A Traditional Sicilian Pignolata

by Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet on January 13, 2013


If you’re like me and never heard of this before, this is a ‘cake’ from the Calabria region of Italy and is made from little fried balls of dough that are then tossed into a lemon flavored fondant icing and formed into an oval shape, then allowed to set. Sometimes you will see this made into half lemon and half chocolate flavor and another version offers the fried dough with a hard caramel coating instead.

I did a little research and found a million recipes for it, but none of them looked like what I had tasted, so I set out to try to reproduce it. I tried out a recipe over the Thanksgiving holiday, and although everyone enjoyed it, I wasn’t quite happy with it — so I decided to try again.

After a few more tweaks, I developed something that I believe is perfectly tender and puffs up beautifully into little balls…something many of the other recipes did not do. The fondant recipe I developed also worked really well and is very close to the traditional creamy texture and lemony flavor of the original.

The most time consuming part was cutting the dough into the little pieces and rolling the little balls before frying them. You want to have tender little balls of cake that puff up when fried and are soft enough to absorb some of the delicate fondant glaze while still warm, and when you pop them in your mouth they simply melt.

Traditional Pignolata

½ cup shortening

4 eggs plus 1 yolk

1 cup sugar

4 cups flour (plus a little more to dust the counter when rolling out)

2 teaspoon salt

Zest of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons lemon extract

Vegetable oil for frying

Add the shortening and the sugar together in a bowl and cream, then slowly add the eggs/yolk plus the extract and zest. Sift all of the dry ingredients together into a bowl and add slowly to the bowl while mixing until it is all incorporated. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and cut into 4 pieces.

perfect pignolata dough

Take each piece and roll it out into a long thin rope.

cut pignolata dough into 4 sections then roll each section into a rope and cut small pieces that will be rolled into little balls

Cut small pieces and then roll each one into a little ball and place them on a parchment lined tray.

pignolata balls prior to frying

Heat your oil to moderate temperature and test a few little balls and make sure they don’t burn and stay raw inside. They should be a golden brown color and cooked all the way through.

fry the pignolata balls until golden brown

Fry all the little pieces in small batches and drain them on some paper towels.

perfectly fried pignolata balls of cake

When they have cooled place them in a bowl and toss them with the fondant.

put the pignolata balls of dough in a large bowl once cool

Once they have been completely coated, form into an oval shape or in a large mound and allow this to set completely before serving. You can even mold this into holiday shapes like a Christmas tree, coat with some icing and decorate as you wish…makes a great dessert centerpiece!

drizzle in the fondant and toss gently until all of the pignolata balls have been coated, then mold into whatever shape you wanttoss o

Mold into any shape to create a Holiday centerpiece. I molded on into a Christmas tree and made royal icing icicles to decorate.

mold the pignolata into a funnel shape to make a Christmas tree

royal icing icicles

I molded one into a Christmas tree for the holidays to decorate any way you want

Lemon Fondant
2 pounds of sifted powdered sugar

17 tablespoons milk

12 tablespoons corn syrup

4 tablespoons lemon extract

Sift the powdered sugar and add all of the milk, corn syrup and extract. Stir this all with a wooden spoon until it is completely smooth. Begin to add a little of the fondant to the fried dough until they are completely coated.

lemon fondat for traditional pignolata cake


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