting flight home because I declared them at customs...and they weren't the right "things."

"These are crunchy," my dad said. "What I'm thinking of is more like a soft pretzel. Or a bagel."

As it turns out, Google is much more obliging when you search for "Italian bagel." Within a few minutes, I had a handful of recipes for something called "ciambella," (plural "ciambelle") which, as far as I can tell means "ring-shaped." It seems they are actually considered cookies, but they have the soft, doughy insides and shiny exterior of a bagel or a soft pretzel. Since solving the mystery, my dad and I have made them several times (most recently, today).

Ciambelle Recipe


5 cups all-purpose flour
1 packet yeast
1 scant cup warm water
3 tsp oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp anise seeds (optional--this gives them a licorice taste)
1/2 cup white wine (we used a white zinfandel)
Pinch of salt

  1. Dissolve the yeast in warm water.
  2. Put the flour in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Add the oil, sugar, seeds, salt, wine, and yeast mixture by pouring them into the well. Gather the flour into the well with hands or a spoon until a soft dough forms. (You may need to turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead it to make it come together.) Add water or flour as needed.
  3. Shape the dough into a ball, cover it with a dish towel, and put it somewhere warm for an hour to rise. 
  4. When the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a floured surface. Cut off pieces of dough and roll them out into long strips. Form the strips into loops and press down on the joint. (Larger ciambelle will be softer, smaller ones will be more crisp.)
    Ciambelle dough formed into loops.
  5. Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil on the stove; preheat the oven to 400 degree Fahrenheit.
  6. When the water boils, drop several ciambelle into the pot at a time. When they float, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a dish towel to drain.
  7. Ciambelle float when they're done.
  8. Place the boiled ciambelle on a cookie sheet. (If desired, brush them with an egg wash of one beaten egg and about a tablespoon of water.) Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until golden (time will vary based on size). Enjoy hot or cool with a glass of wine.
Baked ciambelle. Culinary mystery solved!

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