For the taralli dough
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of salt
1 tablespoon fennel seeds [or more]
Flour "as much as is needed" (about 4 to 5 cups)
For boiling the taralli
A large pot of water
1 tablespoon salt to add to the boiling water
MAKING THE TARALLI DOUGH
o In a bowl mix 4 1/2 cups of flour with the salt and fennel seeds.
o In another bowl beat the eggs.
o Add the vegetable oil to the beaten eggs and mix well.
o On a wooden board place 4 1/2 cups seasoned flour in a mound, and then make a well in it.
o Incorporate the liquids with the solids and work into a soft malleable dough. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour. If it's too hard, add a touch more oil.
o Knead the dough for about 10 to 15 minutes.
o When the dough is soft and malleable (like bread dough), divide it into two and make logs (about 6 inches by 2 inches each).
ALLOWING THE TARALLI DOUGH TO REST
o Flour the logs and place them in plastic bags (Obviously there were no plastic bags in pre World War II Italy, but nowadays many older Italian women do use plastic bags as this seems to keep the dough soft).
o Place the logs (which are in plastic bags) in a container. Place a lid on the container. Wrap the container with a towel or blanket.
o Let the dough rest for four to six hours (or overnight). (P.S. In Italy, prior to World War II, the houses were cold in the winter, so home cooks kept the dough at room temperature, but nowadays most Italian-Canadians let the dough rest in a cold room or in the fridge, out of fear the eggs will spoil if they don't do so.)
SHAPING THE TARALLI DOUGH
o After the dough has rested, take one portion of the dough and cut a slice of it (about 2 inches by 1 inch).
o Lightly flour the sliced dough and roll it between the palm of your hands (or on a wooden board), stretching the dough out.
o Keep doing it until you have a thin long rope of about 12 to 14 inches long and about 1/2 inch thick.
14. When you have the required length, find the center and then fold it so it makes a bow.
o Pinch the ends together.
o Repeat steps 11 to 15 until all the dough has been processed.
BOILING THE TARALLI
o Bring a large pot of water to boil (the kind one would use for spaghetti). Add about 1 tablespoon of salt.
o Drop two or three taralli at a time in the boiling water.
o Remove the taralli as soon as they rise to the surface (might take a minute or so). Do not leave too long as the taralli will get soggy.
o Place the taralli on a baking sheet lined with a linen or cotton kitchen napkin so the excess water will be soaked up (Do NOT place them on kitchen paper towels as they might stick to them).
o Once all the taralli are boiled, let them cool and air-dry for about 5 to 10 minutes.
BAKING THE TARALLI
o Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
o Place the boiled taralli on a lightly greased aluminum cookie sheet, or place them directly on the upper middle rack and bake in a 325 oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, then turn the taralli over and bake for another 10 minutes or until the taralli are golden brown (For those who like their taralli soft but crispy, a light golden brown color is the right one to look for; for those who like their taralli like store-bought ones (hard and crunchy), then the color should be a dark golden brown, in which case they need a few more minutes to cook on each side.)
o Cool before serving.
STORING THE TARALLI
o Store the taralli in cellophane or in thin cardboard boxes. Like all home-made goods taralli are best served within the week.
This is my mother's "biscotti con sale," "biscotti with salt," recipe that she learned from her mother, and her mother from her mother and so on. In some parts of Italy this recipe might be called: "taralli all' uovo," "taralli con seme di finocchio" or "taralli al finocchio." However, it seems that prior to World War II "biscotti con sale" were NOT considered "taralli" in the true sense of the word (at least not in Casacalenda, Molise). My mother never mentioned this to me so I had no idea this was the case, as she often used the words, "biscotti con sale" and "taralli" interchangeably, as if one were a synonym for the other. However, my aunt, Zia Rosina, recently let me understand that when she was growing up in the 1930s "biscotti con sale" as well as "biscotti dolci" were not "taralli" as North Americans have come to know them. Apparently, back then, "biscotti con sale" always included fennel seeds while taralli (flavored with salt) did not. Also, "biscotti con sale" as well as "biscotti dolci" had to be kneaded for about 10 to 15 minutes, while regular "taralli" did not need to be kneaded at all. In addition, taralli, were made in a round shape, where as "biscotti con sale" as well as "biscotti dolci" were made in the familiar half-bow shape. So people knew if the treats presented were "biscotti con sale," "biscotti dolci" or "taralli" by their shape. Apparently, "taralli" were so low on the food hierarchy that people did not say if they had been flavored with sugar or salt (The information was only revealed if someone asked). In summary, "taralli" were the low-end version of "biscotti con sale" and "biscotti dolci" -- not necessarily because they used less eggs (They don't) but because they required less time and effort to make. It seems one had to reserve in advance at the communal oven for "biscotti con sale" and "biscotti dolci" but for "taralli" one could do them any old time for the kind of wood ember required did not have to be so specialized (The heat from fire made with fresh wood at the start of the day, was not the same kind of heat that was made when the wood had burnt for a few hours .... but this information is one I myself have problems understanding as I am not familiar with the particulars of communal wood-burning ovens). It seems that in the 1930s most home cooks made taralli whenever they were in the mood, but that they only made "biscotti con sale" and "biscotti dolci" when there was some special occasion (e.g. an important guest was coming for a visit). "Biscotti con sale" were a must during the grape harvest as they were the favored snack food during this period. It was believed that the salt in the "biscotti con sale" enhanced the flavor of the wine, and by so doing stimulated the guests to drink up and be merry. In the 1930s some hostesses in Casacalenda, Molise also served salted pork rind with wine as this too was thought to work up an appetite for the alcoholic beverage. At the time (and to this day) Italians encourage their guests to drink up -- but not because of its power to help them forget their troubles, but rather because of its curative power to help them remember how truly blessed they are (And, yes, there is a difference!).... Generally speaking (according to my aunt) both "biscotti con sale" and "taralli" (flavored with salt) were thought of as snack food that one gives to a male guest rather than a female one. The reason for this was simple -- taralli were served to guests with wine -- not coffee. And as men were the ones who were offered wine (Women were too, but they were only allowed to take a little wine, while the men were encouraged to drink up).... Interestingly, the word, "taralli," was also used to describe an unmarried young man who may have envisioned himself as some sexy dude, but in fact, may not have been one at all. Young women would often dismiss young men as being "taralli" and not love-worthy, but the word, "taralli," was said in jest, not in anger. So though the word was a put-down, it wasn't a terrible put-down. My aunt believes the reason the word "taralli" came to be used in this fashion is because "taralli" were seen as low-end "biscotti con sale." In fact, if a home cook made some cake or pastry and it didn't turn out, people would say, "It looks like a taralli," meaning, it doesn't look like much. North Americans (and I suspect modern-day Molisani as well) no longer make distinctions between "biscotti con sale" and "taralli." Nowadays, everything that looks and feels like "taralli" are either "taralli" or "taralli dolci," sweet taralli. The recipe names "biscotti con sale" and "biscotti dolci" (if the internet is any indication) have become archaic ones -- possibly obsolete. What distinctions that can be found now in cookbooks and on the internet are between "taralli" and "taralli dolci, "sweet taralli." As far as I can understand, in Italy, at the turn of the last century, very few home cooks ever used the word "taralli dolci" -- back then it was "taralli" and that was that. The sad fact is that my own mother never made "taralli dolci" and/or "biscotti dolci" either in Italy or in Canada. In the 1930s sugar (as noted in other entries) was expensive, so her mother, my maternal grandmother, Nonne Seppe, never made "taralli dolci." When my mother immigrated to Montreal and found that sugar was incredibly cheap here she had no idea how to do sweet taralli. My mother counted on my late aunts, Zia Teresa and Zia Nunziatina who also lived in Montreal (my aunt Zia Rosina lived in Hamilton), to make the sweet taralli for her, and they did a great job of it too, but now that they are gone, no one really knows exactly how they made their sweet taralli (Their daughters have an idea, but the words "as much flour as is needed" is challenging to say the least). Back in the 1960s and 1970s none of my aunts used measuring cups, they did everything as they say in Italian "al occhi," -- "by the eye".... The touchy-feelie method of cooking has its drawbacks. In any case, if one does not have much time and energy, one should do my Zia Rosina's "taralli" as they do not require any kneading [See Taralli Dolci for one of her recipes]. However, if one has both the time and energy one can try to do "biscotti con sale" and/or Rita Palazzo's "biscotti dolci," but honestly speaking they are not that easy to do. Even with a Kitchen Aid they require a great deal of skill and patience. My mother manages to make over two dozen "biscotti con sale" with six eggs; I get less than half this amount. Nowadays, "taralli" are available in the shops, but they're rather expensive, and they have more calories in them per bite than most cakes, why I can't say, unless, of course, their manufacturers are adding a lot of fillers to make them more profitable. Also, the store-bought taralli are drawn from recipes that come from Campania and Puglia. Even the well-known pastry shop in Montreal that calls itself, "Molisana," sells taralli that look and taste like those from the deep South rather than those from Molise. Possibly, taralli made in Campania and Puglia are a touch tastier (Well, maybe not tastier, but they definitely are crunchier!) than those made in Molise, but then it's all quite relative.... Anyway, for those North Americans whose ancestors came from Molise and who want to duplicate their original "taralli" and/or "biscotti con sale" recipes, you should make it a point not only to ask your aging relatives for the recipes, you should make it a point to ask them to show you how to do them -- from start to finish. In the kitchen "seeing is believing" believe you me.... Photo: Mary Melfi.