Ok, I admit it. This month’s recipe is not a sweet, but a savory. Let’s put away the sugar for one month and talk about one of my very favorite Italian baked goods, taralli. A somewhat refined version of an Italian pretzel, taralli are crunchy, curly-shaped biscuits that are boiled and then baked. I find them absolutely addictive, and am not ashamed to admit that I can consume a frighteningly large quantity of them in one sitting.
Taralli are common to several regions of southern Italy, but they are taken to another level in Puglia, where bread is revered. You will not find a bread shop in Foggia that does not sell taralli, often in a variety of flavors. Taralli al Finnoccio are a popular version, flavored with toasted fennel seed, but my favorite version is made extra spicy with Italian peperoncino. I have even seen some upscale merchants selling taralli made with tomatoes and basil, cheese, and even sweet versions, flavored with cinnamon or studded with raisins and nuts.
For me, what makes taralli so irresistible is the flavor of their most important ingredient, extra-virgin olive oil. With over 50 million olive trees, some dating as far back as 5000 B.C., Puglia annually produces over 200 million litres the some of the finest extra-virgin olive oils in the world. Four varieties have been singled out as D.O.P – Colline di Brindisi, Dauno, Terra di Bari, and Terra d’Otranto. You certainly do not need to use a D.O.P. olive oil for your taralli – any extra virgin oil from Puglia will do just fine.
I am not going to lie to you – taralli are not as easy to turn out as a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but they are easier to make than you might think. I recommend that you make the dough the night before, then you can easily roll them, boil them and bake them as an afternoon project. You may find it a solo project that brings an undeniable feeling of accomplishment. Or, get a group together and form an assembly line of rolling, boiling and baking. Either way, the best moment will be when you take them out of the oven, shiny and golden brown, and fill your ears with that first deafening crunch.
Do not be afraid of the wetness of the dough. Just flour your board and your hands well and they will roll out easily with a light touch. “00” Flour is crucial to the texture of these biscuits, as it gives them their characteristically light texture, but it is fine to use all-purpose flour to dust your rolling surface and for shaping the taralli. You can find “00” flour, sometimes called pizza flour, at most Italian gourmet or specialty shop (there are also numerous online sources, such as Todaro Brothers, who will ship to any location in the United States: http://www.todarobros.com/detail.aspx?ID=266). I like to season my taralli with crushed red pepper flakes and finely chopped, fresh oregano, but you can feel free to add whatever seasonings you like, such as crushed fennel seed or cracked black pepper and grated grana padano. The taralli are also delicious plain!
Place the flour, salt, sugar, oregano and red pepper flakes in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the wine and oil and mix on medium speed to form a wet dough. Transfer the dough to a plastic container, well dusted with flour. Sprinkle the top of the dough with more flour, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead lightly. Divide the dough into four pieces. Work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest chilled. Roll portions of the dough into long ropes, about ¾ inch in diameter and 18 inches long. Cut the rope into about 4 pieces and shape them into rings, making a small knot at the top. As you finish each ring, place it on a cookie sheet dusted with flour.
Boil approximately 5 quarts of water in a large, shallow saucepan. Season the water with 1 tablespoon of salt. Drop the rings in, about 7-8 at a time; the water should remain at a simmer. The taralli will float when they are done. Gently scoop them out of the water with a slotted spoon or a Chinese skimmer, allowing them to drain for a moment in the spoon, before placing them on a cookie sheet greased with a bit of olive oil. You do not have to space the taralli too far apart, as they will not grow while they bake.
While you are boiling the taralli, preheat the oven to 350°F. The taralli should bake for 40 minutes or so, or until they are a nice even, golden brown. Remove them from the oven and transfer to a rack to cool completely before storing them in an airtight container. They will last only as long as you can keep from eating them!