BY JOE GRAY, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Thousands and thousands (tens of thousands? millions?) of nonnas can’t be wrong.
They’re the ones rolling and shaping taralli, in their cute little kitchens in Puglia (or Sicily or Napoli or … ). With quick, deft movements they work, talking about how easy they are to make. How good they taste. How they’re the perfect bite with a cold glass of white wine. How they’re so traditional. How their grandmothers used to make them too. Just look for the nonnas on YouTube. You’ll see.
OK, so, not only nonnas make taralli. (That’s Italian grandmothers. And, yes, I know the proper plural would be nonne, but who says it that way over here?) Of course not. But they’re the ones, usually, who pass the traditions to the rest of us. And they’re right.
Taralli are a crispy ring-shaped Italian snack, made of flour, olive oil, salt, water and not much else. (But fennel or anise seed and black pepper are often used, to very good effect.) You’ve maybe seen them bundled up in cellophane bags and tucked in among other snacks at an Italian grocery. They’re akin to a crisp breadstick in texture, but not quite that. They’re hard to describe to the uninitiated. They’re not a cracker. Not a biscuit, using the British meaning, though they’re sometimes called that, because they’re usually twice cooked (the root meaning of that word).
I see them in non-Italian groceries more often these days, but not so much that people really know them. When you put them out at a party, they’ll exclaim with curiosity, then, after tasting them, with joy. Which is why you should make them, whether you have a nonna or not. The store-bought, usually imported, versions are quite good. But they’re so much better freshly made.
And, again, the nonna contingent is right. They are easy. About as hard as making cookies, once you get going. Yet I shrank from trying my mom’s recipe for years. I was afraid of it. Afraid they wouldn’t turn out. Afraid her cryptic recipe, very short on details, would hide its secrets. And she’s 10 years gone, so she couldn’t help. But after consulting with my sister, who had made them often, I made it a project.
And they turned out beautifully the first try. After tinkering with them and remaking them several times to get the instructions right, I have the recipe here. Bake up a batch yourself, for a snack with a glass of wine, perfect for holiday parties coming up.
Your nonna (or momma) would be proud.
Though many recipes boil the taralli before baking them, my mom’s does not. (Her recipe comes from her aunt; they were all from Campania, in southern Italy.) And it uses yeast. The dough is pretty oily, which makes for crisp taralli. It also means you won’t need to flour the board for rolling the taralli. The taralli take on other flavors with aplomb. Mix in a tablespoon or two of anise or fennel seed, if you like.
- Prep: 1 hour
- Rise: 1 hour
- Bake: 20-25 minutes
- Makes: 64 taralli
- 1 package (1/4 ounce) yeast
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105 to 110 degrees F)
- 1 pound flour (3 ? cups)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt, plus more for sprinkling
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Stir the yeast into 1/2 cup warm water in a small bowl until dissolved; allow to proof until foamy on top, 10 minutes.
- Mix the flour, salt and pepper to taste in a stand mixer with the hook attachment on low speed just to combine. Add water and yeast mixture and the oil. Mix to combine, scraping down the side of the bowl as needed. Turn mixer to medium; mix until dough comes together into a ball. If the dough is not coming together, you may need to add up to 2 more tablespoons warm water. (Alternatively, mix in a large bowl with a wooden spoon.)
- Turn out the dough onto a dry wooden board; you won’t need to flour it. Knead until dough has a springy consistency, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, and leave to rest in a warm place until nicely risen, about 1 hour. (It will gain about 50% in volume.)
- Heat oven to 400 degrees. Turn dough out onto a dry board. Flatten slightly with your hands. Using a bench scraper, section dough into 4 long portions. Cut those into 8 pieces each, about the size of a whole walnut. Roll a piece into a log about 3/8-inch wide and 12 inches long. Cut the log in half. Shape each log into a ring, twisting ends into a loose knot (really just turn the ends over each other). Transfer to a baking sheet, leaving a little room between them. They don’t expand much. Sprinkle with a little coarse salt. Continue with remaining dough.
- Bake until nicely golden brown and crisp, 20 to 25 minutes. The taralli keep in a covered container for a couple of weeks and freeze beautifully.
Nutrition information per piece: 42 calories, 2 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 1 g protein, 75 mg sodium, 0 g fiber