Friday, December 19, 2008

As the name implies

Baci di ricotta.

Even the name is sweet, rolling off the tongue like so many Italian-accented Christmas greetings. Buon natale! Would you like some baci di ricotta?

I am part Italian -- one-quarter, to be exact. But, as I have mentioned before, it is a powerful one-quarter. Especially when it's Christmastime and there is baking to do. Maybe it has to do with visiting my Italian relatives in New Castle, Pennsylvania, when I was a child. Even now, many years later, I can picture the pizelles in Grandma Masterson's kitchen. Or maybe it has to do with Vatican City. Roman Catholicism is, after all, based in Rome. And the Catholic church in which I was raised remains a powerful force, even in my non-church-going years. Though Christmas is celebrated by people around the world, Italy seems to have cornered the market on authentic Christmas traditions, at least in my perception. Italy is Christmas to me.

These sweet little cookies fit right in with my Italian-centric Christmas. Though I'm not entirely sure of their authenticity -- as I clipped the recipe from some unidentified newspaper many, many years ago -- I like to think that a confection like this makes an appearance in one Italian town or another during the Christmas season. I like to imagine that somewhere, some eccentric grandmother is shouting, Giulia! Vieni qui, Giulia. Vieni e prendere i baci di ricotta!

Baci di ricotta are divine little morsels of fried dough -- nothing too fancy, in fact. The ricotta lends a moist creaminess to the interior of the baci, which contrasts deliciously with the light, crispy crust. A hint of cinnamon and just the right amount of sugar add a surprisingly complex flavor to what could otherwise devolve into a run-of-the-mill state-fair confection. These are not run-of-the-mill. As their name implies, these treats are kissed with just enough sugar and oil to make them perfect.

I might fry up a batch on Christmas Eve; they seem the perfect after-dinner sweet to enjoy while watching midnight mass from the Vatican. Just look at all those Italians. I bet they can't wait to jostle with each other to get their communion, then file out of St. Peter's and rush home for a baci.



These treats are best when served immediately; they don't store or keep well at all. So make them right before you plan on consuming them. The good thing is: the recipe is simple and they don't take long to fry to a gorgeous golden brown.

1 c. ricotta (not skim)
2 large eggs
1/2 c. Italian 00 flour (available at Italian markets, some gourmet groceries and online)
1 1/2 t. baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
1/2 t. ground cinnamon (ceylon, if possible)
1 T. superfine sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for frying
Confectioners' sugar for dusting

In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta and eggs. Whisk together until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. Whisk again to incorporate the ingredients and make a smooth batter. (There will be some lumps because of the ricotta; it doesn't have to be perfectly smooth.)

Fill a wide, shallow skillet with about 3/4-inch of vegetable oil. Place over medium-high heat until it reaches about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, or until a bit of batter sizzles when dropped in. Drop rounded teaspoons of batter into the oil, 5 or 6 at a time. When the batter puffs and the undersides turn light brown, flip gently using a spider or a pair of tongs. This takes only a minute or less, so watch carefully so they don't burn. Cook for an additional minute, then transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.

Pile kisses on a serving plate. Pass a spoonful of confectioners' sugar through a small wire-mesh sieve to dust the baci evenly. Serve immediately.

Makes about 30 baci, or 6 servings. Yes, 5 comprise a serving. You will wish 10 comprised a serving.

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