Of all the foods I've become acquainted with since living in Italy -- impossibly rich spaghetti alla carbonara, delicate and flavorful tortellini the size of my thumbnail, maritozzi more delicious than I knew possible, and by the way, who knew oxtail good be so delicious?! -- the humble taralli remain fixedly at the top of my mental "Very Favorites" list, holding their own in a sea of pecorino cheese and guanciale and gelato.
So, when exactly did I discover taralli? Was it via my Italian grandparents, who perhaps fed me taralli when I was little, a way to keep my hunger at bay as I waited for lunch to be served? Perhaps it was during my first trip to Italy in 2003, where I traveled all over the country with my extended family in a van too large for Italian roads during a particularly sweltering August? Or at the very latest, it must have been back in 2009, when I spent the whole year studying in Bologna, right?
Wrong! I came to taralli a bit later in life, during a weekend trip to Matera (a city in the Basilicata region of Italy) in 2012. I learned lots of things that weekend. For example: Matera is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and it's home to the Sassi di Matera, which are so stunning that they've been deemed worthy of the title UNESCO World heritage site. The movie the Passion of the Christ was filmed there, too. But here's the most important discovery of all -- it was where I first tried and learned that I loved taralli, crunchy, olive oil-y twists typical of the neighboring region of Puglia, a delightful creation somewhere between a pretzel and a breadstick, but better. As my travel companions ooh and ahhed over our hotel -- built right into the caverns of the city! -- and the nearby terme, I was most charmed by the taralli, which I had decided were very likely the most perfect snack food to ever grace the planet (sorry, potato chips). Here are some photos of me from that weekend, trying to napkin-smuggle some taralli from the restaurant where we had our last dinner (I was just kidding, of course, I had already purchased a few bags to bring home!!)
Nowadays, taralli are my colleagues' snack of choice -- there are few things more exciting than an email with the subject line "Bag of taralli in *insert office number here*, stop by if you want some!" If I have a friend who is visiting the Puglia or Basilicata regions, I (politely) demand that they bring some back for me (thanks, Laura and Max!) and I've even gotten my friends at home hooked, lugging back a bag of taralli for my friend Kelly every time I visit.
I'd been thinking about trying to make them at home for a while -- a natural next step in my taralli love affair -- and knew the moment had arrived when I came across this recipe, written by the late great Gina DePalma, one of my culinary idols. Much like these gnocchi, homemade taralli require a little time and some cutting and shaping, but are not at all difficult. These came out beautifully, addictive-ly crispy and crunch as any good snack food should be, redolent of olive oil and wine, slightly spicy thanks to the red pepper flakes and brightly herb-y thanks to the oregano. A bowl of these would be very welcome at your next cocktail party or as part of an aperitivo spread, or, my personal favorite, as a snack kept to be kept on hand at home for whenever a taralli craving strikes. Bonus: they make your kitchen smell amazing while they're baking.
A couple of notes: These taralli are made with oregano and red pepper flakes -- note that the red pepper flakes make these a little spicy. If you'd like, Gina says you can also substitute 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper and 2 tablespoons grana padano cheese or 1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds, or if you wanted just plain taralli, you could leave out the add-ins all together. If you don't have "00" flour, all-purpose flour works as well, but the "00" gives the taralli a finer texture. I made both bigger and smaller taralli (bigger taralli would be per the instructions below, as recommended by Gina) and found that they were both great (the smaller ones bake a little faster in the oven). With smaller taralli, I ended up with closer to 45 taralli instead of the 20 that Gina says this should make. Finally, I flipped the taralli once they were brown on one side, but you might not need to do this -- keep in mind I have a sort of unreliable oven.
Looking for mores recipes for things that are usually store-bought, but you can easily make (a much better version of!) at home? I knew it! Check out this gelato, these bagels, this focaccia, these Pop-Tarts, this hot chocolate, this hummus, this gnocchi, and these popsicles.
I'll be back next week with some healthier, more New Year's appropriate recipes! Stay tuned!
TARALLI AL PEPERONCINO E ORIGANO
4 1/2 cups 00 flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons salt, one for the taralli, the other for the boiling water
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 cup + 2 tablespoons white wine
1 cup olive oil
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Add the wine and stir to combine. Add the olive oil and stir again. Next, beat the dough for about 3 minutes using a mixer with a paddle attachment (or electric beaters, if you don't have one). If you have only electric beaters they might get caught in the dough as it comes together and becomes stickier. If this is the case, do as I did and continue the mixing process by kneading the dough by hand on a lightly floured work surface for 2 or so minutes. Place the dough back in its bowl, cover with a tea towel, and let rest for 2 hours.
Bake the taralli for about 25 minutes, flipping the taralli once they're browned on each side (about half way through breaking) to ensure even browning on both sides.