The Food Maven Diary
Taiglach, Pine Nuts, Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Some notes on taiglach, the Yiddish dough-ball candy that is almost identical to struffoli, the Neapolitan dough ball candy, Italian pignoli, and sun-dried tomatoes.
Last week someone asked on the radio if I had a recipe for Taiglach, which is a traditional sweet of the Jewish New Year. My grandmother made taiglach. She was famous for it in the neighborhood and among our extended family. Even back in 1950s and '60s, few people were making homemade candies. I made it with her many times and stashed somewhere is a file with her formula for the dough written on a slip of paper in her own hand. These days, however, I would follow the recipe for struffoli that I developed for my book Naples At Table.
The dough and method of frying it in "Naples At Table" is identical to my grandmother's for taiglach. It is a rich egg dough that you roll into ropes, then cut into small pieces and deep fry. The eggs make the dough puff up into light "nuts," as my grandmother called them. Indeed, "soup nuts," dough balls to garnish a clear broth, are the same thing. In the case of taiglach, the dough balls or nuts are incorporated into boiling honey and are a stand in for real nuts. One difference between taiglach and struffoli is that taiglach also has real nuts, hazelnuts. The dough balls in Neapolitan struffoli, I suspect, are also stand-ins for nuts, the conceit of a poor people who, in the old days, could not afford such expensive food as nuts, but no one puts nuts in these days. (There are many "false" or finto dishes like that in Neapolitan cuisine.) In Naples, stuffoli is, however, often presented in baskets, cornucopias, and other fanciful containers made of crocante, which is a candy made of chopped amonds.
Anyway, to turn my struffoli balls into taiglach, follow the directions in "Naples At Table" but add whole hazelnuts to the dough balls when you put them in the honey, increase the amount of honey to compensate for the increased volume of solids, and season the honey with powdered ginger. To form the candy the way my grandmother, Elsie Sonkin, did: moisten a wooden board with sweet wine and pour the hot candy from the pot directly onto the board. Gingerly, because the mixture is very hot, and with hands moistened with cold water or more wine, pat the candy into a sheet about an inch or so thick. You can sprinkle the top with ground hazelnuts and a bit more powdered ginger. When cool, cut the candy into small squares, then arrange them on a beautiful platter.
Many bakeries today make taiglach and, as they do struffoli, pile the honeyed dough balls into a pyramid, but we never did that. They also add candied cherries and sometimes other fruit. We never did that either. My grandmother's taiglach was nutty and spicy.
Connie, from Monroe Township, had this to add through e-mail:
"Your Neapolitan struffoli recipe was to the "tee" my mother's (I'm Sicilian) recipe for and method of rolling, cutting, and frying what she called "pignolata." Have you ever heard of that? She also created a mound, with honey drizzled between layers, and for a really festive occasion added the almond candies, know as "confetti" to us then (known in the U.S. as Jordan almonds – A.S.), randomly around it. Also the mulicolored little sprinkles. Of course, the pine nuts were generously added among the beautiful little balls of pignolata, hence pignolata!
Which brings us to pignoli, sometimes, in more modern Italian, spelled pinoli, both of which mean pine nuts.
I have certainly heard the term pignolata, but I know that word to mean almond macaroons covered with pine nuts, a popular Italian bakery item that is made all over the south of Italy (as well as in New York's Italian bakeries), and a recipe that can be found on this web-site. It is the Maven's Diary entry of Sept. 27, 1999.
Someone called this week -- Gabrielle I think her name was -- and asked where she could buy Italian pine nuts. She didn't like the product that is mostly sold these days as pine nuts. I knew what she was talking about. Most pine nuts in the market today are from China and they are somewhat triangular in shape instead of long and tapered at both ends. I truly have not found the Chinese pine nuts to be inferior, but they do not have exactly the same flavor as European pine nuts.
It is getting difficult to find Italian pine nuts, but right after the program the day Gabrielle called I was at Buon Italia, which is both an Italian food importer and a retail outlet in the Chelsea Market (75 Ninth Ave. and 16th St., Manhattan; 212-633-9090) and I saw that they carry both the Chinese and Spanish. There are bagged in plastic and tossed into the same bin, so you must be careful about which you pick up. The Spanish are clearly marked as such, if you can't tell the difference by looking. European pine nuts are around, however. Gabrielle was incorrect. I look for them myself so I know. And Mimmo Maiuglio, owner of Buon Italia, tells me he is getting Italian ones.
Several people who went on my trip to Naples and the Radisson Diamond cruise up the coast of Italy wondered why they didn't see sun-dried tomatoes in the markets. I had to explain that sun-dried tomatoes are not nearly as popular in Italy as they are in the U.S. Years ago in Italy, I never saw or was served a sun-dried tomato, or a dish including sun-dried tomatoes. I knew that Sicilians and Calabrians sun-dried tomatoes for use in the winter, but sun-dried tomato paste was more common. Sun-dried tomatoes, plumped up with olive oil and seasoned, were also occasionally used as part of an antipasto plate. But in these poorer, Southern parts of Italy, antipasto was not often a course served at home, unless it was a special celebration.
Vince Prianto, who I call "my number one student," who calls into Food Talk every Monday, recently asked about the difference between sun-dried and oven-dried tomatoes, which elicited this in the mail, again from Connie, who is of Sicilian decent.
"I would like to share with you my mother's explanation to me when I was a very young child the whole sun-dried tomato thing, since your caller asked the other day about sun vs. oven-dried. She told me all about their ritual of drying the plum tomatoes in the sun, and subsequently having a store of tomatoes for the purpose of making tomato paste, which we called in those days 'salsina'. This was preciously guarded for a real use, for tomato sauce. She told this rather nostalgically, in our tenement, longing for such amenities as the sun, the crop of tomatoes, the easy pleasure of drying them outside, and the bounty thereof later. All left behind in the New World quest.
She also acknowledged their very limited use in a few other dishes, but they were in no way viewed, made, or used with the mad trendy abandon they are used today. I don't recall that anything she told me even faintly resembled eating them the way they're eaten these days, or even serving them whole as they appear now."
How could anyone be against eating sun-dried tomatoes? They can be delicious. I do, however, have problems with them when they turn out to be leathery bits in a bowl of pasta, or in a soup or salad. I don't want to dwell on this here. I do enough of that on the radio. What I wanted to say, apropos of the questions I got on the trip, was that I keep looking for them in markets in Italy and don't find them, but I did seen them in Nice, in France. The open market there had a stall selling them every which way – packed in plastic, marinated in oil in jars, strung like beads on a necklace.